A Radical Return
John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil made a massive impact on Scotland in the 1970s. As Dundee Rep prepares to tour it again, Mark Brown talks to company members past and present
In 1973 the socialist theatre company 7:84 toured a play entitled The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. Written and directed by John McGrath, the drama explored the history of the Scottish Highlands and Islands from the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries to the beginnings of the oil industry in northern Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s.
It would become an iconic production in Scottish theatre history. Indeed, for many, it remains the most important and influential work of live drama ever produced in Scotland.
The show played to packed houses throughout the country, including, significantly, the Highlands and Islands, in 1973. The following year it reached a wider audience, as the BBC broadcast a film version as part of its Play For Today series.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of McGrath’s drama in the Scottish cultural landscape of the 1970s. Coming just a year after a successful miners’ strike against Edward Heath’s Conservative government, the play’s socialist politics chimed with an increasing atmosphere of industrial militancy and widespread scepticism about the exploitation of North Sea oil by big, mainly American, business.
It was, recalls actor-director John Bett, one of the original performers, a production that “hit the right button at the right time”.
More than that, however, 7:84 (who took their name from a statistic published in The Economist magazine, which exposed the fact that 7 per cent of the UK population owned 84 per cent of the wealth) were giving their audiences a shattering history lesson. Their play came 10 years after the publication of John Prebble’s great book The Highland Clearances, but its terrible story was still not widely known.
The Clearances had not been taught in Scotland’s schools and many audience members outside of the Highlands were learning about this brutal period in Scottish history for the first time. McGrath’s play was teaching people about how the Highlands and Islands were violently cleared, and an attempted cultural genocide against the Gaelic-speaking population was perpetrated, to make way for the more profitable cheviot sheep.
Crucially, if improbably, all of this was expressed in a language of popular entertainment. McGrath’s famous contention that theatre, no matter how serious its intent, should offer audiences “a good night out” was delivered by means of what would become known as “ceilidh theatre”.
The 7:84 cast, which included actors, such as Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, who would go on to become household names, played live music and sang songs old and new to and with their audiences. Legendary singer and actor Dolina MacLennan, who hailed from the Isle of Lewis, sang movingly in Gaelic, giving the show a tremendous sense of legitimacy as it toured the Highlands and Islands.
In 1991, actor-director John Bett, who was a performer in the original 1973 production of The Cheviot, proved that the play had an enduring appeal. His production, for left-wing theatre group Wildcat, enthralled audiences in Clydebank, Glasgow and, during the Edinburgh Fringe, in a huge marquee on The Meadows.
Now, some 25 years on, McGrath’s famous play is taking to the road again. A revival of last year’s production by the Dundee Rep Ensemble, directed by Joe Douglas (fresh from directing comedian and activist Mark Thomas’s Edinburgh Fringe hit show The Red Shed), it will take in venues in Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow.
To get a sense of the explosive significance of the 1973 tour of The Cheviot and the importance of the 2016 production, I caught up with members of both the original 7:84 company and the current Dundee Rep Ensemble.
For actor John Bett, the play had a great personal resonance. His mother came from the Isle of Skye and had faced humiliation and condemnation for speaking Gaelic as a child. He remembers 7:84 receiving a great accolade for the piece even before the tour had begun.
The company was invited to give a rehearsed reading of the piece at a weekend conference of the now defunct left-wing magazine Scottish International. The event was held in the George Square Theatre in Edinburgh, and had as its focus the political future of Scotland.
On the Saturday night of the conference, only two-and-a-half weeks into rehearsals, the 7:84 ensemble took to the stage, with play scripts in their hands. “The f***ing place erupted!”, says Bett, with a laugh.
So, enthusiastic was the response, in fact, that Bett was carried out of the theatre shoulder-high by the great communist poet and songwriter Hamish Henderson, among others. “It was an amazing event”, the actor comments.
“We still had another two weeks to go [before the start of the tour], but we knew then that something special was happening. Given what was happening with the oil, it hit the right button at the right time.”
So it was that 7:84 began to get a sense that the play they were about to tour might be capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist. However, nothing could have prepared them for the welcome they received in the Highlands and Islands.
Entire village populations turned out to see the show, many of them witnessing a theatre production for the first time. On the Isle of Harris, Bett, who was playing the role of Patrick Sellar, the hated factor of the Duke of Sutherland, and the primary architect of the Highland Clearances, had a close shave.
“This old woman came rushing down the aisle with a walking stick, shouting in Gaelic, ‘go to hell, you son of a Devil!'”, the actor recalls. “She was going to have me!
“Very fortunately I had a walking stick to defend myself with. She was so carried away, she’d never seen theatre before.”
Dolina MacLennan remembers the incident well, as she tells me when I meet her in Edinburgh. “I wondered for ages why the Harris woman would know about Patrick Sellar. I only learned in the last few years that Sellar’s son, who was also called Patrick, cleared Harris.”
