Robert Alan Jamieson achieves something quite extraordinary, he combines a compelling modern mystery with 500 years of history in a typically experimental style that leaves many of his contemporaries lagging

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Robert Alan Jamieson, A Day at the Office, Verbivoracious Press, 2016. [1991.]

A Day at the Office is the story of Edinburgh in the year of the fall of the Berlin wall. A snapshot of time in its long history, of which the year 1990 is a short footnote. It is story about the effect death has on the living, a love story, a story about the pull of drugs. It is a story about margins, how difficult it is to escape them, and a rare convincing portrait of the Scottish working class. It is about the distance between what’s on the TV and the drudgery of daily existence for ordinary people. Daring, truly experimental, formally inventive, quietly lyrical, it is a book unlike anything else you’ve ever read.

This book is a day and a night in the life of a Scottish city, seen through the imaging eye of a dreaming worker, who conjures to life the novel’s three motor characters — Ray, age nineteen; Helen, twenty-four, and Douglas, twenty-nine. Their connection is brief, yet inevitable in the fact that they are all parts of the single psyche, that of the dreamer/conjuror.

Set in urban Scotland in the nineties, R.A. Jamieson's third novel, an experimental 'soapoperama' covers a day and a night in the life of a nameless narrator who conjures out of his existence the interlinked stories of three young people - Ray, Helen and Douglas. The drama centres on the character's varying involvement with the drug world and explores the legacy of the sixties to the youth of today.

‘We should be free to wander,’ says the unnamed narrator early on. And that’s exactly what the author goes on to do. Pity the poor typesetter: each page of this book – a precursor to much modern experimental Scottish fiction – looks more like a work of art than a novel, with Jamieson jumping playfully in and out of italics, different fonts and size of lettering, punctuating the main text with succinct, sad mini-poems that are part interior monologue, part theory on life’s big questions. Once you adjust your brain not to expect words in a straight line across the page, this style of delivery really helps an understanding of the text, almost as if each page has been opened up to reveal the layers of meaning contained within.
Though there is a plot of sorts, the story of Ray, Helen and Douglas (told upside-down, largely) isn’t important. It hardly builds at all towards the end; instead, we get a subtle unravelling of each character. The tone is sympathetic to them all, slipping into their thoughts to explain often misguided actions, like when Ray is unsure whether to accept a flat being offered to him by a drug dealer, or when Helen walks out on her job.
There’s nothing glamorous about Jamieson’s portrayal of drug culture though, or what it’s like to be poor, unemployed and frustrated. He is unflinching in his bleak descriptions of life on the dole, remaining interesting while simply describing picking up the giro and going straight to the bookies; proof you don’t need sex or explosions to be intriguing. On the contrary, this kind of writing can be more rewarding, more truthful. And it is. A Day at the Office shows a healthy disrespect for the rules of language, but great economy with it. - Rodge Glass
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Robert Alan Jamieson, Da Happie Laand, Luath Press, 2011.              

An experimental novel on a grand scale, beautifully carried through. A Perth minister takes in a traumatised stranger who calls himself 'the son and heir to being lost'. When the stranger disappears, the events leading up to and following on from this are revealed. Shifting perspectives from a contemporary mystery to a history of Shetland and emigration, it extends the idea of Scottish empire and diaspora imaginatively, while addressing notions of being and belonging in 21st century Scotland.

A work of complexity, a novel to be savoured and one that will only get better with age. - NEW SHETLANDER

Jamieson achieves something quite extraordinary - [he] combines a compelling modern mystery with 500 years of history in a typically experimental style that leaves many of his contemporaries lagging - THE LIST

Robert Alan Jamieson's strange masterpiece Da Happie Laand haunts dreams and waking hours, as it takes my adopted home of Shetland, twisting it and the archipelago's history into the most disturbing, amazing slyly funny shapes. - THE SUNDAY HERALD

You ask for an epic Scottish novel and two come along at once. I recently reviewed James Robertson’s superb And The Land Lay Still which is my favourite novel of recent times, and I’ve finally got round to reading Robert Allan Jamieson’s Da Happie Laand which does for Shetland and the island’s diaspora what Robertson’s novel did for the Central Belt in that it looks at  history through individual stories, familial mysteries and historical documents.

