Story by Chris Graham
I’d heard so much about the guy from Scotland who makes his way to the Valley every year for the Book ‘Em book festival – but other than a passing hello, I had never spoken with Dirk Robertson until, as luck would have it, we were seated beside each other at this year’s festival.
That was when he told me the B.B. King story.
I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The first thing I learned about Robertson – he is a man of his word.
That came up when I asked Robertson – whose most recent book, Deep Powder, takes readers inside the world of extreme sports – how it was that Book ‘Em ended up on his annual itinerary.
“I’m a member of the Crimes Writers Association in the United Kingdom, and their magazine carried a piece about it when Mark (Kearney, the Book ‘Em founder) called people and talked about how if you couldn’t come, but had books you could donate, that would be great,” Robertson said in his distinctive Scots lilt. “And when I saw it, I thought, I hadn’t been to this part of the world – I’d been to the United States many times, but I hadn’t been to Virginia – and also, I write books, this is what I do, and I thought this was an opportunity to come to this part of the world and meet people.
“So I got in touch and said I would come. And that’s the next point. I actually end up coming because I say I’m coming. It’s very easy to look at these things and, Oh, are you coming … yeah, I’m going to come. It’s off the tongue. As soon as it’s off my tongue, it’s booked. The important thing for me is, if you’re not going to come, don’t say you’re going to come. So that’s the reason that I come – is because I said so,” Robertson said.
I actually kind of like that about Robertson – that he sees it as being important that if he says that he’s going to do something, then he’d better do it. Not everybody thinks that way these days – and certainly not everybody follows through to the point of flying from Scotland to the States every fall just because they promised one day four years ago that they would.
I next asked Robertson about a theory that I’ve had since childhood – when I first learned about my Scots-Irish heritage. It seemed to me that everybody in my family was into storytelling – I’ve said often that I might be the writer who has the modest following, but it’s my grandmother who is by far the best spinner of yarns in the DNA pool.
It made me feel good to hear Robertson offer his agreement on that point.
“I think all groups or countries that have their roots in tribal – like the Scots were tribal as opposed to the Anglo-Saxons, who were not – I think all the tribals have this thing about telling stories about themselves, about their identity, and passing it on, and bartering and exchanging,” Robertson said.
“In the old days, they bartered and exchanged goods – and they also bartered and exchanged stories. And that gives you a sense of place, and people know who you are, what you do and where you are in relation to everything. So you made bread, and you made kilts – but this was your tradition,” Robertson said.
“And it’s interesting when you look at some of the older Scotswomen – there’s a wonderful word, seanchai (pronounced “sha-na-key”). A seanchai is a teller of tales, a reader of dreams, up in the Highlands – and even today, there’s a lot of very old women, and people invest a title in them. They consider them to be seanchais. They don’t mean mystics or people who think they can tell the future. That’s a different thing. Just a teller of tales, a reader of dreams,” Robertson said.
So that describes my grandmother – who for all I know might have some kinship with Robertson. I once traced my family lineage back to Scots-Irish settlers who found their way to the Valley in the 1730s. Of interest here is that Robertson also traced his family forebears and found a Buchanan ancestor who emigrated from Scotland to Virginia in 1729.
“My father’s name is Robertson, but his mother was a Buchanan – and one of our relatives was convicted of crimes against his neighbor in 1729 and deported to Virginia. We don’t know what happened to him afterwards – but dad went to the courthouse in Sterling and found a transcript of the original trial in 1729 all written in old parchment in big, flowery writing, and a rather sad little letter written by our relative saying, These tollbooths aren’t really comfortable and are actually a bit smelly. Any chance you deport me quickly? And a letter back saying, We’ll deport you when we are ready. Not before,” Robertson said.
Which brings us to the B.B. King story. I told you I’d get to it eventually.
Well, here it is. I asked Robertson to tell me how he got into the writing business.
Remember that he is a man of his word. OK?
“I was actually a social worker, and I met B.B. King – and he said, WIth a name like yours, you must be an actor or writer. And I said, Hey, OK, I ought to give that a go. And as I said, I’m obsessed with keeping my word. So that’s exactly what I did,” Robertson said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.