Robin Jenkins - The Cone-Gatherers (1955)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
In what circumstances is kleptomania acceptable; almost certainly when a nation’s culture is at stake? It hardly rates as the crime of the century but I once stole a conifer from the floor of the Tramway, after a memorable production of Communicado’s The Cone-Gatherers. The stage had been scattered with cones and the audience sat amongst autumnal logs watching a piece of Scottish theatrical history unfold. Something impulsive made me want to keep a memento of the performance so, pathetically, I stole one of the props, and now have it hidden away in a drawer like a relic of understanding.
I had read Robin Jenkins’ The Cone-Gatherers years before, but it was the theatre adaptation that encouraged me to read it again. Sometimes it is on the second or third visitation that you really begin to understand a great book. Superficially, this is a story about the land and the mundane localness of its characters, but at a more metaphoric level it’s about renewal, future growth and the capacity of Scotland to rebuild itself.
World War II is still raging in Europe when two brothers arrive at a forest to gather cones so that the seeds can be used to replant trees destroyed by the conflict. The younger brother Calum is a mentally retarded hunchback forced into being a runner for the hunt, racing for his life against a rural landscape at once ugly and spectacular.
Jenkins has not enjoyed any of the attention heaped upon many other Scottish writers and it may be that he’s an acquired taste rather than a minor literary afterthought; but, in an era in which there is renewed interest in Scottish literature he’s an author rich in potential.
It would not be too demonstrative to claim that The Cone-Gatherers is Scotland’s Cherry Orchard, a great Chekhovian masterpiece that uses forests and the natural landscape to capture a moment of profound social change. It feels as eerily prescient today as it did when it was first published in the 1950s and is the kind of book that offers up new, modern meanings with every reading. Once you have read the book, it will then seem natural to follow it with Jenkins’ other significant work, A Would-Be Saint, possibly the only great work of contemporary fiction that alludes to St Johnstone in its title. Or so I desperately like to think.
Further reading: Fergus Lamont (1980) traces the life of an illegitimate child from Glasgow’s slums; Childish Things (2001) focuses on a septuagenarian widower whose carefully suppressed past returns to haunt him when he goes to live with his daughter.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.