Like Robertson’s book, Da Happie Laand is a hugely ambitious novel of the type that Scotland rarely produces. It looks at much more than one person’s story or a moment in time, but tries to contextualise Shetland’s past viewing it from the present. The novelist presents himself as the editor of a number of documents which he takes delivery of and which piece together to make up the novel.
There is so much going on that it is difficult to take it all in at the first reading. There were many sections I had to re-read more than twice, something I haven’t had to do since ploughing through Jack Kerouac’s Doctor Sax. But in this case the difficulty lies not in unusual or unfamiliar language, except in some of the transcriptions of interviews, but the multitude of voices and sources that are referred to. There is a magical/realist feel to parts of the novel, as the reader is never quite sure of people or place. Much of the story is told in the form of letters, journals and interviews which our editor is charged with making sense of. There are appearances, indirectly, from Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, placing this novel in a Scottish literary context that is more than simply modern.
Some of the writing is sublime and stays with you long after the story has been forgotten. Like fellow islander Kevin MacNeil, Jamieson’s love and mastery of poetry is obvious in his prose. Here is a short example:
I’m breathing deeply, chest pounding. I can see the organ on the heather, the eye watching nothing, removed from its casing. The lamb lies still, short curls of wool tight over its warm body. It lies on  the heather, peaceful, blind. The mother’ll stay with it till it’s cold. Then the the crows’ll eat, ants’ll clean the evidence away. Only a few bones a child might pick up and admire, might take home to identify. A few wisps of wool in nearby nests. A clue caught on a barbed wire spike.”
There are many such passages, but they are mostly to be found in the ‘diary’ sections relaying the story of David Cunningham and his search for his missing father which date from the year 2000. These are my favourite parts of the book, which I realise says as much about my reading preferences than the book as a whole in that I am more interested generally in the contemporary rather than the historical, but it also flags up the novel’s major problem. There is not one uniting voice which holds the various ‘texts’ together. Jamieson may have done too good a job of becoming the editor rather than writer, and he is an unreliable one at that. New Zetland, where much of the story is placed, is a fictionalised land, at least in part. This is fine, but it causes more questions than answers, the central one being; where is da happie laand? Shetland (or Zetland) or New Zetland? Maybe this shouldn’t matter, maybe it’s both, but the question typifies many of the unanswered questions that the reader is left with.
Da Happie Laand is a hugely ambitious novel that almost pulls it off. It has interesting commentary on religion, language, belonging, colonialism and the unreliable nature of the written word. There are nods to Scott, Hogg and Stevenson, but I would have liked to have read more of R.A.Jamieson as it is when his voice is on the page that the novel really sings. Having said that it is still one of the most interesting, informative and lyrical novels I have read this year, and that’s against some stiff opposition. It is one I will have to re-read to fully get every story, and as such demands close-reading and work on the part of the reader. This is not a problem as such, but when a novel requires such reassessment it is normally because there is an ending which can only be properly understood by doing so. In this case it is to try and separate all the stories and threads which are to be found in Da Happie Laand and, ironically, with further editing, I feel that the novel would have overcome these problems. It may seem that I’m being harsh on Da Happie Laand, and I really enjoyed reading it. But it is on the brink of greatness, and that is the most frustrating place to be of all.

We imagine Robert Alan Jamieson spent a lot of noggin-aching days and nights trying to work out how to match what he accomplished with A Day at the Office, the 1991 novel regarded by many as one of the greatest Scottish works of all time. But the Edinburgh-based author makes a superb stab at it with his latest offering which combines a compelling modern mystery with 500 years of history in a typically experimental style that leaves many of his contemporaries lagging.
Da Happie Laand is far from easy to digest, and wading through its pages of correspondence, ‘Vikipedia’ facts, crossed-out paragraphs and creole language interviews can at times be an overwhelming experience, but by weaving in a poignant first person account of one man’s search for his missing father, Jamieson achieves something quite extraordinary. And it’s the sheer scope of his writing and what it achieves for his native Shetland that leaves the biggest impression here.
- Camilla Pia

