For a playwright who has already dramatised Neil M Gunn's The Silver Darlings for the same company, has penned a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and whose original works such as The Breathing House are often steeped in Scotland's rich literary heritage, this is quite an admission. Such is Arnott's curiosity, however, that the prospect of diving in to Jenkins's Second World War-set work about notions of good and bad on a Scottish country estate was one to relish.
"I have to confess to my shame," says Arnott with a mix of sheepishness and ebullience, "that not only did I not know The Cone Gatherers as a novel, but I didn't know Robin Jenkins as a writer either. Once I started reading his work, however, I developed a theory which is maybe something to do with him, that all his main characters are people who don't fit in the world. The Cone Gatherers has three or four people who don't fit in, and in dealing with that, it's how they respond that counts. Do they respond in good faith, or do they respond in bad faith?"
The Cone Gatherers was a very personal book for Jenkins, who took its backdrop from his time as a conscientious objector, gathering cones to replace trees felled for the war effort. In the novel, two brothers, Neil and his disabled sibling Calum, undertake this pursuit under the resentful eye of game-keeper, Duror, the estate's aristocratic owner and her son Roddy.
"Duror's way of not fitting in with the world is to hate it," Arnott observes. "He has this furious energy, and just attacks all the time.
Roddy can't bear the people he's grown up with, so for him, fitting in becomes about class. Calum, on the other hand, is mentally and physically handicapped, but the paradox is that he fits in with the world completely. He loves it, and he accepts everything, and it's this acceptance that drives Duror's rage. Jenkins doesn't say where that rage comes from. Duror just hates this boy, so there's a certain inevitability that something's going to happen. In the book, Jenkins himself shies away from what happens at the end. The story is told second or third hand, but you can't do that with drama."
The Cone Gatherers is the third adaptation of a classic Scottish novel initiated by Aberdeen Performing Arts under the tenure of Duncan Hendry, who is now in charge of the Kings and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh. With Jane Spiers, former Chief Executive of Horsecross in Perth, now in post in Aberdeen, Arnott is optimistic that the relationship can continue.
As with The Silver Darlings, Arnott's latest adaptation isn't the first time The Cone Gatherers has been seen onstage. That honour goes to future TV writer and creator of Skins, Brian Elsley, who penned a version for Gerry Mulgrew's Communicado company in the early 1990s at Tramway, Glasgow. Mulgrew's production was played out in the thick of a gigantic forest set, in which the cast climbed trees while the audience sat on wooden stumps on either side of the auditorium.
With live music and singing accompanying Mulgrew's impressionistic direction, Communicado's The Cone Gatherers was an immersive spectacle that formed Scotland's contribution to a programme featuring a theatre company apiece from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Representing England were The Wrestling School, who presented the debut production of Howard Barker's play, Victory. The director was Kenny Ireland, who would go on to revive Victory while in charge of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, where his parting shot was to oversee the premiere of Arnott's slice of Victorian gothic, The Breathing House.
Significantly, the only other stage adaptation of any of Jenkins's many novels has again been by Communicado, with their take on Fergus Lamont. The status of the writer, who died in 2005, may be about to change.
"It's a very Scottish attitude," Arnott says. "He's dead now, so we're suddenly allowed to rate him, but Andrew Marr is a bit of a fan, and Polygon is trying to republish everything he did, so I hope doing The Cone Gatherers onstage might be part of a revival, because, like Stevenson, he wrote a lot, and put out a lot, but we hardly know any of it."
While Arnott's version of The Cone Gatherers looks set to be quite different from Communicado's, it is, according to Arnott, "like rehearsing a movie. We've been using a live score from the start, there are lots of projections, and there are choral parts in it which are being sung, which I never imagined. But there's a very different physicality to what we're doing. This maybe has a bit more distance, and is more about watching things than being in among them."
Even so, Arnott's mix of enthusiasm and craftsmanship should make for a heady experience.
"The kind of characters who appear in The Cone Gatherers appear in a lot of other books by Jenkins. They're characters who have this luminous quality of the Bible, archetypes who are replayed through different situations, and which have the same approach to life and ask the same question; how do you live well in the world when you don't fit in and aren't accepted? I may be slandering Jenkins, who may well have been hugely happy, but his books deal with the same things again and again."
He adds: "One thing that's interesting about it as well is that it was written in the 1950s, and is set in the 1940s, and there's all these ideas about what's right and wrong. Attitudes towards people with disabilities, that's an issue that's different now to 40 or 50 years ago. Duror has this hatred of Calum, but the challenge is to root Duror's loathing in something that makes him a sympathetic character, and not make it too easy dramatically to dismiss him. A good story is always about someone who is doing the right thing, even if what they do is horrendous"
Arnott will have his work cut out even more in this respect in a just completed play, commissioned by former Dundee Rep director Hamish Glen for the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
"It's about a Nazi jazz band," says Arnott. "Charlie and His Orchestra were Lord Haw Haw's backing band, who played jazz standards but with anti-Semitic lyrics."
Beyond this, presuming the relationship with Aberdeen Performing Arts remains ongoing, there are plenty of classic Scottish novels for Arnott to get stuck into. Arnott mentions The Master of Ballantrae and The House With the Green Shutters as future possibilities. "I've got a long list," he says, "and I'm sure other people have as well."
The Cone Gatherers, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, September 14t-22, then tours www.boxofficeaberdeen.com