January 25, 1759-July 21, 1796
Once again, it’s time for a Burns Supper celebration. This year my special guest is all the way from Fort William, author, Robert Atkinson.
Before we get started, do you prefer Robert or Bob?
First of all, I prefer Bob rather than Robert.
Welcome to Celtic Connexions, Bob! Do sit down and make yourself comfortable.
Thanks for hosting me on your Burns Supper Celebration.
Let’s start by getting to know you better. Can you tell us about yourself?
I was born in a village outside Fort William, in the Western Highlands. I left the area to join the British army when I was seventeen, and came home fifteen years later with a lovely Irish wife and three Irish children. My wife and I met while I was serving in Northern Ireland. We like to see our story as one of the blessings to come out of the terrible days of the Irish troubles.
I’m now a retired civil servant, whose aging legs don’t carry him into the hills and remote glens as often as they used to. Still, the imagination remains free to wander.
We have a mutual friend, Julie Jordan, who writes as Dayna Leigh Cheser. How did you come to meet her?
I came to know Julie Jordan via Twitter. She contacted me one day to ask if I’d ever been to Lochbuie on the Isle of Mull. In her latest novel her main character was born in a castle which Julie had pictured on an island which lies off Lochbuie. I’d only been to Mull once, and never to Lochbuie. Still, I love camping in the wilds with my family, and on my next trip my brother and I took the ferry to Mull and visited Julie’s island. Alas, the only inhabitants are a few sheep and rabbits, but Julie didn’t seem to mind. In fact I think it pleased her that no one had ever lived there.
In addition to our mutual friend, we also have something else in common. We’re both fans of Runrig. Let me put one of their songs on softly in the background while we chat. This is one of my favourites.
Have you been to Canada?
I’m sorry to say I’ve never been to Canada. My wife and I have been to the U.S. half a dozen times. She’s a sun worshipper, so we invariably head for California, usually San Diego.
I would love to follow the trail taken by many of the Highland emigrants who sailed to Canada during the dark days of the Highland clearances. So many of our glens lie desolate and empty, with only a scatter of ruins to tell that people had ever lived there.
In nearby Glen Pean, for instance, sixty men by the name of Macmillan rallied to Prince Charlie’s banner in 1745. Within seventy years, nothing remained but the wind and the heather. I remember watching a documentary about the Highland diaspora, and listening to an elderly Canadian talk of his Scottish heritage. His name was Macmillan and his people came from Glen Pean.
Can I get you a drink? I have a small selection of whiskies if you’d like a dram before we eat. Or we can always have something else.
A drink? Any Hebridean malt would be very welcome, thank you, although my favourite dram is Talisker, the only whisky distilled on the Isle of Skye. They still use peat and sea wrack to dry the barley, which adds a wonderful smoky flavour to the whisky.
You’re in luck. I happen to have a bottle of Talisker. I prefer the Speyside Malts, particularly 18 year old Cardhu (which you can’t buy in Canada) and 18 year old Glenlivet. They’re both very smooth.
Well, while we wait for our meal to be ready, let’s chat about your writing. The Last Sunset was your debut novel, if I’m not mistaken. Can you tell us what it is about?
The Last Sunset was my debut novel. It’s a time travel adventure set in a glen reputed to be haunted, following a massacre by redcoat soldiers in 1746. In a land where the boundaries between past and future events are blurred, a series of coincidences sees three sets of characters from different time periods drawn back in time to the scene of that original massacre. All respond to the atrocities taking place around them, each in their own way altering the course of events.
My chef, Donald, announces the meal is ready.
We’ll start with The Selkirk Grace.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
My cock-a-leekie soup isn’t made in the traditional way. I’m not a fan of prunes so I leave them out.
The skirl of the pipes announces the presentation of the haggis. I’m pleased to say that we have Harry MacFayden addressing the chieftain o’ the puddin’ race this evening.
I hope you’re enjoying your virtual “Canadian” Robbie Burns night, Bob.
I understand you’ve completed the sequel to The Last Sunset. Can you tell us anything about it?
My second novel, Red Sky In The Morning, concludes the story begun in The Last Sunset, taking the tale into the realms of alternate history.
Both books were inspired by the yearning to see the graves of Culloden emptied of their Highland dead, and our glens untouched by the Highland clearances.
I’ve been to Fort William a few times (stayed overnight and rode the Jacobite to Mallaig once and the other time drove out to walk under the viaduct and visit the Glenfinnan Monument). Do you have a favourite place you like to go to?
I hope you enjoyed your visits to Fort William. In particular I hope the weather behaved itself while you were here. I have this urge to apologise whenever I see tourists who have become victims of our unpredictable weather.
A favourite place? There are so many: from hidden white sand beaches, to remote hill lochs. In every direction there are castles, ancient hill forts, ruined sheilings, deep and myserious lochs, many with their own legendary water beast. Loch Morar, for instance, on the journey from Fort William to Mallaig, has seen almost as many sightings of strange creatures as has Loch Ness. Do they contain creatures unknown to science? Perhaps. There are a lot of locals who’ve seen things they can’t explain, but are reluctant to discuss it for fear of ridicule.
My favourite place of all is probably the Isle Of Skye, where I love to search for fossils of ancient creatures which are known to science. It’s extremely unlikely that Loch Ness and Loch Morar are inhabited by any survivors from the Jurassic period, but the dinosaurs certainly did roam what would one day become the Hebrides.
Do you have any more writing projects in the works? Another WIP perhaps?
My work in progress is the story of four young children who are in the throes of losing their mother to cancer. In the midst of this trauma they begin to experience supernatural activity in their home. With my love of history, there are of course links to something ancient and mysterious. The story, to a large extent, is autobiographical.
We have trifle for dessert. I hope you like it.
When we’re finished eating, we’ll take our coffee and some shortbread into the lounge and listen to more Scottish music and talk a bit more.
Where can your books be purchased?
Here’s one of the Runrig songs you provided.
And your author links? Where can folks find you?
Once again, Melanie, thanks for having me on your blog. I hope the night goes well for you.
Thank you for coming, Bob. It’s been a pleasure hosting you here at Celtic Connexions and I’ve enjoyed getting to know you better.