Brian Wilson: Play for today full of burning issues

A promotional image for 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil', which will be reprised

A promotional image for 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil', which will be reprised

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A landmark 70s production is returning and it could provide fertile ground for up-to-date satire, writes Brian Wilson

The admirable Dundee Rep has announced its intention to revive a landmark Scottish theatre production from the 1970s, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. At first, this seemed welcome but then I began to wonder: “What does revive mean?” A great strength of The Cheviot was its topicality and how it linked present with past. These were the early days of the West Highland Free Press and many of the stories, picked up and satirised, came from our fledgling columns. It was a marvellous coincidence of timing and common purpose.

I have great memories of The Cheviot and its magnificent cast while cherishing lifelong friendships our association produced. I can picture yet the Gaelic bard, Murdo MacFarlane, clasping John McGrath by the hand and saying softly: “If I die tomorrow, I will die a happier man for having seen the story of our people told in this way”. The Cheviot produced that kind of emotion because it entered territory so seldom impinged upon by any similar act of creativity.

It was about the land, the language, and the cruel history which pushed a people and culture to the very precipice of existence, not in some distant land but here on the doorstep of uncaring Scotland. That is where they still hang. So this takes me back to the question. What does “revive” mean? That was 1973 and this is now. Warning against a west coast oil industry which never quite happened could seem outdated. Satirising Lord Polwarth might lead to puzzled expressions rather than uproarious laughter. Lampooning long-dead lairds seems pointless when there are living ones available.

And government. Ah, government? There is a tricky subject. Much has changed while more has stayed the same. One of the great numbers was called “The Monarchs of the Glen” (doff of cap to Compton Mackenzie). Landlord power did not end at owning huge tracts of the Highlands. Local government in much of rural Scotland was also run by the lairds, in their own considerable interests and as if money for lesser causes – road, schools – came from their personal sporrans.

Remarkably, within two years of The Cheviot, that axis was shattered from a most improbable source. Tory reform of Scottish local government virtually wiped out the landlords’ place in it overnight. My own native county of Argyll became part of Strathclyde, to its huge benefit. The Western Isles, where I live now, had autonomous local government for the first time and great leaders emerged. Anyone surveying the distribution of power within Scotland in 2015 would find a landscape that has changed several times in the interim. How do you satirise aggressive centralisation of power in Edinburgh and the ruthless abolition of local checks and balances?

The original 7.84 would have risen to the challenge and so should Dundee Rep. There are new Monarchs of the Glen. There should also be plenty fresh material available about the conduct of landowners and Andy Wightman is just the man to supply it. A halcyon decade which plateaued around 2005 achieved the low-hanging fruit of land reform – abolition of the feudal system, a wave of community buy-outs, mainly in crofting areas, and a formalisation of freedom to roam. Otherwise, the ownership of Scotland – which obviously still stems from exactly the same foul historical sources as was highlighted by the original Cheviot – remains much the same and, on current form, ever more shall be so.

Let that updated truth be told without shirking from the reluctance of government to confront it. What fun John Bett would have had as the mysterious man in Brussels who (allegedly) says that nothing can be done. The Cheviot was at its poignant, angry best when portraying the dark forces which drove people from their homes to make way for sheep and deer. How pleasing if, 40 years on, there was some great programme of restoration to report. Instead, this man-made desolation is now being enshrined in law through designation of massive swathes of Scotland as “wilderness areas”. So that’s all right then? Or is it ripe for biting satire?

I hope someone from Dundee Rep watched the superb BBC2 documentary on the slave trade and how Scotland had proportionately more slave owners than any other part of the UK. Here’s a cue for a little pre-revival research. Which of our great landowners, pillars of present day Scottish society, owe their wealth, status and lands to the trade in slaves and the mind-boggling compensation when it ended? Could the Proceeds of Crime Act be made retrospective? And what of the Gaelic language which featured so strongly in The Cheviot thanks to the indomitable presence of Dolina MacLennan?

The seventies was a period of great activism on the language’s behalf which, over the next quarter-century, produced tangible gains, particularly in education and broadcasting. Where is that activism today? Instead, we have a dysfunctional quango, on a short leash from Edinburgh, with the principal function of killing off every other organisation that might have had a bit of life to it.

Questioning what “official status” has actually meant for Gaelic has distinct satirical possibilities. So I think there is a strong case for revising a new Cheviot rather than reviving an old one though I suspect that might create its own little difficulties. Satirising long-dead Tories is one thing. But deploying humour and seeking to emulate theatrical brilliance in order to challenge the vested interests, weasel words and dead hands that prevail in today’s Scotland would certainly be hazardous territory.

Yet consider this. The 7.84 Theatre Company was able to tour the Highlands and Islands with its incendiary messages due largely to the artistic integrity and political independence of the funders who supported it. The West Highland Free Press survived on the flimsiest of commercial cases, because a free-wheeling quango – the old HIDB under a Tory government – risked political wrath by investing in it. Is it likely, or even conceivable, that either of these courageous decisions would be taken in Scotland today by quangos which are run as docile extensions of central government?

Do we have greater or lesser liberal diversity within which a thousand Scottish flowers might bloom? Discuss – or at least think about it.

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