Biography

John Robin Jenkins was born on 11 September 1912 in the village of Flemington, near Cambuslang in Lanarkshire. His father died in 1919 and his mother worked as a cook and housekeeper to support her four children. Jenkins was awarded a bursary to attend Hamilton Academy and studied English at the University of Glasgow, graduating MA in 1936. He married in 1937 and taught in Glasgow for some years. At the outbreak of World War II he accompanied his primary school pupils on evacuation to the Borders. By now a committed pacifist, Jenkins registered as a conscientious objector, and for his war service was directed to work for the Forestry Commission. His experience of forestry work in Argyll from 1940 to 1946 is reflected in his first novel So Gaily Sings the Lark and in the better-known The Cone-Gatherers.

After the war he taught in Glasgow and Dunoon, beginning to write seriously at this time. In 1957 he moved abroad to teach in colleges in Afghanistan, Spain and Malaysia, settings which he used for several novels in the middle stages of his career. He returned to Scotland in 1968 and settled in Toward, near Dunoon. He retired from teaching in 1970 to become a full-time writer.

In all, Jenkins has produced some thirty novels. His work, though critically acclaimed, has not always sold well, but he has continued to write, telling interviewers during the 1980s that he had four or five unpublished novels in a drawer. This situation, clearly unacceptable in the case of such a distinguished novelist, has been resolved and he is now being published again and more widely appreciated. His wife died in 1990. He was awarded the OBE in 1999, and in 2002 received the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun award, given annually by the Saltire Society, in recognition of his lifetime achievement as a writer.

Works

The Cone-Gatherers (1955) may currently be Jenkins’ best-known novel, simply because it has featured for some years on the Scottish school syllabus. It is a short novel, economically and clearly written, which nevertheless is a work of great depth and ambiguity. It is set in the woodlands of a Highland estate where the brothers Neil and Calum have the job of gathering pine-cones for seed. Calum is deformed and simple-minded, and (unusually among Jenkins’ characters) he is wholly good, in tune with nature and sickened by any kind of cruelty. The gamekeeper Duror finds him disgusting and unbearable; Jenkins shows us that this unreasonable hate arises from the deep misery of Duror’s own life. The meaning of The Cone-Gatherers has been much debated. Does the situation in the wood reflect the war (World War II) in progress outside? Is Calum a Christ figure whose death brings healing and redemption? In any case we can say that certain elements in the novel – the beautiful countryside full of evil; the obsessive, violent character who can yet be seen as pitiable – are recurrent in Jenkins’ work, reflecting his constant search for truth and his refusal to settle for a simple solution.

The Changeling (1958) is also set in the Scottish countryside, which seems like paradise to the boy Tom Curdie after life in the most deprived slums of Glasgow. He has been taken along on a family holiday by his teacher Charlie Forbes for the best of motives: to give this bright boy a chance, to show him what is possible if he can break free from his disadvantaged background. At least, Charlie tells himself that is his motive. There is in fact much self-deception involved – Charlie likes the feeling that he is doing a good thing – and Jenkins asks the (possibly unanswerable) question: would it have been better to leave Tom in the slum? Things go seriously wrong. Charlie’s wife and children are uncomfortable with Tom, and Charlie himself begins to resent his presence. Tom’s terrible family turn up and implicitly accuse Charlie of having paedophilic leanings. Even Charlie would have foreseen this in a novel of today; in the 1950s he sees it as evidence of the unspeakable depravity from which he is trying to save Tom. Meanwhile Tom has indeed had a vision of a better life, and the prospect of going back to his family – as he knows he must – is more than he can bear. This is one of Jenkins’ blackest and most questioning novels.

Fergus Lamont (1970) is technically a departure from Jenkins’ usual style of fiction, being narrated in the first person by Fergus in his old age as he looks back at his past life. It is sometimes considered Jenkins’ finest novel, and certainly has one of his most complex and ambiguous central characters. Fergus, a slum boy, re-invents himself as an aristocrat. He wants to be a poet. He blames all his troubles on his childhood and upbringing. He is not an easy character to like, but is he to be condemned or pitied? And are we to see him as a symbol of Scotland, torn between idealism and braggadocio, with a sense of inferiority always waiting in the wings?

The Thistle and the Grail (1954) is, perhaps unexpectedly among Jenkins’ works, a football novel, following the progress of a small-town team, Drumsagart Thistle, towards the holy grail of the Scottish Junior Cup. Of course, the team carries the hopes of the community, and for this depressed little industrial town somewhere in Lanarkshire it is, as Jenkins makes clear, their only hope. Football has long taken the place of religion and no other ambition has survived. Through the prism of this obsession Jenkins presents an unsparing picture of a small Scottish town, and again, perhaps, of Scotland as a whole.

Guests of War (1956) follows the evacuation of ‘Gowburgh’ (Glasgow) schoolchildren to a quiet Borders village at the outbreak of World War II. On one level there is a good deal of dark humour in the situation: the horror of the villagers at the dirt and coarse behaviour of their guests; the equal dismay of the evacuees at the unnatural quiet and the fearsome cows. But at the centre of the book is Bell McShelvie, one of the evacuee mothers. Unlike Charlie Forbes, she questions her own motives for coming away with her youngest son, leaving the rest of her family in danger; she accuses herself of a selfish longing to return to the countryside of her childhood, and expects punishment for this sin. Jenkins indicates that she is judging herself too harshly, but lets the punishment follow, though he leaves her in a difficult and tentative kind of hope.

Reading Lists

Primary

So Gaily Sings the Lark (1950)

Happy for the Child (1953)

The Thistle and the Grail (1954)

The Cone Gatherers (1955)

Guests of War (1956)

The Missionaries (1957)

The Changeling (1958)

Love Is a Fervent Fire (1959)

Dust on the Paw (1961)

The Tiger of Gold (1962)

A Love of Innocence (1963)

The Sardana Dancers (1964)

A Very Scotch Affair (1968)

Holy Tree (1969)

Exploitation (1970)

Toast to the Lord (1972)

Far Cry from Bowmore (1973)

Figure of Fun (1974)

A Would-be Saint (1978)

Road to Alto (1979)

Fergus Lamont (1979)

Third World Atlas (1984)

The Awakening of George Darroch (1985)

Just Duffy (1988)

Poverty Castle (1991)

Willie Hogg (1993)

Leila (1995)

Lunderston Tales (1996)

Matthew and Sheila (1998)

Poor Angus (2000)

Childish Things (2001)

Lady Magdalen (2003)

Some Kind of Grace (2004)

The Pearl-fishers (2007) 

Secondary

‘Disruptions: The Later Fiction of Robin Jenkins’ by Glenda Norquay in The Scottish Novel Since the 1970’s (1994)

Prillinger, Horst, Family and the Scottish working-class novel, 1984-1994: a study of novels by Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, Robin Jenkins, James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy, William McIlvanney, Agnes Owens, Alan Spence and George Friel (2000)

Pilgrims of conscience: quests for morality and self-knowledge in the fiction of Robin Jenkins Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir. Thesis, University of Glasgow (2001)

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss