Following a recent BBC Radio 4 programme on the 50th anniversary of
The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, Bill Paterson responds with an inside story of the production.
'It was 50 years ago today' as John and Paul nearly sang. We were on the first Highland tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil
and on 3 May 1973 we were in a most perfect wee village hall in the most exquisite setting of Achiltibuie, overlooking the Summer Isles in Wester Ross. Not that we would have much time to admire its perfection. We had just arrived after the rigours of the night before in Lochinver and would be leaving for Ullapool the next day after a performance of the play, followed by a ceilidh where we became The Force Ten Gaels and The Nortones and shared a fair amount of liquid hospitality with the locals. This pattern continued throughout most of 1973.
'The Year of the Cheviot' had begun for me and my pal Alex Norton, when we were invited to meet the writer John McGrath and his brother-in-law David MacLennan of the 7:84 theatre company. We met in the Windsor Buffet next to the old STV studios in Leith Walk where we were filming a TV series for schools.
John McGrath had seen us a few months earlier in the Great Northern Welly Boot Show
at the Edinburgh Festival along with a promising newcomer called Billy Connolly. The large company had included our other regular collaborator Johnny Bett. For almost two years Alex, Johnny and I
worked together at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre for Youth. When McGrath invited us to be founder members of 7:84 Scotland, we always said that he got three for the price of two.
He certainly got three actors who had spent a lot of time writing, singing and performing together in school halls throughout Glasgow and its environs.
We shared a mutual affection and admiration but had developed a shorthand of being able to criticise and comment on each other's work without causing offence. Not always an easy task and not something I've experienced often in the 50 years since.
We knew that 7:84 was a company with a socialist perspective. Nothing special about that. Most alternative theatre companies of the time leaned to the left. The company name came from a statistic in The Economist
stating that '7% of the population owned 84% of the wealth'. A figure that today would seem a triumph of egalitarianism.
We had seen the work of the original 7:84 company on its visits north of the border and were suitably impressed. Especially Trees In The Wind
with John McGrath's wife Elizabeth MacLennan and the legendary Victor Henry. We knew John and Liz's plan was to take a piece of entertainment, subtitled a 'ceilidh play', linking the historical exploitation of Highland resources to the very communities that had experienced and endured them. The contemporary urgency would be carried by a flow of the black, black oil which was about to change the Highlands and indeed all of Scotland's politics and economics.
Beyond that we knew very little. Not even the title of the play or the collaborative process that would produce it. I only learned that title when I woke up in a flat in Edinburgh and was handed a copy of the magazine Scottish International
'You seem to be reading a play at some conference in Edinburgh next month.' I wondered how that elaborate name would fit on a poster. Much more importantly, I wondered how we were going to read a play that hadn't yet been written.
The other performing members of the company would be Alan Ross, 'fiddler extraordinaire', who literally kept the show on the road and the wonderful Dolina MacLennan, a native Gaelic speaker and singer who formed the beating heart of our Highland connection. Despite her surname, she had no relation to the other MacLennans but it meant that when asked to define the politics of the company we always claimed that it was 'Marxist MacLennanist'.
At an early meeting of the company, Liz told us how we could solve the problem of travelling light in a couple of transit vans but still provide an exciting visual backdrop for the play. Her two boys, Finn and Danny, were very young and she produced one of their pop-up books. Our set could be like this book. A big enough pop-up book to be impressive in a Highland hall but compact enough to travel on the roof rack of a transit van.
'John Byrne could do it,' said Alex swiftly, referring to the genius artist who had designed the Welly Boot Show
and would soon go on to great achievement as a writer. So the call went out to a garage somewhere in Paisley where John created a masterpiece of paint, corrugated cardboard and sticky back plastic which survived the rigours of 100 performances and the battering of Highland weather on that roof rack. It's preserved today at the V&A in Dundee.
Our little cast carried a few skills beyond simply acting. Alex had a natural gift for guitar, banjo and any other stringed instrument that came to hand. He also sang really well and was as fascinated as I was with Scottish variety theatre. His couple of seasons with Lex MacLean at the Pavilion would come in handy.
Johnny Bett was already a gifted writer and a true poet. Something he continues to this day.
Alan was a tall charismatic fiddler who was capable of firing up a village hall and yet still able to drive a van through the night.
As for Dolina from Lewis, one note from her could evoke the haunting mood of the great songs that reflected the landscape and history just beyond the windows of the wee halls we would perform in.
