‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ Still Matters

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, September 27th 2015

One year after the referendum has seen a golden summer and autumn of Scottish theatre. Adaptions of Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ at the Citizens’ Theatre, and Alan Warner’s ‘The Sopranos’ at the Traverse, along with John McGrath’s ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ at Dundee Rep.

These are all iconic, evocative plays that tell much about the Scotland in which the original texts were written, the times in which they are set, as well as the present day.  ‘Lanark’ addresses the scale of economic, social and psychological change in post-war Glasgow and the West of Scotland; ‘The Sopranos’ (adapted as ‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’) deals with youthful rebellion and expression, but it is ‘The Cheviot’ which attempts the most over-arching account of Scotland through the centuries to modern times.

Written by John McGrath, first premiered by his theatre company 7:84 in Aberdeen in 1973 and then shown as a BBC ‘Play for Today’ in 1974, it has now returned for the first time in over twenty years, adapted by Joe Douglas and Dundee Rep Ensemble.

It has attracted rave notices and sell-out houses who have identified with its raucous, rebellious spirit, sense of defiance and resistance in the face of power, and its fusion of the Highland ceilidh with traditional musical theatre.

‘The Cheviot’ takes us from the brutal horrors of the 18th century Highland Clearances where people are forcibly removed from the land to make way for sheep, through Crofter rebellions and protests, to recent times, with the discovery of North Sea Oil and the beginning of the oil boom in the 1970s.

This was path-breaking theatre in the 1970s, recovering lost histories and voices, ignored for too long in theatre and culture. It was a watershed, and part of a bigger set of seismic changes, of a Scottish radical tradition confronting society and even itself with areas long forgotten or neglected.

Such stories are by their nature less original forty years later. The adaption sticks closely to the original, with one reference to ‘Still Yes’ and the referendum in the first act, followed by short mentions of Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, the McCrone ‘report’ on the impact of oil on Scottish independence, David Cameron and his father in law Lord Astor’s ownership of Tarbert estate on Jura.

The underlying message of the play then and now is about power – who has it and who doesn’t and the consequences which flow from this. McGrath’s aim was to tell the story of unrestrained capitalism and the uses and abuses of domestic and foreign capital from the Clearances to the oil years.

This was a class-based, socialist, internationalist take, calling in the 1970s for men and women to unite against multinationals and oligarchs. In those days this fed into a Scottish political and theatrical scene which reflected the debate about social change between class and left-wing politics on the one side, and a nationalist cross-class ideology on the other.

Nowadays a large part of Scotland sees no conflict between class and left-wing politics, and there is a definite feeling that the play has gone from being a radical counterblast to Scottish sentiments to part of the official story of how part of the nation sees itself.

Watching ‘The Cheviot’ forty years on and eight years into SNP Government there are two different ways the play can be interpreted. One is to underline the perennial issues of power and the centrality of land ownership to dislocation and powerlessness. The other is that for part of the audience these issues have been mostly addressed, through the arrival of the SNP in office, independence referendum, and forging of class and left politics.

Thus the lessons of ‘The Cheviot’ are subtle and disconcerting at the same time. That yesterday’s radicals often become today’s mainstream. And that what is seen as dissent and heresy – and giving voice to the voiceless – continually changes.

Scottish and Westminster politicians then and now are still in hock to those with power and wealth. One only needs to think of the entire Scottish political class and Donald Trump and the scandal of the Menie golf course, or Alex Salmond’s SNP, or New Labour, and Cameron’s Conservatives diminishing themselves at the court of Rupert Murdoch.

‘The Cheviot’s’ uncomfortable message, as relevant today as in 1973, is that ownership and control matter, and that while Scots have significantly more say through the Scottish Parliament, in terms of economic power, things have progressed very little. McGrath then called such political evasion a ‘wooly, morally evasive movement’ and ‘a serious distraction from the major issues, a hollow laugh in Westminster and a slow grin on the face of Wall Street’s money men.’

None of Scotland’s mainstream politicians (the Greens excepted) want to go near this deeper point. It is perhaps too much to hope for a play forty years old to reignite such debates, but what it does do is show the need for a similar spirit which fuelled the original play to be present in our theatre and politics today.