MacLennan’s considerable cultural status in the north was crucial to the success of the production. “It was very important that people [in the Highlands and Islands] took to it”, she says. “Because there was Gaelic in it, they didn’t feel like they were being preached at.”
Take to it the people of the Highlands certainly did. The show prompted many, often deeply moving, historical memories.
In the village of Bettyhill in Sutherland, for example, MacLennan, as the production’s Gaelic speaker, was approached by an elderly man with a question to ask. Were the company aware, he wanted to know, that they had just performed on the very spot where brave and defiant crofter women had burned writs of eviction during the Clearances?
An important part of the Highland and Islands tour was taking the show into schools. MacLennan remembers performing at the Nicolson Institute secondary school in Stornoway, where she herself had been a pupil.
As a former pupil, she was also asked to address the students in the three upper year groups, and to this day, Lewis people talk to her about the impact of her speech.
“I told them that, first of all you’ve got to love your own culture. Otherwise you won’t be able to appreciate other cultures.
“Over the years I’ve had people say to me, ‘we didn’t realise what you were talking about, we didn’t think we had a culture.'”
The singer talks about such memories with a mixture of sadness and optimism. Regret that Gaelic culture ever faced such repression, and palpable pleasure that the language and culture of the Gaidhealtachd have enjoyed such a proud and confident resurgence in recent decades.
Her own role in that resurgence, as one of the Gaelic language’s most celebrated singers, is an important one. She believes that the 1973 tour of The Cheviot, which was the first major theatre tour of the Highlands and Islands, deserves to be remembered as an important cultural event in the region’s modern cultural history.
I put this point to Joe Douglas, director of the current Dundee Rep production, and cast member Irene Macdougall, when I meet them during rehearsals on Tayside. Is there a sense of weighty responsibility in taking on the first tour in a quarter-of-a-century of, arguably, Scotland’s most important play?
“There was a sense of trepidation”, says MacDougall of staging the play at the Rep a year ago. “Even by the end of rehearsals, even though we were having a great time, we had absolutely no idea whether people were going to take to it or not.
“I still talk about that first preview performance, where we did the last song and the whole audience got to their feet. It was incredibly moving, and it was like that for the rest of the run, every single night.”
For Douglas, the big Yes vote in Dundee (57 per cent, as opposed to 45 per cent nationwide) in the 2014 independence referendum, and the enthusiasm and energy of the Yes campaign across the country, made it the right time to revive the play. “It felt right to me, and very much of the time”, he says.
“But what I didn’t really appreciate”, he continues, “was the theatrical potential of it in performance, and how far you can push that with an audience, in terms of the relationship you can build with them.”
Douglas and the Rep Ensemble knew, of course, about the success of 7:84 in interacting with audiences who clapped and sang along with the performers. It was one thing to know that, however, but quite another to experience it themselves.
Macdougall feels that the success of the Rep’s production is down, in no small measure, to the original production of 43 years ago. “The lovely thing about this play is that it will always belong to those who performed it in its original production”, she comments. “We feel that we’re building upon something.”
Douglas feels a responsibility to make his own distinct version of The Cheviot, whilst also referencing and respecting the great achievements of the 1973 tour. “I’m very conscious of making a production that pays a bit of homage to the original”, he says.
For example, the fiddle playing of acclaimed actor-musician Alasdair Macrae creates an important connection back to the famous opening of the 7:84 production in which the audience is greeted by a fiddler playing them in at the door. Likewise Macrae’s comically satirical performance as the American oil man Texas Jim; a part played by Paterson, with an equally humorous derision, in the original tour.
The importance of the Gaelic element will also be maintained, courtesy of the show’s MC Calum MacDonald. Originally from North Uist, MacDonald made his theatre debut in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Uisge Beatha gu Leor (the Gaelic version of Whisky Galore).
Douglas’s sense of responsibility in taking on The Cheviot was deepened by his conversations with McGrath’s widow, 7:84 co-founder, Liz MacLennan, prior to her death last year. “She really sounded me out, about my politics as much as my theatre making”, says the director. “It took a couple of one-hour conversations to get to the point where she trusted me.”
For MacDougall, part of the thrill of touring The Cheviot in 2016 is that, in its critique of capitalism, from the glens of the Highlands to the oil fields of the North Sea, “it’s still an anti-establishment play.” Bett remembers the 1973 production as “a living newspaper”, in which the script was being constantly rewritten to keep up with fast-moving political events.
Douglas believes that the approach in 2016 has to be slightly different. “I still believe really firmly that people want to see The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil”, he says.
Audiences for the Dundee Rep tour can expect to see McGrath’s play in all its 1970s glory, with a little bit of 21st-century Scottish politics thrown in.
The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil plays Dundee Rep until September 10, then tours until October 22. For tour details, visit: cheviottour.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 4, 2016
© Mark Brown