IN April 1973 the Anglo-Irish dramatist John McGrath and his radical theatre company 7:84 Scotland premiered a show that would transform Scottish theatre for decades to come.

Titled The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, the play used satirical comedy, live music, song (in Gaelic and English) and, ultimately, ceilidh to stage a political history of the Scottish Highlands, from the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries to the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the 1960s.

McGrath was a committed socialist. His company, 7:84, took its name from a statistic published in The Economist magazine estimating that 7% of the UK’s population owned a huge 84% of its wealth (a figure which, one suspects, would look almost egalitarian compared with an accurate calculation of the distribution of wealth today).

Unambiguously and proudly leftist, the play was written during a period of increasing industrial unrest and trade union militancy. The National Union of Mineworkers had humbled the Conservative government of Edward Heath just the year before (and would, indeed, bring it down when miners’ strikes forced Heath into the General Election of 1974).

Ironically, in light of the recent brouhaha about Gary Lineker’s tweets in defence of refugees, the BBC’s guidelines on “impartiality” in the early-1970s were broad enough to encompass 7:84’s show. A film of The Cheviot (which can still be viewed on YouTube) was broadcast as part of the corporation’s Play for Today series in 1974.

McGrath’s drama provided an insightful, horrifying and bleakly comic take on the history of the Highlands. Picking up on John Prebble’s important book The Highland Clearances (which had been published a decade before), the play brought to life a vicious, culturally genocidal assault on the people of the Highlands that would see them driven from their land to make way for the hardy and profitable Cheviot sheep.

To take one example, the Isle of Rum was cleared of its 400 inhabitants to make way for one sheep farmer and 8000 sheep.

The Highlanders were forced, often under threat or direct experience of violence, into diaspora. Large numbers of them travelled across the Atlantic to North America.

One remaining Highland man, on being offered the opportunity to “fight for his country” by joining the British Army, told the recruiting officer: “We have no country to fight for.

“You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep now defend you.”

Many of the crimes of the Clearances depicted in the play were well known, in the Highlands and Islands, at least. However, audiences were less familiar with the acts of resistance to those crimes that had been uncovered by historians, and which McGrath was keen to celebrate.

In addition to the heartless and venal Clearances, 7:84’s show explored the subject of Scotland’s eye-wateringly unequal land ownership. This included the profitable industry in which vast swathes of the Highlands were given over to the hunting of local fauna (including, of course, the majestic, titular stag).

George Earl’s famous 1893 painting Going North had depicted the well-heeled hunting parties, complete with their servants and their dogs, who had long boarded trains at London King’s Cross Station bound for the Highlands of Scotland. Now, with plummy accents and satirical songs, McGrath’s production was sending them up something rotten.

Finally, the play brought the politics of the north of Scotland bang up to date with a consideration of the burgeoning oil boom, and where the money was going (which was often the coffers of US oil companies, as well as the UK Treasury). There would be, the drama suggested, with devastating accuracy, no Norway-style sovereign wealth fund for the UK, much less for the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

THE Cheviot broke new ground in Scottish theatre, both politically and artistically. However, more than that, it pioneered an important innovation – Highland and Island touring – that would change the Scottish theatrical landscape considerably.

For McGrath, it made no sense, given the play’s subject matter, to stage the piece only in the densely populated Central Belt where Scotland’s biggest playhouses, such as Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, were to be found.

If Highland and Island communities were too small to sustain theatres, he said, they would, nevertheless, have village halls or similar community spaces in which 7:84 could perform their show.

So it was that McGrath assembled a band of committed travelling players, including such future stars of stage and screen as Bill Paterson, Alex Norton, Dolina MacLennan, John Bett, Elizabeth MacLennan and the late, and dearly missed, David MacLennan. Starting their tour in Aberdeen in April 1973, the company took their production to small communities across the Highlands and Islands.

Often, of course, they found themselves playing in the very communities where appalling atrocities – such as the burning of an elderly Highland woman from her home – took place during the Clearances. The superb singer and actor Dolina MacLennan, a Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Lewis, remembers the impact of the show in these communities.

“Many of these people had never seen a play before,” she tells me. “To see their own history being represented, and to hear Gaelic being sung on stage, was very important to them.”

Indeed, John Bett – who would become one of Scotland’s most celebrated actors of the 20th and 21st centuries – remembers an incident that occurred while he was playing Patrick Sellar, the widely-despised factor of the Duke of Sutherland, and the chief architect of the Highland Clearances. An elderly woman, who had never seen a theatre production before, was so overcome with emotion that she charged towards Bett wielding a walking stick and shouting in Gaelic, “go to hell, you son of a devil!”.

Fortunately, the actor had a walking stick of his own with which to protect himself from the attack.

Bett has fond memories of the genesis of The Cheviot. Even before the tour had begun, he recalls, the play was a roaring success.

7:84 were invited to give a rehearsed reading of the drama at a political and cultural conference hosted at the George Square Theatre in Edinburgh by the now-defunct left-wing magazine Scottish International. The event focused on the political future of Scotland.

The company were less than three weeks into rehearsals. They took to the George Square stage with scripts in their hands.

Nevertheless, Bett remembers, such was the rapturous acclaim for the show that the roof was, metaphorically, lifted off the theatre.

“The place fucking erupted,” the actor recalls.

Indeed, such was the enthusiasm for the drama that Bett recalls being carried shoulder high by audience members, including the famous poet, songwriter and Communist activist Hamish Henderson. The poet was the celebrated author of the much-loved socialist folk songs Freedom Come All Ye and The John MacLean March, and here he was giving his hearty approval to this new work of Scottish political theatre.

On tour, 7:84’s socialist principles were put into action off-stage as well as on. Two vans transported cast and materiel.

There was no technical crew and no caterers. From the setting up of the stages, to the striking down of the sets, to the feeding of the company, everything was done by the cast themselves.

“I would collect money from everyone on payday and buy all the food for the week,” Dolina MacLennan remembers.

“Everyone worked hard,” she says. “We weren’t just actors. We had no techs [technical staff] or anything like that, we had to do everything ourselves.”

FOR many of the Highland and Island communities receiving the play, the performances were social as well as cultural occasions. Bett recollects an occasion on which, as he arrived at a village hall ahead of a performance, a local man invited him into the toilet.

Setting aside any slight alarm at this invitation, Bett followed his host into the convenience. Therein he found some other men who were carefully lining up a series of measures of Scotch. The hall had no bar and no licence, so the locals were finding ways of their own to make a night of 7:84’s visit.

And make a night of it they did. MacLennan and Bett both remember with great fondness the ceilidhs that flowed, almost naturally, from performances of The Cheviot. These carnivals of singing, dancing and, of course, drinking often went on until 3am (no mean feat for a cast who often had a hard day’s driving, setting up and cooking ahead before the next performance).

7:84’s touring to Scotland’s small, rural communities set an important precedent that would be followed by such companies as Communicado, Mull Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). The Cheviot itself would be revived successfully in 1991 (directed by Bett himself for Wildcat theatre company) and, again, in 2016 and 2020 (directed by Joe Douglas for Dundee Rep and, later, the NTS).