The Scotsman Sessions #10: Tom McGovern

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, the actor Tom McGovern performs a scene from Peter Arnott’s play, The Signalman, about the night of the Tay Bridge Disaster.

On the night of Sunday 28 December 1879, a young signalman called Thomas Barclay, at work in his signal box at Wormit on the south shore of the River Tay, waved through onto the Tay Bridge the 7.13pm train from Burntisland, carrying five carriages of passengers north to Dundee. The bridge was new; it had been opened with great fanfare just 18 months before, pre-dating the great Forth Bridge 50 miles to the south by more than a decade. And after Queen Victoria travelled across it in the summer of 1879, en route to Balmoral, its designer Sir Thomas Bouch was knighted, in a general mood of congratulation.

On the filthy night of 28 December, though - with torrential rain and sleet, and a mighty force 11 storm blowing down the Tay towards the sea - the structure suffered a catastrophic failure as the 7.13 was crossing the central span, collapsing into the river, and plunging the train and all its passengers into the raging waters below. There were no survivors; and the death toll has always been uncertain, with 59 known victims, but perhaps ten or 15 more whose identities were never discovered.

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It’s a disaster that has always haunted the actor Tom McGovern; and in 2012, when they were working together on an Aberdeen Performing Arts stage version of Robin Jenkins’s novel The Cone Gatherers, he began to talk to playwright Peter Arnott about the concept of a play about the Tay Bridge disaster, based on the structure of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, which tells the story of the collapse of a rope bridge in the Peruvian Andes through the lives - up to that crucial moment - of the five people who plunged to their deaths. The result of that conversation, seven years on, was Arnott’s powerful play Tay Bridge, which opened at Dundee Rep last August as the first show of the Rep’s 80th anniversary season, and painted an unforgettable portrait of late 19th century Scotland, through the stories of seven characters travelling on the doomed train.

Tom McGovern in The Signalman

There was one character, though, who could not easily be fitted into the format of Arnott’s vivid and brilliant one-hour play; and that was Thomas Barclay, the signalman, who was severely questioned during the public inquiry into the disaster, and who feared that he might become a scapegoat for the catastrophe. In the end, he was cleared of all blame; but in Arnott’s gripping and beautifully-written monologue, premiered at A Play, A Pie And A Pint last September, and due for a revival this spring at Perth Theatre before coronavirus intervened, McGovern plays a man still haunted - 40 years on, in 1919 - by the memory of the night when the train, and the bridge, were lost. In this unforgettable sequence, Barclay remembers the terrible minutes when, as a young man of 24, he tried to crawl out along the bridge, in the pitch dark and raging storm, to fulfil his duty, and find out what had happened to the train; and the moment when, in awe and horror, he saw that his very worst fears had been realised.