This play revitalised Scottish theatre. A Scottish history lesson delivered as 'a good night out' with comedy, music and drama. It still sings off the page today, and is vividly remembered by those who saw it. 'The Cheviot' is one of those rare plays that changed people's lives.
7:84 (Scotland) Theatre Company. First reading at the 'What kind of Scotland?' conference, Edinburgh, 31 March 1973. First performance at Aberdeen Arts Centre, 24 April 1973.
Sellar / Duke / Minister / Whitehall, etc. – John Bett
Writer / Director, etc. – John McGrath
Stage Management / Indian / Crofter, etc. – David MacLennan
Gaelic Singer/ Janet / Mary MacPherson / Gaelic tuition, etc. – Dolina MacLennan
Old Woman / Lady Phosphate / HB Stowe / Accordion, etc. – Elizabeth MacLennan
Stage Managment / Admin / Queen Victoria, etc. – Chris Martin
Singer / Donald Macleod / Selkirk / Polwarth / Roustabout / Guitar / Banjo, etc. – Alex Norton
MC / Loch / Sturdy Highlander / McChuckemup / Texas Jim / Vocals, etc. – Bill Paterson
Fiddle / Indian / Crofter / Bass guitar / Musicman – Allan Ross
'It begins, I suppose, with 1746 – Culloden and all that. The Highlands were in a bit of a mess.'
'The Island of Rhum was cleared of its inhabitants, some 400 souls, to make way for one sheep farmer and 8000 sheep.'
'The Cheviot' drew on recent research into Highland history, on Gaelic song and the ceilidh tradition, and on the Scots’ love of variety and popular entertainment to create something quite new.
John McGrath called it 'a ceilidh play', and it tells the story of the exploitation of the Highlands, from 1746 to the (1973) present. The post-Rebellion suppression of the clans, the Clearances, the shooting estates and the oil boom are all dramatised through a mix of quotation from original documents, reportage, Gaelic language and song, music and broad comedy.
The play also tells the less well-known stories of local resistance. And it's that fight which it hands on to its highland audience.
'So – picture it, if yous will – 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.'
This play has influenced generations of playwrights and directors, in Scotland and beyond. 'The Cheviot' also 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.
The play's influence is hard to attribute to any one thing, as it was an inspired mix of:
And music, whether Gaelic, traditional or 'music hall' was a huge part of the show, and of its success.
Another innovative feature of the show was the 'pop-up book' stage set, designed and painted by John Byrne. This opened to reveal five different backdrops to the action on stage.
John Tiffany, director of 'Black Watch', in a recent panel discussion placed 'The Cheviot' at the forefront of what he sees as a uniquely Scottish style and tradition of ‘total theatre’. And that is one of the reasons why he is excited to be working in Scotland.
'The unusual success of this entertainment lies in the serious concern it allows for the deprivation of human rights suffered by the Highlanders in the past, and perhaps being suffered even now. Thus at the end of the first act, after scenes played as farce at the expense of the bad lairds, the hilarity is interrupted by Dolina MacLennan singing a Gaelic lament unaccompanied. All the pathos of the dreadful situation was in that singing.'
– George Bruce
'I saw the Cheviot on my honeymoon. It was October 1973, we’d got married in my home town, Rutherglen, and decided to take a road-movie holiday, hippies that we were ...
'First stop Kyleakin, Skye. The gig – Kyleaking Village Hall. The Audience – the good people of Skye. The Performers – a bunch of folk who didn't seem ready: five minutes to go and they were still setting costumes, tuning instruments and blethering with each other and the audience.
'Where were the curtains, the hushed reverence, the dinner jackets, the blue rinses?
'... That night in a community hall in Skye proved to me that theatre was far from dead, as I has assumed it to be.
'All the mince in the West End, where the actors couldn’t even be arsed acknowledging the presence of the audience was forgotten. Here was theatre that spoke to you about your life, the important things, the daft things, the things that give you joy and the things you can change. The company were startling in their energy, anarchic versatility and joyous commitment.'
– Davey Anderson in ‘A Good Night Out: in celebration of the life and work of John McGrath’
John McGrath was born in Birkenhead in 1935. It was probably his long partnership and marriage with Elizabeth MacLennan that fired his interest in, and commitment to, Scotland.
McGrath wrote many plays before 'The Cheviot, the stag and the black, black oil', and many after, but 'The Cheviot' remains his best-known work. He was also active and influential in film and television as a screenwriter, director and producer.
His work in all these areas was driven by his socialism – the need to highlight the injustices of capitalism and offer hope for a better future. Such campaigning theatre fell out of fashion, but McGrath also had a great ability to move and entertain. He wanted to offer 'a good night out' to people who did not usually go to the theatre.
In 1973, McGrath founded 7:84 Scotland with Elizabeth MacLennan and her brother David. In the 15 years that followed, this company staged around 15 new John McGrath plays, and McGrath directed numerous others. He left 7:84 Scotland in 1988, largely because of the politics of funding.
McGrath continued writing and working for stage and screen throughout the 1990s and into the new century, until his death in 2002. His last work for stage was 'HyperLynx', a one-woman play looking at complex issues around multinationals and relating their power to the events of 9/11.
© National Library of Scotland 2010