From Robert McLellan’s history plays to the littlest theatre in the world, Alan Riach discusses the legacy of Scottish drama and how it achieves the impossible

ROBERT McLellan (1907-85) was born at Kirkfieldbank, Lanarkshire, and spent many happy boyhood summers on his grandparents’ farm in the Clyde valley, an area abundant in orchards and gardens. Linmill Stories, written initially for radio between 1960-65, in fluent, unstressed Scots, are flavoured with the scents and tastes of the outdoors from the early decades of the 20th century, evocatively describing the characters and terrains of the fruit farms around Lanark.

You can feel the sinew and pith of the characters, see the sunlight on the hills and river, touch the fruit, leaves and bark of the trees and bushes. These are stories based on a young boy’s perception of a benevolent world. Brutality is present but so is the dream of fairness and justice.

In 1938, McLellan moved to Arran, where his poems “Sweet Largie Bay” and “Arran Burn” are set. His comprehensive study of the island’s history, lore and geology, The Isle of Arran, was published in 1970. And as well as these achievements, McLellan was a ground-breaking playwright.

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Jamie the Saxt (1937) is a major work in Scottish play literature, presenting the character of the Scots king up to the moment when he is about to embark for England and assume the crown of the United Kingdom on the death of the Tudor queen Elizabeth.

James ends the play looking forward to his new position and thinking of the moles in the earth, that will soon be approaching Elizabeth’s buried corpse. The Lord Chancellor, Maitland, reminds him: “But the auld bitch isna deid yet.” And the king responds: “Jock, here’s to the day. May the mowdies sune tickle her taes!”

While the play shows James’s personal strengths and ambitions, fears and over-riding self-interest, the deeper, stronger, implicit questions are about the relation between personal ability and statehood. Its essential subject is not the king, but Scotland, and the personal ambition, pride and power as the king assumes political centrality, and the effects such things have upon a whole nation’s people and their future. Its pertinence not only in England but also in Scotland is immediately clear.

The Flouers o’ Edinburgh (1948) is a comedy centred on the conflict between the Scots and English languages in the 18th century, a comprehensive exposition of politics enacted in forms of speech. Premiered by Unity after James Bridie had rejected production at the Citizens Theatre, it’s an extraordinary play where drama and theatricality rises as much from language as from its characters and actions.

Anyone who doubts its contemporary relevance might consider the prejudice against Irish Gaelic in Northern Ireland and its dire political consequences, and the prejudice against Scottish Gaelic and Scots in Scotland. Linguistic imperialism is at the dark heart of all this and has been the preference of fools and monsters throughout history. It still is. McLellan’s play is a comedy, but its concerns are deadly serious.

The National: Robert McLellan wrote nine full-length and four one-act playsRobert McLellan wrote nine full-length and four one-act plays

In his book, History as Theatrical Metaphor (2016), Ian Brown argues that there are two distinct arcs in McLellan’s work, the earlier one patriarchal, not to say sexist, focused on a nostalgic vision of the Borders and its conflicts, the later more profound, concerned with matters of cultural identity and freedom of spirit. The first arc follows the sentimental strain in the work of the Scottish National Players; the second develops the legacy of Unity Theatre.

McLellan wrote nine full-length and four one-act plays. All of them employ incisive humour as they make serious points about language, nationality, politics and social justice.

THAT legacy drew from such Unity productions as George Munro’s Gold in His Boots (1947) and Benedick Scott’s The Lambs of God (1948) and was followed by Unity actor Roddy McMillan’s All in Good Faith (1954) and The Bevellers (1973).

All point forward to later plays which draw on working-class life in contexts of international, mass media culture, most famously in The Slab Boys (1978) and the television dramas Tutti Frutti (1987) and Your Cheatin’ Heart (1990) by John Byrne (b.1940).

Byrne’s small-scale play based on the lives of the artists known as “The Two Roberts”, Colquhoun and MacBryde (1992) similarly crosses genres usually kept apart, focusing on the lives of two Scottish painters in London in the 1940s. Many plays in this constellation by authors such as Donald Campbell, RS Silver, Robert Kemp, Stewart Conn, Hector MacMillan, Bill Bryden, through to Liz Lochhead and James Kelman, address flashpoints of historical significance using various forms of confident, powerful and eloquent Scots.

Problematic as 18th-century plays such as The Gentle Shepherd and Douglas may seem to a modern audience, as we discussed earlier in this series, reading them in their own history and through their own codes allows us to understand their subtle complexities. Many of the plays we’re considering here look back to engage historical locations.

The representation of historical periods in drama adds an explicit layer of distancing for any audience, insisting upon attention to the artifice not only of the production, the playhouse, and the conventions of theatre, but to the language the characters speak. And this applies not only across history and territory but also across class.

At some distance from the working-class drama of Unity and Theatre Workshop, there was the growth of repertory theatres: the Byre Theatre in St Andrews opened in 1933, becoming professional during the Second World War.

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Repertory theatre in Perth began in 1935 and in Dundee in 1940. The Citizens opened in Glasgow in 1943 and the Gateway in Edinburgh in 1953, turning into the Royal Lyceum in 1965. Pitlochry was founded in 1951. In 1963 the tiny 60-seat Traverse Theatre opened in James Court off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Its opening decade presented mainly standard repertory fare alongside some experimental drama, but from the mid-1970s it focused on new writing, earning it the title “Scotland’s National New Writing Theatre”. It moved in 1969 to a larger 100-seat theatre in the Grassmarket and in 1992 to a new, two-auditoria venue near the Lyceum.

The smallest theatre in Scotland, perhaps the smallest in the world, smaller than the original Traverse, was established on the Isle of Mull by Barrie and Marianne Hesketh in 1963 –Mull Little Theatre, built in a converted byre. In 2008, it moved to a larger site at Druimfin, near the island’s main town of Tobermory. In its great decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Mull Little Theatre was a signal attraction on the island, with productions of plays by Chekhov, Cocteau, Shakespeare, Strindberg, Shaw and Wilde, as well as new work by Scottish writers such as Iain Crichton Smith, Lorn Macintyre and the Heskeths themselves.

I have a particular memory of the Heskeths’ Mull Little Theatre Cookery Book. This was produced to supplement their theatre work, but it has its own sense of dramatic flourish. The unlikeliness of the success of so many of the “achieve-the-impossible” ventures we’ve been describing above might be summed up in their recipe for a lettuce sandwich. It was very short: “There’s only one way,” it read. “Use a whole lettuce.”