CONSIDERING the locations of their performance and the politically volatile conditions in which they were produced has revised our understanding of the theatrical value of Scotland’s earliest plays. Even so, we are sometimes left puzzled by their historical popularity.

The shifting fashions of whatever creates a vogue for certain things at certain times is a perennial question. Someday, I imagine, the British Conservative and Unionist Party will be studied as a phenomenal quirk in the story of humanity, a temporary perversity of gullible fools and malevolent exploiters ruling constituencies of ignorant lemmings and sheep. But perhaps I’m being unfair to lemmings and sheep. There are other far more rewarding studies to be made of things neglected or obscure.

Edwin Morgan, in his essay “Scottish Drama: An Overview” (from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies’ periodical ScotLit 20, 1999 (available online at:, mentions one play, or playlet, that I’d like to bring to your attention: The Hubble-Shue by Christian Carstairs, who died in 1794.

Carstairs was a minor poet and a governess in Fife, and, Morgan says: “Judging by her play the fortunate children she looked after must have had a whale of a time. Indeed, since there are children as well as adults in the cast, it’s possible she wrote this piece in the first instance for a family in a big house, though that’s only a guess.”

Morgan’s reference to this obscure little item puzzled me for years until I was recently able to purchase a copy and read it in its brief entirety for myself. (It can be found online at Project Gutenberg,

It is a miniature work that evidently could be performed domestically, although it might warrant a professional production. We won’t really know until we see one. It’s an astonishment, perfectly capable of being given a performance in various amateur circumstances and almost short enough to be reproduced in its entirety in an article like this.

It’s a fresh breeze of anarchic comedy, linguistically various in tone, unsettling in suggestion, bizarre in essence, and as much fun to read as it must have been to watch – or be part of.

Morgan explains: “The title, Hubble-Shue, is an old Scots word with a variety of meanings from ‘uproar’, ‘commotion’, ‘riot’, to something like ‘a milling crowd gathered together to watch an event’; it can be good or bad.

“I suspect that Ms Carstairs, being a well-educated governess, had probably come across William Dunbar’s poem (at least it’s attributed to him) ‘The manere of the crying of ane playe’ (crying = public proclamation), which begins ‘Harry, harry, hobbillschowe, Se quha is cummyn nowe ...’ There is a play within a play, and frequent confusion in the narrative, with stories hiding behind the stories, so to speak.”

So, “hubble” is like Shakespeare’s witches, “Hubble, bubble, boil and trouble!” and “shue” is “show” or “performance”.

The only way to get a flavour of it is to reproduce it at length, so without further exposition, here’s part of Scene 2, when the characters go into a drawing-room:

Fat Minister: Come, Miss, give us your Italian –.

Miss: Yes, Papa.

Si li si ti o to

Ki li qui si o so

Fa la se scud

Qui a vi a vi a

Que a vi a ve a

Qui a vi a bo. &c.&c.

[Enter Mrs Consul and her Grandchild.]

Mrs Consul: Madam, I beg you ten thousand pardons, it was not in my power to wait upon you at dinner; there is no separating my grandchild and the little black girl.

Child: O, Mamma, I’m frightened.

Mrs Consul: Why are you frightened?

Child: The little girl says a great fish (a crocodile) came out of the water (the Ganges) and devoured her father – and a fine gentleman came running with a sword and stab’d the monster – and her father was all bloody, and she would have been killed; but the fine gentleman took her away, and they were carried by a black man with muslin on their head (turbans) – and the fine gentleman gave her to a great lady – All the fine things could not make her forget her poor father ...

Fat Minister: Hold your tongue, my bonny dear, and you and the black girl shall go to the dancing school.

Child: No, Mamma. [Crys] ... Take me home, Mamma...

MRS Consul: Come my dear – excuse me, Madam – my child is really not well – feel her hand – I am afraid she’s feverish.

Apothecary: Madam, you had better give miss a little Senna and a puke, if it operates six times it will be sufficient.

[...A coach calls to take them all to the playhouse to see the play...the play is delayed for half an hour, the audience is restive – a girl sings a song on stage to fill in:]

When you hear a mournful tale

Laugh and hide your tears.

When you hear a mournful tale

Laugh and hide your tears.

La-a-a-a-laugh, &c.

This is poor entertainment (from one of the boxes.)

An orange from the footmans gallery hits the Irishman such a blow on the nose – He flies upon the stage, drawing his dagger – throws one of the players heels o’er head – wounds Mr Hallion – makes such a hubbub, the gentlemen from the pit are obliged to interfere.

The house is in great confusion – the company crowding to the door with great difficulty get to their coaches – a Nabob’s carriage driving like Jehu – the coachman being drunk overturns one of the hackneys – they shriek frightfully, and the Minister roars like a bull. The old Ensign, chancing to walk on foot, comes up and helps to lug them out.

Morgan says: “All quite mad? – and yet not entirely so – the author mocks the current Scottish craze for importing Italian singers – and she uses the two little girls to make a sympathetic comment on the unhappiness of Indian children snatched from their families to become servants in Britain, even if they’re well looked after as the black girl in the play evidently is...”

Consider what this presents us with in terms of power relations: between men and women, adults and children, churchmen, medical men and the laity, people of different racial or ethnic identities, the wealthy and the poor, cultural elitism, imperialism, colonialism, and conventions of performance culture. What might seem “mad” is in fact a chaos of very edgy questions.

Morgan concludes: “Altogether the playlet with its light touch makes a refreshing contrast to the stiff formalities of Douglas.”

We spent some time with Douglas and before that Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd. I thought it was worthwhile pausing on The Hubble-Shue to demonstrate there is so much more to Scottish theatre or play history than is often suspected. And I can guarantee that given a full investment of energy and good humour, the performance of a text like this would yield singular pleasures and real exhilarations. Try it out in company you trust and see what happens!