The first thing to say is that when I'd finished this book, I knew for certain I would read it again. This is important, because I've been fearfully disappointed in my novel-reading over the last few years; if I had a quid for every well-reviewed contemporary novel I've read once and know I shall never re-read… Usually it's because they just don't seem to be about anything fundamental enough, and they don't do enough to me; you don't get that wrung-out feeling of having been through something momentous that you get after reading, say, Adam Bede or Kim. There are a few exceptions, and this is one of them; it is definitely a re-reader, partly for all the right reasons and partly because I'm by no means sure I understand it all yet.
In the foreword, Jamieson describes the fictitious manuscript forming one of the novel's strands as "a palimpsest of different writings", which effectively is what the novel itself is. It begins with an elderly clergyman, the Rev. Nicol, who has a strange visitor, a disturbed young man who describes himself as "the son and heir of being lost" and who vanishes as abruptly as he came, leaving some papers behind. Nicol realises from these that he had known the young man as a child and, concerned for his welfare, begins to contact various distant connections in America and elsewhere who might be able to locate him. From here on, the narrative splits into three strands. One is the correspondence between Nicol and these connections. The second is the text of an unfinished history, written in the 19th century, which was in the papers left with Nicol, and this is complicated by the addition of the clergyman's own footnotes, concerning among other things his own struggle to adjust to the death of his wife. The third is the story, told in the first person, of the young man himself.
The unfinished history is of a part of "Zetland", which is a lightly fictionalised Shetland. Place and personal names are changed, though not always and not consistently. Arthur Anderson, founder of the P & O line, becomes Anders Arthursen, but the equally eminent botanist Thomas Edmondston retains his name intact; similarly Sumburgh is sometimes Zumburgh, but sometimes not. If there's a rationale to the differences in treatment, I haven't worked it out yet; indeed in the case of Sumburgh/Zumburgh I couldn't swear that it is not typos at work, because there are a few undoubted typos in this book, which could profitably be put right in a next edition – they matter more than usual in a novel very much concerned with the effects and power of language. The history focuses on a particular family in the west of mainland Shetland; the young man is descended from them and his own story is set in present-day "Zetland".
His descent, though, is by way of a branch who emigrated to a place called Tokumua, once called "New Zetland", which is not, as the author carefully makes clear, New Zealand nor anything like it. It is a colony settled by 19th-century Zetlanders who included the writer of the unfinished history, Gabrielsen, one of whose descendants by marriage is Philippa, the main correspondent of the Rev. Nicol. Tokumua does in fact have a real-life model on the map, but again it is not exact. The name of its original settler, "John Kulinis" is clue enough; it is a pidgin version of a famous name, as the language of present-day Tokumua is a South Seas version of Shetlandic. There are several fascinating byways in this novel, such as Nicol's crossed-through digressions from the "history" and Philippa's notes on the Tokumua dialect, and as always, from Tristram Shandy on, these digressions are not only some of the novel's most entertaining features but carry a lot of its freight of meaning.
Effectively, Philippa's correspondence with Nicol contains the story of the Zetland settlers' quest for a new home and destiny. Meanwhile the young man, David, is also on a quest, for a lost father and perhaps also a place in the world, a lost sense of identity. David's story is, to me, the most confusing and least satisfying of the three strands. I'm still not at all sure, for instance, exactly what happened to his brother, or why, or what he felt his own involvement in it was. Similarly I find it interesting that every woman David meets appears to have had a thing going with his absent father, but I'm not sure what the significance of that is. Maybe another reading will help with these points.
I certainly hope it'll help with the ending, which currently has me puzzled. What David does at the end does not strike me as likely to provide him with answers or any kind of closure. Now that could be the point, since David is not thinking all that clearly by the end. But it doesn't provide much closure for the reader either. I found the ending unsatisfying, but the novel as a whole is anything but. I'll admit some of its appeal may be personal to those, like me, who cannot get enough of either history or the theory, practice and development of language. But the novel has a wider appeal than that; its characters have that capacity to come off the page and convince you they have a life outside the book, which is the hallmark of unforgettable novels, and its ideas are a complex, fascinating brew which doesn't leave you feeling you've been wasting your time and will surely repay several more reads. - sheenaghpugh
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Robert Alan Jamieson, macCloud Falls, Luath Press, 2017.

