An outstanding success on the 18th-century stage, Allan Ramsay’s pastoral drama The Gentle Shepherd has an origin perhaps surprising to modern audiences, used to the cosy familiarity of the nativity play: first performed by the boys of Haddington Grammar in 1729, it marked the end of a decade Ramsay had spent writing drama for the school.
The connection began not long after Ramsay’s rediscovery of Sir David Lyndsay’s 16th-century theatrical masterpiece, A Satire of the Three Estates, and his interest in writing for Haddington Grammar reflects both his friendship with the schoolmaster, John Leslie, and the particular status of school plays at the time.
Unlike the professional stage, attacked by Protestants as a source of “Hell-bred Play-House Comedians, who debauch all the Faculties of the Souls of our rising Generation”, drama in schools and universities was actively encouraged by the Kirk.
Theatrical performance had a long-established role in an education that aimed to produce good public speakers, with the rhetorical skills necessary for careers in law, the church, and the other professions.
In the Glasgow Grammar School’s 1643 education plan, we find the recommendation that “when the scholars have committed to memory dialogues, speeches, and particularly comedies, they are to assume the characters of the speakers, rehearsing in an imitative fashion in order to acquire the arts of good pronunciation and acting”.
The role of school drama also reflects the importance speech-training took on soon after the Union, with professional actors serving the fashion for “Improvement” by offering training in English pronunciation for Scots who wanted to shed their Scotticisms in order to take better advantage of the possibilities of a British state centred on London.
The boys at Haddington Grammar performed in public once a year.
Yet, if school drama typically helped to mould Scots to Anglocentric standards, and distinguished itself from the immorality of the professional stage, Ramsay’s most famous play adopted a rather different approach.
The version played in 1729 was most probably the ballad-opera adaptation Ramsay developed after seeing an Edinburgh performance of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.
Taking inspiration from this recent success on the professional stage, The Gentle Shepherd is also distinguished by its focus on the rustic lives and loves, and by its language: it was written and performed in a Scots rich enough, and challenging enough, to inspire the publication of translations for the benefit of its English audiences as the play grew in popularity.
In 1729, the boys performed it alongside Julius Caesar: acting gave them experience of public speaking both in the natural rhythms of their native tongue, and in standard English.
The hero of Ramsay’s play displays the same ability to switch between registers.
Patie, a shepherd revealed to be the son of a knight, Sir William Worthy, “delites in books”, reading Latin, Greek, and writers from Shakespeare and Johnson to Drummond of Hawthornden; he speaks good Scots with his fellow shepherds, yet smoothly switches into English in his father’s more refined company.
In making a place within education for the boys of Haddington Grammar school to speak in their mother tongue, Ramsay anticipates the place of Scots in our contemporary Curriculum for Excellence, where Scots is recognised as a “rich resource for children and young people to learn about Scotland’s culture, identity and language”.
Against the cultural pressures of Union with England, Ramsay’s drama offers a way for the boys of Haddington to value their own voices and varieties of speech.
If performance gave the boys the confidence to pursue careers in public service, it is in no small measure due to the basis The Gentle Shepherd offers for self-respect, and for an understanding of Scotland’s place in the wider world. The lessons of Ramsay’s Scots drama offer important support for the role of learning in Scots in our schools today.
• Dr Elizabeth Elliott is a lecturer in the School of Language and Literature at the University of Aberdeen. She is presenting a paper on “Allan Ramsay and drama ‘for the use of schools’” at a symposium on Scottish Children’s Literature: Forgotten Histories, New Perspectives and JM Barrie, at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries, on June 26-27, which is hosted by The Solway Centre for Environment & Culture, the University of Edinburgh and the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust. http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/interdisciplinary/research/solwaycentre/events/headline_393919_en.html