James Robertson is one of the foremost novelists writing in Scotland. His novel The Testament of Gideon Mack was selected by the SQA to be one of the Scottish Text novels for National 5 English. The novel starts in the 1950s and takes us to contemporary Scotland. It is a response to, and, to a certain extent, an updating of, one of the greatest Scottish novels of all time, James Hogg’s The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Except, unlike Hogg’s novel, the central character Gideon Mack does not have absolute faith in himself – he starts from a position of doubt. The novel explores the course of Gideon’s life given that doubt is what makes him what he is.
Quite recently, I had the good fortune to interview James Robertson about his selected National 5 English novel. I had the opportunity to ask him about what inspired him to become a writer and some of the experiences that shaped him. This provided some insight into the novel, along with some great tips for aspiring writers.
We discussed the background to the novel. This included the religious background and the literary background. James Robertson has a deep knowledge, as you would expect, of Scottish history and how the institutions he writes about were shaped. However, he is able to apply this knowledge to the contemporary world and clearly explain the impact these institutions have on the world around us today. All National 5 English students studying the novel would certainly be able to enrich their knowledge of modern Scotland and, from an exam point of view, gain the background understanding to provide a deeper analysis of the novel.
As teachers of English, we know that the characters of the novel are crucial to hooking the reader, and this is twice as important when it is a teenage audience. The characters in the novel are rounded adult characters. This makes them slightly harder to access, but more interesting and intriguing when they have been accessed. This is probably the greatest challenge ‘selling’ the novel to a teenage audience; it is a novel dealing with adults who have real life issues: fathers with anxiety issues and sons with problems with repression. James Robertson provides an author’s take on the characters he created; helpful with the understanding of the novel, good for class discussion, and, again, useful for any aspiring writers.
As with James Hogg’s 19th Century novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack has a challenging narrative structure. Stories are told within the main narrative itself and the main narrative works on two tracks, and this itself in enclosed in an Editor’s prologue and epilogue. This shouldn’t deter teachers or students – a little bit or persistence will remove any difficulties of understanding. James Robertson explains the structure in a short video and his reasons for writing the novel in this way.
Finally, we discussed themes. It is impossible to cover all the themes on the novel, and I’m not too sure that I covered all the central themes. However, James Robertson’s comments on such ideas as doubt, the search for truth, Scottish identity and others would, I’m certain, stimulate discussion in a National 5 English classroom that should give pupils a thorough understanding of the ideas that drive the novel. Personally, I found some of his points quite inspiring, which isn’t a bad quality to being into a classroom.
I’d like to thank James Robertson for making himself available to do the interview. His sole concern was to ensure that National 5 English students studying a Scottish Text could freely access materials for the novel. Hopefully, these videos and webpages will be useful to students, their parents and teachers.
Here’s a video with some advice from James Robertson about the novel and a possible approach to it.