In the summer of 2011, Gilbert Johnson, an Edinburgh antiquarian bookseller suffering from cancer who has only ever travelled via books before, decides to make one big journey while he is still fit enough - to British Columbia on the trail of an early settler he believes may have been his runaway grandfather, a man who went on to become important in the embryonic `Indian Rights' movement of the 20th century. Flying over the Rocky Mountains he meets a fellow passenger, a Canadian woman, so beginning a relationship that ultimately carries the two of them deep into the interior of the province. macCLOUD FALLS is both an exploration of the Scottish colonisation of B.C., and a roadtrip romance full of humour, rich characters and incident in the shadow of impending death.

As I have said before, many novels have the equivalent of a Freudian slip. In this work it comes on page 139, where the Edinburgh bookseller and central character, Gilbert Johnson, is reminiscing about his time among the Scottish literati (a scene which itself is a homage to a similar moment in Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine). “And yet, and yet, some take it all far too seriously. Writing and all that. A lot of the books he handled were simply curate’s eggs, with something to commend but faults aplenty”. There is much to admire here, but there are also significant problems. I very much admire Robert Alan Jamieson’s A Day At The Office – in fact, I think it a neglected classic – and although Da Happie Laand was slightly raggedy, it was admirably ambitious and intriguing.
   macCloud Falls is a novel of multiple McGuffins. Johnson is recovering from cancer treatment and has decided to travel to British Columbia to research the life of a person who may or may not be an ancestor, James Lyle. Lyle was prominent in the push for First Nations rights, and an ethnographer who helped Franz Boas; much of the “Indian” mythology, dances, songs, medicinal practices and histories were preserved by him. In this respect he is a rather more laudable version of how most Scots emigrants behaved towards the indigenous people of Canada. On the way there, he meets a woman on the plane who is also recovering from cancer. The novel opens with her arriving in Cloud Falls, having had a premonition that something might not be all right with Johnson. As she sifts through his motel room, she reads the manuscripts of his writing: as much as doing the research, Johnson was hoping to become the writer he had always wanted to be. The drafts she reads are versions of their encounters and blossoming friendship, but, as she realises, there are significant divergences from the truth. At the end of the first section, Johnson is returned, having had some kind of epiphany in the forests connected with a sacred place, a hut, and the place where his putative grandfather and his native wife may have lived. In terms of what there is to admire, there is a great deal of scrutiny and clarity about the relations between colonisers and colonised, between incomer and local. There is a riddling sense about identity at play throughout. The woman is often mistaken for Sigourney Weaver, and is sometimes called Dimitra, sometimes Veronika, and in Johnson’s writings appears as Martina. Gilbert himself shapeshifts between Gil and Bert and at times is just the enigmatic The Scotchman. The problem, however, is that everyone seems to have these layered and multiple identities: once you realise what is going on, it lacks bite. There is fascinating material about toponymy – how the colonisers impose names on places, changing their meaning, as with the elision between MacLeod Falls and Cloud Falls, and the over-writing of traditional names. When our female protagonist reads Gil’s book proposal, including a thorough chronology, she thinks “it was impressive research, but it was far too much to take in”. Well, quite. The parallels between the First Nations Canadians and the Gàidhealtachd are interesting and important and, to a degree, rather insistently finger-wagged at the reader; the Scots; “invention” of Canada becomes a tiresome refrain. At the outset – especially when the line “I’ll see you in my dreams” occurs, in a down-at-heel motel, with a glamorous woman in search of a man she suspects may be going to kill himself – I had hopes that this would be a kind of Canuck Twin Peaks. But the novel lacks jeopardy. Nobody opposes the quest except the quester. The final section before the coda brings in a wholly different McGuffin – a rare first edition – which is barely seeded in the earlier sections. It allows for some very fine nature writing, but seems otiose.There are far too many repetitions: one wonders to what extent the manuscript was edited by the publishers. For example, the sunburnt Johnson is “lobster-red” on page 202, is told “you still look like a lobster” on page 204, is compared to the crustacean alien Zoidberg from Futurama on page 206 and is teased as “lobster man” on page 209. We are repeatedly told that the female heroine has pink-rimmed glasses (although the significance of this is somewhat ambiguous), and references to Buchan’s great novel about transcendence and mortality in the Canadian wilderness – Sick Heart River – are liberally peppered throughout the text. I am not of the school that thinks “less is more” is the first commandment of writing, except when I think that less would have been more.In a novel which seems anxious that the reader “gets the message” there is a moment of sublime grace. On finding a grave, Johnson realises there is an epitaph in the indigenous language. It is a beautiful wisp of mystery in a book otherwise determined to spell things out. - Stuart Kelly