Among the more musically challenged, Liz had been working away at a teach yourself accordion course and would eventually bash out a pretty good Gay Gordons and I bluffed my way with basic Boys Brigade piping to lead the Duke of Sutherland's recruiting drive inside and, weather permitting, outside a lot of Highland halls.
An added, and just as important, ingredient to the mix was our collective links to the Highlands and to Highland culture. Dolina's was deep and still active. Liz and Dave had strong family roots in Sutherland in the very heart of one of the areas most affected by the Highland Clearances. Johnny had spent two years growing up on Skye with crofting relatives and I had a Gaelic-speaking granny from Lochaber and a father whose work in the plumbing trade covered the west coast from Campbeltown to Mallaig and beyond.
All these seams would be mined in the four weeks we sat round a table in a disused disco in Edinburgh.
A lot has been conjectured about that period of writing and collaboration. First and foremost, none of us would have been there without John McGrath's vision and charisma. He provided the inspiration and the scaffolding of rock solid writing on which we hung our comments and suggestions, some of which were accepted and some rejected.
It's not an exaggeration to say we were his disciples and we recorded his teachings in the blank A4 notebooks sitting in front of us. When these jotters were filled we joked that John McGrath, as 7% of the company, had created 84% of the script. The other 16% came from the exciting process of collective trial and error.
Some examples spring to mind. When we were deep in the Clearances section, John suggested the need for a sermon from a Presbyterian minister warning his flock of the damnation awaiting those who stood against the landowners. That night, Johnny went home and created the 260 words that he later performed nightly and which remain to this day in the published text.
While working on the section of the tourist potential of the 1970s, John asked me to revive a dodgy cockney geezer called Andy Chuckemup who had appeared in an earlier English 7:84 show. I was delighted, but suggested that apart from the fact that my Glasgow accent was much better than my Essex one, there was a risk that every malevolent influence in our Highland
history had an English accent. Was this not a danger? Scots good, English bad didn't seem a good internationalist stance. Why not a Glasgow wide boy, vaguely aware of his Highland heritage but at several steps removed? Thus was born Andy McChuckemup, who was to prove a character with legs in later 7:84 shows.
And when there were holes to fill in the mise en scène
, comedy routines were shamelessly plundered from the great Scottish variety scrapbook. I'm looking at you Alex Norton.
This process continued while the show was on the road. The Heath Government was in a panic about the political turmoil being thrown up by the arrival of 'Scotland's Oil'. During our tour they suddenly appointed the deeply obscure Lord Polwarth to oversee the chaos. A newspaper dubbed him 'Lord of the Oil'. That made John anxious to get him into the show right away. Alex knew the song The Lord of the Dance
and that very night a parody was conjured up and presented in Rogart village hall with the good Lord dangling on strings like a puppet. That's also still in the published version.
In truth, none of the music in The Cheviot
was original. The Gaelic songs which Dolina sang and taught us were traditional but all the others were parodies of everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to the Alexander Brothers.
The opening of the show was vintage McGrath. A singalong of the very popular These Are My Mountains
was sung with its original words to powerful ironic effect. In every hall our audience belted it out, firmly believing that these were indeed our mountains, until the show proved that they were actually owned by a tiny and unrepresentative landowning class. Our proud Scots sentimentality had blinded us to the reality that large parts of the Highlands were anything but 'ours'.
The fact that the first night of the play was to be, not a fully staged performance, but simply a reading to a highly informed and partisan audience at a conference, turned out to be crucial. We could concentrate completely on the text and its relevance and we would learn from the feedback. How to actually stage it would come later.
A recent BBC Radio Four programme, What Kind of Scotland,
about our production concentrated extensively on that conference. Remarkably, apart from Dolina, there were no interviews with the other three remaining cast members. Instead, there were assorted contributions from various talking heads voicing the usual obsessions about Scottish accents in the media. Politically, it seemed keen to shoehorn a nationalist perspective into the play which may have always been there but certainly wasn't intended in 1973.
The name of the sponsoring magazine in the spring of 1973 was Scottish International
which gives a clue to the leftist thinking of the time. The perspective was of Scotland's place in an international socialist order. Populist nationalism was not on the agenda, though we should have been much more aware of the ways that the play pressed so many seductive cultural buttons.
