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Robin Jenkins

Robin Jenkins


Born: 1912 in Flemington, near Cambuslang
Died: 2005
First Book: So Gaily Sings the Lark (Maclellan, 1951)
Awards: Awarded an OBE in 1999; received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Saltire Society in 2002.

John Robin Jenkins was born in the village of Flemington, near Cambuslang in Lanarkshire on 11 September 1912, one of four children. His father died in 1919 and his mother worked as a cook and housekeeper to support her family. Jenkins was awarded a bursary to attend Hamilton Academy before going on to study English at the University of Glasgow, graduating with an MA in 1936.

He married Mary ???May’ Wyllie in 1937 and taught in Glasgow until the outbreak of the Second World War. At this time he accompanied his primary-school pupils on an evacuation to the Borders and registered himself as a conscientious objector. The war politicised him firmly and he became a life-long member of the Independent Labour Party. He was directed to work for the Forestry Commission as part of his war service and his experiences of forestry work in Argyll from 1940 to 1946 are reflected in his first novel So Gaily Sings the Lark (1951). This was followed by several other novels before the publication of his critically acclaimed The Cone-gatherers (Macdonald, 1955). His early works ruthlessly examined both social hypocrisy and the ambiguities of morality, integrity and idealism – themes that would be echoed throughout many of his later novels. His writing conveyed a longing for some underlying sense of honour and morality that would ultimately redeem his characters and the societies that they represented. From the publication of So Gaily Sings the Lark in 1951 until his death in 2005, he was a prolific writer, averaging a novel every couple of years (with the only significant period without publication falling between The Sardana Dancers in 1964 and A Very Scotch Affair in 1968).

After the war he returned to teaching, taking up positions in Glasgow and Dunoon. In 1957 he moved to Afghanistan for three years to teach in a college in Kabul, before working for the British Institute in Barcelona and teaching in Sabah, in what was once part of colonial Malaysia. During these years he produced some of his greatest work, with novels such as Dust on the Paw and The Holy Tree examining post-colonial prejudices towards colonised natives and their cultures. These novels examined many of the same human frailties that he had encountered at home and observed in The Thistle and the Grail, The Cone-gatherers and The Changeling, proving that many human characteristics universally transcend both location and circumstance.

He returned to Scotland in 1968 and settled in Toward, near Dunoon, where he lived for the rest of his life, retiring from teaching in 1970 to become a full-time author. In the later years of his life he was haunted by the premature death of his wife May in 1990, and of his son Colin. For a time, he was moved by these tragedies to write poetry. He was awarded the OBE in 1999, and in 2002 received the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Saltire Society. He died in February 2005, aged ninety-two.

His novels Dust on the Paw, Leila, Love is a Fervent Fire, Lunderston Tales, Matthew and Sheila, The Missionaries, The Pearl-fishers, Poverty Castle, Some Kind of Grace, The Sardana Dancers, The Thistle and the Grail, A Very Scotch Affair and Willie Hogg are all available now from Polygon. An extensive interview with Robin Jenkins is featured in Scottish Writers Talking 3, also published by Polygon.

Picture by Graham Clark

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