In our Seven Stories feature, we ask a Scottish children’s author to share some stories about their own life and work.
Today, we meet Robin Scott-Elliot. Bravery against the odds is a theme in both of his novels, and now we know that he can be on the daring side himself!
News story: what is your book called? What is it about?
The Acrobats of Agra is a story told by Bea, an orphan sent from Scotland to live with her aunt in India. Soon after she arrives the country erupts in rebellion and Bea finds herself under siege in the city of Agra. There she meets Jacques, an acrobat from a travelling circus, who is trying to look after Tonton, the circus tiger. They decide the only way the starving Tonton will survive is if they escape and take her to live in the jungle. They team up with Pin, a servant boy also desperate to escape, who masterminds their getaway through the tunnels beneath the city – but that is only the beginning of their adventure in war-torn India.
Short story: sum up your book in five words.
Indian adventure on a tightrope
Life story: tell us how you got where you are today?
It’s been a long and winding road, with Scotland at the beginning and end of it. I’m from Edinburgh originally but spent 20-plus years in London working as a journalist for the BBC, ITV, the Sunday Times and then as a sports correspondent for the Independent and the i. I’ve always loved reading – it’s my greatest comfort and my greatest inspiration – and more and more wanted to write a story of my own.
I quit my job at ITV to write a novel, while freelancing, but when that didn’t lead anywhere, I went back to sports writing full time. I loved being a journalist (most of the time) and was lucky enough to cover sport all over the world, including three remarkable Olympic Games in Sydney, London and Sochi – where I was accused in Pravda of making up negative stories about Russia. That was a scary moment!
I also covered the London Paralympics, which was an endlessly uplifting event to be a part of it. But I still wanted to write stories, so in 2014 we moved back to Scotland – the last event I covered as a staff journalist was the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, a happy couple of weeks. It felt great to be home again and have one more chance to write, thanks to Karen, my partner, who went to work full-time while I looked after the kids and wrote, and wrote and wrote.
I wrote an adult novel – a what-if history set in Glasgow in 1919 imagining the revolution the government of the day feared – and while that was out on submission (and getting nowhere) I finally bowed to my daughters’ pestering and wrote a story for them.
Something clicked. My first attempt I sent to Cranachan, a publisher I admire hugely, and received enough encouragement to keep going. My next was short-listed for the Kelpies prize – I can still feel my knees wobbling waiting for the winner’s announcement!
I also remember so clearly Lari Don’s speech that night – it was aimed at those of us who didn’t win: don’t give up, she said, I know what you’re feeling, she said, you’re getting there.
That meant so much.
My next try was the Tzar’s Curious Runaways – I was at the opticians when the email from the wonderful Mikka at Everything With Words arrived. I had to get my daughter to read it for me (that’s why I was at the opticians!). Yes, she said they want to publish your book. That moment takes some beating.
The Acrobats of Agra followed in October again with Everything With Words – a publisher who passionately supports and invests in new writing, I can’t thank them enough – and number three, the story of a Parisian Jewish girl joining the Resistance in the Second World War is due for publication next year.
Love story: who, or what, do you really care about?
My girls – Karen, Iona and Torrin, my wife and daughters. Being a dad is the most amazing thing ever, even if I do catch myself saying things to my kids that my parents used to say to me!
Karen and I met at the BBC – we used to sit next to each other working on Grandstand and Match of the Day. She’s a Londoner born and bred – never lived anywhere else – yet it was her suggestion we move to Scotland. Without her support and guidance, I would not have become a writer. I know I owe her everything.
Without my daughters making me promise to write a story for them I might not have tried writing for children – it seemed so difficult (and it is!). But I love writing stories. So thank you Iona, my fiercest and fairest critic, and thank you Torrin, who the Acrobats of Agra is dedicated to.
I also care an awful lot about football (Aberdeen and Scotland) but probably shouldn’t admit that!
Adventure story: tell us about your most exciting adventure yet.
Probably this summer. We’ve become keen open-water swimmers – Loch Lomond is just over the hill – and it’s long been my ambition to swim the Corryvreckan, the third largest whirlpool in the world. It separates the islands of Jura and Scarba and nearly did for George Orwell when his boat was caught in it while living on Jura and writing 1984. If the Corryvreckan had had its way one of the most influential novels would never have been finished!
When the tide is slack and wind and weather right there is an hour-wide window to get across. We first tried two years ago but the weather stopped us even starting. This time conditions were ideal – or as ideal as you get on the west coast.
We swam with our friends Stu and James and under the watchful eye of Jeremy and Fi, once creel fishers in these waters. This is not a swim to take risks with and the boat kept us in sight across the mile-wide stretch of water.
Sea swimming is so different to fresh-water swimming, not least because you have to deal with the all-too human fear of what else is in the water with you. But this was a stunning swim – the sun shone, two sea eagles fished above us, Scarba’s wild goats came down to the beach to see what was going on as we set off and there was a stag standing on the brow of a hill looking down. It was a Compton Mackenzie swim (the whisky came later)!
The water was milky green and beautiful to swim in as the waves rolled in from the west. It was tough, especially when the waves caught me and threw me against Jura’s rocky shore (that hurt!), but utterly exhilarating and you could see it on the faces of my fellow swimmers. We’ll do it again.
Old story: what were your favourite books when you were a child?
Adventure stories, in particular historical ones have always been my favourites – Kidnapped and Treasure Island of course – I’ve recently re-read both. Eagle of the Ninth, the DK Broster Jacobite stories. I also enjoyed Gavin Maxwell and his Ring of Bright Water series.
I remember reading a novel about the massacre of Glencoe – but not its name – and then being distraught to discover my grandad’s family were Campbells!
My dad was in the army and stationed abroad so I was sent home to boarding school and before each flight back after the holidays, stomach sinking, my mum would buy me a Tintin or Asterix book, so they still hold a special place for me!
Bedtime story: what’s your bedtime reading at the moment?
I’m keen to read Shuggie Bain, it’s on my Christmas list. 2020 may have been a dire year but not for Scottish writing – Motherwell, the Young Team and Scabby Queen are three of the best books I’ve read this year. I’ve just finished White Bird, RJ Palacio’s graphic novel which my eldest Iona recommended – it’s excellent – and I’m now starting Glasgow 1919 by Kenny MacAskill.