The Fanatic by James Robertson

Fourth Estate, 2001

The Fanatic cover

I had a strange sensation when I started reading this book. It’s not as if I haven’t read novels using Scottish vernacular before so I don’t understand why its use in this book in particular should have made me feel quite so much like I was settling into a warm bath.

The temperature soon became hotter, however, as the novel skips between a more or less contemporary setting in Edinburgh and the Scotland of the Seventeenth Century, specifically the Covenanting times after the Restoration. Here the dialogue is in very “braid Scotch” indeed.

These chapters set in the 1670s are harder going, not just due to the language but also because the historical figures and events described have not been so thoroughly mined as others in Scottish history. (They were mostly unfamiliar to me at any rate.) The book is also notable for containing my first encounter in print, or as a noun, with the word “whang” which I had only met previously as a verb.

The Edinburgh sections are set just before the General Election of 1997, when Andrew Carlin is cajoled into taking part in one of those Ghost Tours of the Old Town, impersonating a Major Weir for whom he develops an instant interest and whose life he attempts to research.

Carlin is a loner, a bit of a misfit, who is nonetheless sympathetic. He talks to his mirror and it answers back, pithily and challengingly, so much so that Carlin begins to wonder if he is delusional, and so did this reader.

Researching Weir, Carlin comes upon the story of James Mitchel, a Seventeenth Century religious fanatic who attempted to assassinate the Bishop of St Andrews. There is a strange prefiguring here of our modern preoccupation with religious terrorists (the book was first published in 2000 and hence before Al Qaida came to general attention; perhaps Robertson sniffed the Zeitgeist.)

Since the twin narratives do not marry up till late on (though we know they must) the figure of Weir as Carlin’s primary focus initially seems disjointed, as it is Mitchel’s life story we are given in the 1670s sections, where Weir is only a marginal figure.

Robertson has done a power of research and the historical detail appeared to me to ring true but the multiplicity of Seventeenth Century characters at times made proceedings there difficult to follow.

The hard, religious certainties of the Seventeenth Century are thankfully not so prevalent in modern Scotland (though some remnants still exist.) The mindset of someone who will submit to torture for the sake of his beliefs is out of kilter with these self-interested times, in the Western world at any rate. This renders the motivations of some of the historical characters more opaque than the modern ones (though not less acceptable within the setting.) Others are just as venal and petty as in modern times. It is to Robertson’s credit that he can bring them all alive for us.

The past shown here is not a world where I would find it congenial to live. However, real world events subsequent to the book’s publication have made the incidents in the novel seem more timely; particularly those dealing with how people in power treat those who have none.

It is not a straightforward read but I would recommend “The Fanatic” to anyone with an interest in Scottish history and to the general literary reader; but sadly those without a Scottish background may struggle.

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    […] “The Fanatic” recently caused me to reflect on the following question. How much Scottish history was I exposed […]

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    […] is a fine book: perhaps not so good as Robertson’s first, The Fanatic, but certainly surpassing his later the testament of Gideon […]

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