IN HIS last novel, 2010’s Da Happie Laand, Robert Alan Jamieson used the experience of emigration and immigration, of transported populations and transposed memories, to powerfully illuminate the colonial links between his native Shetland and New Zealand. Here, in a more subdued and meditative novel, he turns his attention to the ties that bind Scotland to Canada, another part of the 19th century imperial project and a country that proved fertile soil for enterprising Scots. 
Gilbert Johnson is an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh, who has recently undergone gruelling treatment for cancer. With his perspective on life ruthlessly shaken by his disease, Gilbert decides to travel to British Columbia on the trail of James Lyle, a man who might have been his grandfather and who played a pivotal role in helping to establish First Nation rights in the early years of the 20th century. Loosely based on the historical figure of James Teit (Tate & Lyle?), Jimmy has left traces of his life around the small, former pioneer settlement of Cloud Falls. Haunted by the themes of John Buchan’s classic novel of illness and mortality, Sick Heart River, Gilbert travels to the small town with inchoate plans to write a book about Lyle. Whether this will be biography, history or fiction, or even a brooding form of memoir, is still to be determined though when he meets Veronika, a Czech-Canadian recovering from her own cancer treatment and trying to extricate herself from a bruising relationship with a married man. Concerned about Gilbert’s state of mind, Veronika finds herself staying with him while he researches Lyle’s history, interviewing locals and exploring landmarks that link the present to the century past, finding in Gilbert’s unobtrusive obsession and stoical perseverance a means of confronting her brush with mortality.
In Da Happie Laand, Jamieson presented the mutual cross-pollination of British colonialism through a sequence of recovered and intersecting manuscripts, from letters to newspaper articles, from personal reminiscences to official government reports. This palimpsest approach to the layering of history is a similar theme in macCloud Falls. Where the previous novel uses documents and manuscripts to illustrate this point though, macCloud Falls uses both the erasure and the reformation of names; if the First Nations people in Canada are fundamentally an oral culture, then it is in naming and toponymy that a settler culture imposes its values. 
On one level this instability of naming is jovial and unimportant; Gilbert is variously known as Gil or Bert to his Canadian hosts, and there’s an extended joke about Veronika being mistaken for the actress Sigourney Weaver. But the deeper Jamieson goes in his book, the more the bestowing of names becomes a dubious business. Is Gilbert overstepping his bounds when he appropriates Veronika for a character in his memoir-cum-novel, calling her Martina both on the page and in the real world? Cloud Falls itself used to be know as MacLeod Falls, after John MacLeod, James Lyle’s uncle, who founded the community. Before that it was Sigurd’s Crossing, and by this point the original native Indian name has been erased several times over. But, as James thinks (or writes), ‘nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it’. The more he explores though, the more he realises that recovering memories is as much a political as a personal act, and in the sleepy community of Cloud Falls there still simmers an underlying racial tension between the First Nations people and the settler culture that replaced them. Even James Lyle’s seemingly altruistic recording of the First Nations’ myths and stories is a form of appropriation. "Every story," Gilbert thinks, "loses something when it’s translated, doesn’t it?" It’s only later that he realises how much of Lyle’s work was really informed by his native wife, Antko, another name erased from the legend. 
Jamieson writes from an obviously intimate knowledge of Canada and its people, and although he isn’t blind to the country’s faults there is something idyllic, or edenic, about his picture of its shattering landscapes and isolated settlements. The relationship between Gilbert and Veronika is well portrayed, their shared experience of illness and mortality giving it a tentative quality that feels convincing, and although there’s not much of a narrative drive to the book, Jamieson’s contemplative, meandering pace reflects the uncertainty of his central characters and their sudden confrontation with the fragility of their lives. macCloud Falls is quieter and more careful than Jamieson’s previous novels, but it is perhaps a richer book for all that. - Richard Strachan

