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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: March 2008

9 - Towards national identities: theatre in Scotland

from Part II - Scottish and Welsh Theatres, 1895–2002


Country: Scotland. Whit like is it?

It’s a peatbog, it’s a daurk forest.

It’s a cauldron o’lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.

It you’re gey lucky it’s a bricht bere meadow or a park o’kye

Or mibbe …it’s a field o’stanes.

It’s a tenement or a merchant’s ha’.

It’s a hure hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy’s Merkit.

It’s a fistfu’ o’ fish or a pickle o’ oatmeal.

It’s a queen’s banquet o’ roast meats and junketts.

It depends. It depends …Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is. Here’s mine.

National flower: the thistle.

National pastime: nostalgia.

National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow.

National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!

Liz Lochhead’s celebrated prologue to Mary, Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off (1989) provides an apposite epigraph to a history of twentieth-century Scottish theatre. The choric commentator, La Corbie, the crow, with whip in hand is a personification of the topic: ‘an interesting, ragged, ambiguous creature in her cold spotlight’. Her speech contains a series of oppositions, topographical (‘peatbog’ or ‘coal mine’), socio-economic (‘tenement’ or ‘merchant’s ha’’) and moral (‘hure hoose’ or ‘humble cot’). This may be seen as reflecting a pattern of binaries that has existed in Scottish theatre itself, and an analysis of its achievements and failures in representing a fluid set of national identities.

This chapter will trace the development of indigenous theatre in Scotland in the twentieth century, without ignoring the foreign influences that shaped it. The history may be divided into two main parts, the watershed being around 1950. Indigenous playwriting and production in the first part is largely amateur. In the second part an embryonic profession burgeoned into a major cultural industry, as a result of the introduction of state funding after World War Two, the creation of a professional training school for actors in 1950, and the promotion of Scottish dramatists, initially through radio, in the 1960s and 1970s.