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The play that shook the Highlands

In 1973 an extraordinarily powerful play started touring the villages and towns of the Highlands and Islands. Rarely, if ever, had a play made such an impression on Scottish audiences as did the 7:84 Theatre Company’s production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It was seen by an estimated 300,000 people throughout Scotland and later by millions when it was broadcast as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series.

John McGrath, the writer, called it ‘a ceilidh play’. In it he tells the story of the exploitation of the Highlands from the post-Jacobite rising, through the suppression of the clans, the atrocities of the clearances, the sporting estates and their absentee owners, to the North Sea oil boom which he dramatised through oral tradition, the Gaelic language, song, satire and broad comedy.

McGrath, who died in 2002, set up the 7:84 travelling theatre company in 1971, taking its name from a statistic revealed in The Economist in 1966 that 7 per cent of Britain’s people owned 84 per cent of the country’s wealth. He  wrote many plays before The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, and many after, but The Cheviot remains his best-known work.

John Bett, who played several leading characters in the play (including a brilliant take on an absentee landowner, a Church of Scotland minister and Patrick Sellar, who owned Ardtornish estate in Morvern) recalled whole villages turning out with children and grandmothers in the audience.

He said: ‘The play had a living quality to it. There were new things happening every day with the oil boom, which John would extract from the papers and put it in that night’s performance. It had a real up-to-the-moment feeling to it.’

Joe Douglas, director of a 2015 update, says: ‘It’s huge, and as it comes closer than you realise how much a part of the psyche it is, you get an idea of its importance when you speak to some of the people who saw it when they tell you how much it meant to them. It’s not about sentiment; it really awakened something that was latent, just bubbling away for so many people across the country.’

The reasons for the clearances are explained and how they were enabled for the ‘ruling classes’ with the connivance of the church, the law, the police and the military. It tells where the people went: often to miserable allotments on the seashore where they were supposed to fish and gather kelp for the soda ash industry. It gives the economic reasons why the men were often away south for much of the year, trying to find work to pay the rents on their crofts, or in the Highland regiments defending the British Empire. It also details the emigrations to the Victorian slums of Glasgow and to the rest of the world.

In The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, John McGrath and director John Mackenzie, dared to go where few have wanted to go, most preferring to sweep the atrocities of the Highland clearances under the carpet as being too painful, and too long ago.  The play also passes on an example of local resistance from across the Atlantic – ‘So, picture it, a drive-in clachan on every hilltop where formerly there was hee-haw but scenery. They give me furs, beaver skins, Davy Crockett hats and all the little necessities of life. I give them beads, baubles, VD, diphtheria, influenza, cholera, fire water and all the benefits of civilisation.’

Typical of the play’s poetic anger is in the line, ‘It is said that when the woman bards died they were buried face downwards so that their songs would not come up to disturb us. But they do, still.’

This play has influenced generations of playwrights and directors in Scotland and beyond, and took professional theatre to a whole new public. John McGrath did not invent touring theatre, but he certainly reinvigorated it and opened the door to new audiences, venues and – before long – new touring companies.

To understand the Highlands today, and the effect the subject of this production had on the morale of the few indigenous people who remain, no-one interested in its social history and landscape should fail to watch The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

DVDs of the BBC’s Cheviot are now available from Panamint Cinema, Broxburn, West Lothian, who specialise in rare film and BBC television programmes sourced by licence from the nation’s film archive. The company has a catalogue of more than 70 historical and nostalgic feature films and documentaries. These include Laxdale Hall, the Vital Spark, Night Mail, the Rugged Islands, Seaways of the Great Ships and others about the old West Highland Railway line.  (www.panamint.co.uk)

Although not a great deal has changed since 1973 regarding land ownership in the Highlands, the play obviously needs a new title. Perhaps The Dot Com lairds, the planting grants and no deer, or, The pine martins, the lynx, the hydro schemes and the empty glens, would be more appropriate for today.

Iain Thornber
iain.thornber@btinternet.com