Instead, she had his written account of the time they'd spent together in Vancouver. But it wasn't what had really happened. Some of it she remembered, some of the things they'd done, even some of the words that he'd put in her mouth. But the names were wrong, the details were wrong. If she had become the story, he had told it his way and it wasn't how she would have done it. His story.
I don't recall writing a review, before, in which even to mention the real name of one of the main characters would be a spoiler. But it would, if I named the woman who thinks the above, because nearly everyone and every place in this novel has at least two names. Even the protagonist, Gilbert Johnson, is called Gil by some, Bert by others, and the odd typography of the title is because the place its inhabitants now know as Cloud Falls was once called MacLeod's (soon misspelled MacCloud's) Falls after an early settler (and would, before him, have had an indigenous name, now lost). The point being that naming is a form of owning and changing, and that everyone tells a story his or her own way, and makes a different tale out of it.
Gil is an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh, also the kind of writer who is always going to write a book but never quite does. He has recently had radiotherapy for throat cancer, and while it seems to have worked, it has made him far more conscious of mortality and spurred him to finally research a piece of family history – he thinks a man called James Lyle, who emigrated from Scotland to Canada and became well known as an ethnographer and political activist, may have been his grandfather and has come to find out. Lyle, by the way, though fictional, is based on an historical character, James Alexander Teit, and if you say the two surnames together it will become clear by what impish process Teit has been fictionalised as Lyle.
Once in British Columbia, Gil becomes very caught up in the First Nations history of Cloud Falls, where Lyle lived with his first wife, whom Gil has previously known as Lucy, the English name she was given by missionaries, but whose real name, he now finds, was Antko.  She was also the source for the research Lyle did on First Nations culture, and to the indigenous people Gil meets, she was the story and Lyle her scribe.
However, though Gil certainly makes plenty of notes for the book on Lyle, the one he actually finds himself writing concerns himself and a woman he met on the plane. She too is a cancer survivor – they call themselves radiation twins – and follows him to Cloud Falls out of concern that he may be having suicidal thoughts (he is, though it was never quite clear to me how this meshed with his new-found determination to write and to spend his time less tamely than he had before the cancer).
As the book progresses, he begins to care less for the past than the present, and Lyle's story starts to fade. There are questions we never get answers to, not because they don't exist but because Gil has ceased to care about them as much. I must admit, being myself a history nut, I had got quite involved in Lyle's story by then and rather regretted this; when Gil, having seen a bigger waterfall, thinks of Cloud Falls; "It was nothing like as tall as Helmcken, not nearly so impressive" there is a little shock of betrayal. But in narrative terms, the shift is completely justified.
Narrative devices are important in this novel: people read each other's journals and fictions, whole sections appear to be told by an outside narrator, until the next section makes it clear that we have in fact been reading Gil fictionalising his experiences again. The only such device that didn't work for me was the Appendix to Gil's book proposal, which is a history of the settlement of the area in the form of notes.  The woman, reading this, gives up after 9 pages, feeling "it was too much to take in piecemeal". It certainly was; I had started skimming some time previous. In a history book it might have been fascinating, but one reads fiction in a different vein. The information it conveys is very relevant to the theme of story and how each narrator changes it, but I don't think it was best conveyed in this way at this length.
The other thing I must note is the many typos not picked up in proof.  For some reason, most of them involve missing definite and indefinite articles – eg "he stood for moment" (p143), "some of regulars" (p111), "she peered into room" (p191), but I stopped listing because there were so many, as if some compositor had a down on "the" and "a".  Odd. But it should not detract from an absorbing, many-layered and thought-provoking read in which no person, place or event turns out to be quite what we thought on first acquaintance. - sheenaghpugh

