HAILED as one of the very greatest of all Scottish books, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is the basis of an innovative play that comes to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) tomorrow.

Rather than a simple version of the book, it appears to be an adaptation of an adaptation – an ambitious production about a previous play about the novel.

That may sound confusing, but then Confessions of Justified Sinner is hardly a straightforward book. Written by James Hogg and published anonymously in 1824, it has been variously interpreted as a Gothic novel, a set of narrative games, a satire of extremist theology and, by extension, of all forms of totalitarian thought, a psychological case-study and an analysis of the Scottish national psyche.

The play being staged at the Queen’s Hall this week is not just about the book but also about a radical Scottish director’s apparent attempts to stage a production of the cult novel in 1987. “I think it’s a love letter actually,” said Stewart Laing, director of Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. “It’s a love letter to the theatre about what great theatre is; the highs and lows of it. For me, that’s what it is. It’s theatre that’s about what it is like to make theatre.”


THE story that is the basis of the current play goes back to the late 1980s in the run-up to Glasgow’s tenure as European City of Culture.

It tells how in 1987 and 1989, Bright created a series of radical performances based on Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Mapping the original locations from the classic novel, a series of individual episodes were staged in urban sites and landscapes across Scotland. This visionary project became a cult hit, expanding its budgets and audiences as it progressed before eventually imploding publicly in its ambitious final instalment.

First staged in 2013 by the Untitled Projects company, Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner was listed as one of The Guardian’s top ten Best Theatre Productions of 2013.

However, the current show is an EIF production, a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, Summerhall and Tramway, as Untitled Projects is currently “dormant” due to its application for funding to Creative Scotland being rejected last year.

It was told to reapply on a project-by-project basis but the company could not continue on such an uncertain foundation.

“We still have a bank account, which doesn’t have any money in it, and we still have a board of directors, but apart from that the company is dormant at the moment,” said Laing, who remains as director of Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

He goes on to add that his play is “quite complicated”.

“I mean, really it’s us adapting James Hogg’s book, but in the process we’re inventing this other layer of reality.

“We’d been talking for a long time about making a piece of theatre that was about archives, that was about fragments that remained and memories of a piece of theatre that has happened in the past.

“And also we were interested in doing an adaptation of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, so it was like the two ideas collided; they came together and that’s what made the show happen.”

Even though United Projects is inactive at the moment, Laing is delighted to be part of the festival and praises new director Fergus Linehan for commissioning productions of existing Scottish work, as well as the new Scottish work it has previously focused on.

“Traditionally Scottish theatre companies have been invited to the Edinburgh Festival to make new work; there’s been this sort of unwritten rule that if you’re a Scottish theatre company you need to do something that’s never been done before. For me what’s really interesting is that Fergus Linehan has changed the policy on that,” said Laing.

The 2015 production is very similar to the original 2013 version.

“It’s pretty much the same show but we tweak it depending on where it’s playing,” said Laing. “It’s very Scottish. It refers to a lot of things that I think you would expect a Scottish audience to know that maybe you wouldn’t expect a Swedish audience to know.”


THE orignal novel has been hailed as a classic although it sold poorly when it was published by Hogg, otherwise known as The Ettrick Shepherd.

It is now recognised as a major text in European Romanticism and was described by renowned Scottish writer Iain Crichton Smith as “a towering Scottish novel, one of the very greatest of all Scottish books”.

Critic Walter Allen called it “the most convincing representation of the power of evil in our literature”.

A deeply critical portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination, the book is written mostly in English, with some Scots in the dialogue. The events in the novel are narrated twice, first by the “editor” then by the “sinner”.

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have been inspired by the book to write The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin has created a screen play for a film but is “still on the hunt for the right director”.

Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner is at the Queen’s Hall from August 19-22. www.eif.co.uk