IN his essay “Home’s Douglas and Macpherson’s Ossian” collected in From Mount Hooly to Princeton: A Scottish-American Medley (2020), Andrew Hook makes a pertinent point about the relationship between Home’s play and Macpherson’s early poems The Hunter and The Highlander.

The critic Fiona Stafford has noted that both are examinations of “the idea of the prince raised in obscurity, proving his worth through deeds rather than merely inheriting his power. In both, the military interest of Scotland being close to defeat but emerging victoriously is mingled with a romantic tale of love and marriage”.

Hook’s point is that while “the parallel here with the story of Douglas is far from exact” nevertheless “the similarities are certainly striking, and all the more so when one recognises that the external threat to Scotland comes in both [Home’s Douglas and Macpherson’s Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books (1761)] from Scandinavia”.

While there may be other sources in Gaelic culture for Macpherson’s “translations” from Ossian, the pre-eminence of Douglas itself may be a major precedent.

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As Hook says, Home wrote six tragedies, and five of them “sunk without trace”. One of these, The Fatal Discovery, was directly based on “Fragment IX” of Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, but its relative failure was perhaps due to the fact the public had already become familiar with Ossian and the Ossianic atmosphere that had above all been a radical novelty when it appeared.

We are looking at the phenomena of fashion, vogue and novelty. To quote Hook once again: “Douglas’s popularity co-incides exactly with the popularity of Ossian. It has to be borne in mind that Ossian was not an instant success everywhere in the 1760s. It took time – almost a whole generation – for the Ossianic vogue to begin its sweep across the whole Western world.”

Ossian was carried on the rising tide of Romanticism, which it had helped to create. This extended well into the 19th century. “The settings, the landscapes, the sentiments, the Scottish historical background, the emphasis on martial heroism and valour, and on the inevitability of human loss and suffering, all blend easily into the seductive world of Ossian.” This was the reason for its success.

All of this helps us to reconsider the play in its own history and why it has fallen out of the repertoire and is so little known and even less understood in the 21st century, outside of literary and theatrical history. And yet that’s no reason to say that it should not be given a revival, just for the fun of seeing and hearing it performed live today. Its very obscurity seems to invite such a theatrical production. After all, it provided one of the funniest, most arcane references in Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926).

The National: Mrs SiddonsMrs Siddons

In the court scene that opens Act II of the play, Lord and Lady Randolph enter from one side, and servants and “a Stranger” at the other. Lord Randolph asks who this stranger is, and is answered:

A low born man, of parentage obscure,

Who nought can boast but his desire to be

A soldier, and to gain a name in arms.

Lord Randolph asks him to “declare his birth” and the stranger replies:

My name in Norval: on the Grampian hills

My father feeds his flocks; a frugal swain,

Whose constant cares were to increase his store,

And keep his only son, myself, at home.

For I had heard of battles, and I long’d

To follow to the field some warlike Lord:

And heaven soon granted what my Sire deny’d.

Almost 200 years later, lines 2188-2195 of MacDiarmid’s poem shift references with slippery quickness from TS Eliot to John Home, and from macabre and sinister darkness to morbid, gloomy hilarity:

The circles of our hungry thought

Swing savagely from pole to pole.

Death and the Raven drift above

The graves of Sweeney’s body and soul.

My name is Norval. On the Grampian hills

It is forgotten, and deserves to be.

So are the Grampian Hills and all the people

Who ever heard of either them or me.

THE instantaneous slip from the melodramatic, grandiose, “It is forgotten …” to the bathos of modern judgement, “… and deserves to be” is a brilliant turn.

The all-encompassing sweep of MacDiarmid’s sheer scorn and repudiation of not only the character Norval and the play Douglas, but also the Grampian hills and everyone who ever had anything to do with them, or by extension, any Scottish hills, or anything Scottish at all, is self-consciously magnificently absurd.

MacDiarmid was a master of this kind of polemic. But the effect of this reference and judgement is in fact the opposite of dismissal. The comedy sharpens the absurdity and the curiosity remains: who was Norval, after all? And where are the Grampian hills and why mention them here? If Home’s play warranted such reference in 1926, perhaps it is worth resurrecting it in the 21st century, prompted by the intrinsic optimism of curiosity. Why not?

Edwin Morgan gives one answer in his essay “Scottish Drama: An Overview” (from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies’ periodical ScotLit 20, 1999 (available online at: Morgan says the play is:

“A gloomy, almost static historical tragedy, with no comic relief of any kind, with long flashbacks which explain the plot but don’t advance it, and even with a misleading title since the central character is not Douglas but his endlessly grieving mother who at last discovers her long-lost son just before he is killed and then kills herself: what was the attraction?”

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Experimentation in production can only go so far. Morgan cautions us that it is “written on a Scottish theme but not in Scots, and indeed in a monotonously heavy and unidiomatic, tonally inert English blank verse”.

And further: “Attempts to revive it may in fact be doomed – unless we could find some Mrs Siddons to play Lady Randolph, because it is a fact that she mesmerised her audiences with her portrayal of the part – all stops out, vast gestures, tears at command, ham acting if you like to call it that – so perhaps that is what it needs, turn it almost into an opera, add strong atmospheric music to cover up the fustian of the language.

“When it was played at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986 it was panned by even the most sympathetic critics, partly because this was a rather genteel production, in the Signet Library, by a company that obviously felt too timorous to risk anything more robust in case that would have had the audience rolling in laughter.”

Perhaps some things have truly earned their own oblivion.

And yet, one wonders …