Document 519

The Fanatic (extract 1)

Author(s): James Robertson

Copyright holder(s): Fourth Estate Publishers: With thanks to HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. © James Robertson 2000, James Robertson


Edinburgh, February 1670

‘Jean, Jean!’ Someone was calling her. A woman’s voice. Not him, then. He’d gone out, she was alone in the house, and the door was bolted. She had learnt to be canny about voices, though. A man could have a woman’s voice, a woman could be not just a woman. Like herself. She was not just a woman. She was all kinds of wonders.

‘Jean, Jean!’ There it was again. Like the start of a bairn’s rhyme. Jean, Jean, fairy queen! But that could not be right either. There was only one fairy queen and it wasn’t herself.

Herself? Maybe it was her own voice? It wouldn’t be the first time. He’d catch her talking to herself once in a while, and he didn’t like it. It was all right if she just haivered, but sometimes she’d slip in other things among the haivers, and a terrible anger would break on his face. Terrible, and yet feart too. She noticed that, and stored it away.

‘Jean, Jean!’ There was work to be done. She’d ignore the insistent calling. If she’d a mirror she could stand in front of it and when the voice came see if her lips moved. Then she’d know whether to be feart. But he didn’t allow mirrors. Sinful vanities. Keek in a glass and all ye see is clay, he said. Keek in yer soul and ye’ll mebbe see grace.

She moved around the room, a cloth in one hand, a stick in the other. Not his stick, with the nasty thrawn face. That was away out with him. Her stick was a dry old branch, peeling bark, fit only for the fire. She wiped surfaces with the cloth as she went, the table, a shelf, the arm of his chair. They were thick with stour. Bessie the servant had left and was never coming back. She couldn’t blame her. She should have gone with her herself.

The house was in a state right enough, falling apart, and there was next to no food in it. She wasn’t hungry any more. She couldn’t eat for the thought of him coming back.

As she shauchled round, she sang a few notes to herself. Maybe it was a psalm, maybe it was a pagan song. She didn’t care. And with her stick she chapped the walls; the stonework around the lum, the wooden skifting at floor-level, the floorboards themselves. Chap! ‘There a mystery,’ she said. Chap! ‘There anither.’ Chap! ‘There a secret, Thomas Weir.’ Chap! ‘There a wee thing tae keep tae yersel.’

When she’d been right round the room she threw her stick in the fire. A poor, sulky thing the fire was, the wind must be in the wrong airt. She turned about suddenly, as if she had heard someone at the door, but there was no one. Then she sat down, in his chair, and watched as the fire, slowly at first, then greedily and with a pleasing cracking sound, consumed the branch.

Over her shoulder, over the back of the chair, came the voice again. ‘Jean, Jean!’ And now she knew it wasn’t her own, for the voice was quite clearly coming from behind her. She gripped the arms of the chair and pretended not to hear it. If she sat there long enough, it might go away.

When you’d no mirror you learnt to see yourself elsewhere. She’d always been good at seeing pictures in the flames. She knew she looked like the crooked stick now, because when she put her hand to her face she felt the wrinkles, the hard knots of bone beneath the broken skin. When she got into bed at night, although she never undressed completely, not now, for it was too painful to see her nakedness, she saw enough of it to know that she was crumbling and brittle.

Had she ever been different? It was hard to think on now, but she believed she had. Not bonnie perhaps, but young and strong. Oh ay, she’d been those. At Wicketshaw, the house of her youth. In those days, she had gone naked. That had been a joy. To strip in the woods at Carluke, to lie in the long grass in meadows, to feel the good earth and the sharp blades of twigs and leaves pricking and tickling your soft flesh. It was a joy, not a sin. Even now she was sure of it. It was he who had made it a sin, he who had made their love impure after promising her it was purity itself. As pure as God. As free from censure as God.

The byre, the bedrooms, the hidden corners of the house. She minded these places and the times he had forced himself on her and she hated them all now. But the times they had had out of doors, they were special. She minded Thomas like a white hind in the trees, coming towards her. His thing like a mushroom on a huge stalk, straining towards her. Later she realised how like some witch rite it had been, those frantic, joyous couplings under the green canopy of birdsong. Like how a witch’s coven was supposed to be. A man with the head of a beast. A woman dancing wildly. At the time, though, it had been nothing to do with witches. It had been to do with saints.