No country has been described in terms of another to the extent that Canada was by Scotland. From the Dunbar area of Vancouver to Inverness in Nova Scotia, Scots festooned Canada with familiar toponyms. One relatively small corner of southern Alberta, for instance, has a Calgary, a Banff, a Canmore and an Airdrie. If you include the personal naming of mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls, the number of places in Canada that have names derived from Scotland runs to the thousands.
But one person’s renaming is another’s theft; a way of staking out territory to justify its possession. The Scots were never shy about their presence in Canada and, beyond dishing out Scottish names, endlessly inventive in finding ways to announce it. Stanley Park in Vancouver is named for an Englishman, but in 1928 Ramsay MacDonald unveiled a Burns statue there. It is modelled on the one in Ayr and the plinth is dug into high ground at the heart of the traditional territory of three Coast Salish Nations – the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. The statue celebrated the poet but it was also a way of saying ‘this is ours now’.
Scots renamed people too. A close friend in British Columbia had the surname Bruce when she was a member of one First Nation community and became Wallace when she married into another. Bruce came from her great grandfather who was an Orkney fur trader and Wallace from an Indian agent registering people for the Canadian government who, her husband told me, ‘either didn’t want to or couldn’t be bothered writing down our real names.’ The people of her community are Wallaces to this day and the removal of their names begat the removal of everything else, including their culture and their children. Their community is now one of the poorest in Canada, but close to one of the richest – the ski resort of Whistler, British Columbia.
None of this has stopped writers from whitesplaining First Nations’ experiences. John Buchan’s Sick Heart River includes some problematic First Nation characters, routinely excused as Buchan being a man of his time. More recently, it’s almost impossible to escape the British Columbia school system without reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name. Written by American Margaret Craven, it is set in the First Nations village of Kingcome on the West Coast, home to the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. Both novels are concerned with sickness and death. Buchan’s Sir Edward Leithen has advanced tuberculosis and has been given a year to live. Craven’s young Anglican vicar also suffers from a terminal illness and the Kwakwaka’wakw believe that he will die soon after the owl calls him.
It is a brave writer, then, who would broach any of these themes in a work of modern fiction, far less all of them. But Robert Alan Jamieson does just that in macCloud Falls. He has travelled a long way from his under-appreciated 2010 novel Da Happie Land which was set in Shetland but reached to the South Pacific. Now in British Columbia, he focusses on the province’s Scottish connections, First Nations’ land rights, illness and Burns. And if that’s not enough, the book has a love affair at its heart.
The narrative opens in medias res. Jamieson’s protagonist Gilbert Johnson, an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh, has taken a Greyhound bus to a small town in interior British Columbia and Veronika is looking for him. They met when Gil’s flight from Scotland stopped over in Calgary. Both are cancer survivors and Veronika – whose resemblance to Sigourney Weaver confuses the locals – is afraid that Gil is contemplating suicide, perhaps influenced by ‘Sick Heart River’. Instead of Gil, she finds a journal in his hotel room which proves that her fears were not unfounded. It also contains a fictionalised account of the time they spent together in Vancouver and some information about Gil’s Canada quest. He wants to research and write about a migrant Scot called James Lyle to whom he might be related. To that end, he has hiked into a secret valley in the hope of discovering the cabin where Lyle lived with his first wife, a member of the Nlaka’pamux nation.
It’s soon clear that Lyle is a version of the real-life John Teit (or Tate), a migrant Scot who married a Nlaka’pamux woman and became fluent in several First Nations languages. Teit was born on the Shetland Islands and migrated in 1884 to Spences Bridge in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon. He initially helped manage a store on an estate owned by his uncle, John Murray, an enthusiastic renamer who called a local mountain ‘Arthurs Seat’ (now ‘Art’s Ass’ to some irreverent Canadians). Murray grew fruit and his orchard became famous for Grimes Golden apples when it was under the care of a ‘Widow Smith’. Teit eventually worked with anthropologist Franz Boas and was an advocate for First Nations’ rights in British Columbia, acting as a bridge to white officialdom. When Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier visited Kamloops, British Columbia, in 1910, Teit prepared the declaration that asserted land rights on behalf of the Secwepemc, Okanagan and Nlaka’pamux nations. His Susanna Lucy Antko and they lived together for twelve years Nlaka’pamux wife was until her death in 1899.
Jamieson’s Lyle shadows Teit in every important respect (if Tate and Lyle isn’t a clue, then it should be). Lyle’s uncle John MacLeod is clearly John Murray, Widow Smith becomes Widow Spark, Lyle’s wife is also called Antko and when Gil travels to ‘MacLeod Falls’ in search of their stories, he ends up in a place that sounds a lot like Spences Bridge. But Teit’s thin disguise allows Jamieson to move some geographical features around and insert Gil into Lyle’s story. Gil believes that Lyle, who made a trip back to Shetland after he migrated to Canada, could be his grandfather.
All this provides an early indication of Jamieson’s sensitive touch. Teit/Lyle is the kind of Scot sometimes used to assuage colonial guilt. The argument is that some Scots settlers were more sympathetic to the First Nations and more prone to intermarriage than others in the British colonial project and somehow partially atone for other Scots like Canada’s first Prime Minster John A. Macdonald, architect of the assimilationist Indian Act and the residential school system. Gil resists this exculpatory line and, instead, embarks on a voyage of discovery which reveals that the credit for Lyle’s actions really belongs to someone else.
The journal discloses the fact that Gil is aware of ‘the right to name, the language of power, the dominant narrative’ and, with the help of an elder and a young Nlaka’pamux woman, he learns to read First Nation silences rather than depend on the voluminous written testimonies that Scots tended to leave behind. However, he also feels the need to provide some lengthy formal explanations that interrupt the narrative flow. After he reappears, Gil has Veronika read a book proposal which includes a six page appendix entitled ‘A Chronology of the History and Exploration and Settlement of the territories known to early European voyagers ‘New Caledonia’. It is the kind of thing a British Columba high school student might use as a primer for his social studies exam. Later a group of tree planters rehearse some routine arguments about First Nations’ land rights while Gil listens from outside the hotel window.
After his Nlaka’pamux nation epiphany, Gil heads to Barriere, British Columbia to meet Gordon who thinks he has a first edition of Burns’ Kilmarnock poems. He had remote contact with Gordon while still in Edinburgh but the episode feels extraneous and unlikely. They travel to Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park to no obvious purpose other than to describe them. There’s a similar sense of randomness when Gil watches hockey games, all of them from the Stanley Cup series between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins in 2011. He never masters the vocabulary of the game and speaks of fouls and puckdowns. More importantly, he misses the key role that hockey plays in Vancouver by giving its ethnically-diverse population a cause to gather around. For once, this includes the First Nations. Algonquin Gino Odjick is a Canucks legend. I met my first First Nation Wallaces while watching a Canucks hockey game in the Legion Hall in Pemberton, British Columbia.
These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is unfair to expect Gil to understand hockey on such brief acquaintance or have him fully resolve the novel’s central dilemma: the provision of too much formal information for a British Columbia audience and not enough for a Scottish one. Jamieson is a writer of endless narrative invention and soaring prose and he tells an important story here. Scotland tends to view its Canada connections as historical but Jamieson’s pursuit of Jimmy Lyle makes it clear that they still influence the way Canada functions today.
Eventually everything else drops away from the story and all that’s left is love and illness. The final passages are very affecting and achingly familiar as a loved one turns towards Scotland and leaves you there in the Vancouver gloaming: ‘Tomorrow he too would fly above the city, on the first leg of the journey back to Scotland – across the Rockies where he first met her, then on across the vast wastes of Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the Atlantic, back to the North Sea, far from this strange Pacific shore. The day of departure would carry him through the night towards home, but also towards the end of this companionship. This love he now felt. He could call it that, on his side at least.’ - Harry McGrath