In a way, we wanted to have our cake and eat it, and that led to our biggest ideological argument on the road. Should we interrupt our tour and accept an invitation to perform at the spring SNP conference or should we give it a distinct body swerve? In early 1973, the SNP were still considered the 'tartan tories' and small enough to have problems filling the Corran Halls in Oban. The glory days were still in the future.
In the end, we did turn up in that hall but with instructions from John to Liz to give extra welly to her lines: 'Nationalism is not enough. The enemy of the Scottish people is Scottish capital, as much as the foreign exploiter!' As John said afterwards: 'Some cheered, some booed and the rest were thinking about it'. But there's no doubt the seeds were sown.
By the time I saw the spirited 2015 revival of the show in Dundee, the play seemed to me to have become a nationalist rallying point.
One very astute commentator on the changing perception of The Cheviot
over 50 years is the journalist and former Labour Government minister Brian Wilson. His credentials for this are impeccable though he also wasn't interviewed for that radio programme. Brian was part of the history of The Cheviot
Back in 1973, there was little interest and certainly no fanfare from the mainstream Scottish media when we set off on that first Highland tour. Except from Wilson and his pioneering chums in Kyleakin with their fledgling West Highland Free Press
. This radical leftist weekly paper had swiftly become essential reading for anyone wishing to know who really pulled the strings in the West Highlands and Islands. It also, wisely, provided the shinty results and all the other local essentials.
The paper carried eye-catching adverts for our show and reported on the progress of the company as we travelled from Scourie down to Dornie. The Free Press
was the social media du jour
and it amplified the word of mouth. Its contribution to the phenomenon of The Cheviot
was vital. Each night saw a bunch of familiar faces from the night before, following the company as the play moved down the west coast like wildfire.
Most of the current commentators on The Cheviot
will, quite naturally, not have seen the original production on the road 50 years ago. What they will have seen was the BBC Play for Today
version which came about in a delightfully showbiz way.
John MacKenzie, later director of The Long Good Friday
, had come up to Glasgow to shoot a controversial Peter MacDougall screenplay about sectarian tensions in the city. He saw The Cheviot
the night before the edgy Glasgow police banned his imminent filming. In true Judy Garland style, MacKenzie told his producer: 'We've got a whole crew and a budget standing by, so let's do The Cheviot
instead!' Believe it or not, this was actually possible. Don't try it these days.
John McGrath was commissioned on the spot to write an expanded version of the play with live action sequences intercut with excerpts from the play filmed in front of a local audience in the scenically perfect Dornie village hall. We filmed this Play for Today
in a gap before setting off on the second tour which included two sell-out weeks each in Glasgow and Edinburgh. That fluke of TV scheduling gave The Cheviot
a longevity denied to most theatre of the time and helped make it a game changer in Scottish theatre and politics.
Over the years, some of us would talk to John McGrath about revisiting the play. We had this priceless film record and it might be possible to incorporate it in a new stage or TV version with a critical eye on what we had got right and what he had got completely wrong. For example, we were just too early to deal with the massive development of fish farming which changed the west coast's economy and ecology much more than oil ever did.
Indeed, why were we so concerned about exploiting oil anyway? Why didn't we see its planet threatening potential? Today, a radical theatre company would be fighting to keep the oil under the North Sea. What about ownership and control of the new renewables? What about historic repercussions? Although in 1973 we touched on the chain reaction effect of the Highland clearances on indigenous people in Canada and Australia, would we really face up to the less benign influence of the Scottish diaspora that was coming to light? A new title might even be needed.
John was keen enough, but increasing illness weakened his energies and nothing came of the plans. He died, too young, in 2002.
Our last ever performance of The Cheviot
was not in the Highlands but in Sligo town hall at the end of an eccentric tour of Ireland. We had started with a barnstorming week at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin then, as in Scotland, we headed west and north. It was the first of many influential visits by 7:84 Scotland to Ireland.
As we loaded the pop-up book for the last time, I think we all fully expected to give many more performances of the play but 7:84 Scotland had taken on a life of its own and there would be several new shows ahead. Johnny directed a new production in 1991 which filled in geographical gaps left over from the first tours but, for the rest of us, that was it.
1973: 'The Year of the Cheviot' was over and much had changed since that meeting in the Windsor Buffet.
Dedicated to the memories of John McGrath, Elizabeth MacLennan, David MacLennan, Alan Ross, Chris Martin, John MacKenzie and the many others who made it happen.
Bill Paterson is an actor and broadcaster