‘Jean, Jean, come awa nou!’ The voice was soft, but mocking. It mocked her memories. To do with saints! What was she thinking of? She frowned. In the fire the last of the branch twisted and kinked. She unfrowned, and the branch broke and was lost among the rest of the embers.

She often wondered about things like that. Did she really have power? Did the branch obey her frown? She’d heard so many stories of women who could make spells, who could talk to the invisible world. And she knew which herbs to pick from the forest to make a cure for a child’s sickness, her mother had taught her. But were these things power, and if so what kind of power?

Sometimes when she was alone in the woods she’d think of the naked days of her youth again, and she’d seem to picture more than just herself. Other women – witches – dancing in a clearing, and a muckle black man. If she could think these things, if she had that kind of knowledge, and if she had done what she had done with her brother, ah well then, maybe she could be a witch.

After they came from Carluke to Edinburgh and she kept the school at Dalkeith, had she maybe been a witch by then? She lived alone and that was enough in some folk’s eyes. They tried to trick her. They sent a wee wifie, who pretended she came from the fairy world. ‘Touch yer heid and taes, Jean, gie him awthin inbetween; hae whit iver thing ye list, iver mair ye shall be his!’ She saw what their game was. She sent the wifie packing. The Dalkeith folk were jealous of her. Her neat wee schoolhouse. Her skill at spinning. Her fine, upstanding brother, the Major, that could speak so English like and was so favoured by the kirk, the army and the city. Now that was a different kind of power, was it not?

But the wifie came again, and each time she came Jean’s spirit weakened. For she knew her brother false by then, long before anybody else suspected. Before he suspected himself, even. Because he had turned away from her. She could tell that she repulsed him. Yet he would still come to her, when he could not get what he desired elsewhere.

‘Whit is it ye want?’ she said suddenly, out loud. Her voice was shrill in the empty house. It was proof that she had not spoken before. But now the spell was broken. As soon as she spoke the other voice vanished. If it had ever been there.

Thomas would be home soon. The day was darkening and he would be expecting food. Work to be done and she hadn’t even started. There were some scraps of food: a bit of an old sheepshank, some carrots and kail. She could boil it all up with some barley for a broth. He would hate it, greasy and grey with the carrots floating like corpses. If he wanted to eat he’d not have any choice.

It might make him raise his hand to her. He had done it in the past and hurt her. He had had many ways to hurt her but this was the last and weakest. She liked to see him try it these days because now when the arm came up it always fell away again. Feeble, dwindling in strength. She understood why this was. He was drowning in doubt, and the doubt was becoming certainty.

She went to the window and looked out onto the roofs and walls. Their recesses and angles were fading into the gathering dark. She rubbed at the pane and saw herself distorted in its whorl, an old stick being souked down into blackness.

Into blackness, and never come back. She wished that of him. Never come back, Thomas Weir. May ye drap deid in the street. God strike ye doun. Oh she wished it, she wished it. She’d go to Hell for wishing it, if it would just give her a few months, a few weeks even, to be here alone, shut in from the world.

If she had a charm against him she would use it. But she’d none. For a witch she was fushionless. She could not keep him from coming home. But she had seen the fear in his eyes. Doubting Thomas. He was crumbling too. She had all his secrets numbered in her heart and he could not deny them. That was power of a sort.

‘Jean, Jean!’ She held her breath, listened. But now when she wanted the woman’s voice, wanted whatever unknown promises the wee wifie might have for her, her hopes sank. For it was a man’s voice. He was coming up the stair. There was the sound of his heavy tread outside the door, and the dull thump of his staff against it, demanding entry.

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APA Style:

The Fanatic (extract 1). 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 19 April 2024, from

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 519

The Fanatic (extract 1)


Text audience

Adults (18+)
General public
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 1999
Word count 1759

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Fourth Estate
Publication year 2000
Place of publication London
ISBN/ISSN 1-84115-189-0
Edition First
Part of larger text
Contained in The Fanatic, by James Robertson - Extract
Page numbers 143-147

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 105
Forenames James
Surname Robertson
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Writer
Place of birth Sevenoaks
Region of birth Kent
Country of birth England
Place of residence Newtyle
Region of residence W Angus
Residence CSD dialect area Ags
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Sales Director
Father's place of birth London
Father's country of birth England
Mother's occupation Primary Teacher
Mother's place of birth Leatherhead
Mother's region of birth Surrey
Mother's country of birth England


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes General use, work and home
French Yes Yes No Yes Occasional use, work and leisure (holidays)
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No Yes No No Academic, creative
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes General use, work and home