Poems by Robert Alan Jamieson:

An Interview with Robert Alan Jamieson

Robert Alan was born in Shetland in 1958, where he grew up. After publishing two novels and a collection of poems while in his twenties, he attended the University of Edinburgh as a mature student. Subsequently he held the William Soutar Fellowship in Perth, was co-editor of Edinburgh Review from 1992 till 1998 and writer-in-residence at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde from 1998 until 2001. Since 1993 he has pioneered the teaching of creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, initially through the Office of Lifelong Learning, from 1998 at undergraduate level and, since 2002, the post-graduate Masters in Creative Writing. His third novel A Day at the Office (1991) was placed among The List's '100 Best Scottish Books' in 2006, while his poetry in Shetlandic Scots, as published in Nort Atlantik Drift (1999/2007) and Ansin t'Sjaetlin: some responses to the language question (2005), has been translated into Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Finnish, German, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Latvian, Norwegian, Polish, Scots Gaelic, Spanish, Ukrainian and Welsh. As a result of his work with the organisation Literature Across Frontiers, he has translated the work of over thirty contemporary European poets into Scots and English. He has also written for the stage, and collaborated with the composer David Ward and the painter Graeme Todd. His fourth novel Da Happie Laand was shortlisted for the Saltire Book of the Year in 2010, the Scottish Book of the Year in 2011, and longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC prize in 2012. In 2013, he was the subject of a biographical film directed by Susan Kemp, which premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in February 2014, before touring Shetland as part of the Screenplay festival in August of that year. It was subsequently screened at the StAnza International Poetry Festival in 2015. -