The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil


Forty-one years ago today, the play that revitalised Scottish theatre had its first theatrical performance in public at Aberdeen Arts Centre on 24 April 1973.(1) Above is the BBC’s Play for Today version – a fascinating mix of live performance and documentary that ends with moving sequences on the impact of oil in Aberdeen and interviews with Texan oilmen, roustabouts and young folk made homeless by the price of houses.

Having spoken at two public showings of the film in the past two years, it is remarkable how the key theme of the play – control of natural resources – remains as vital and relevant today as it did when the 7:84 theatre company toured Scotland in the 1970s.

An account of the play and its significance can be found at the National Library of Scotland’s website here and this academic article in International Journal of Scottish Theatre provides much more detailed analysis of the play. Here’s what theatre writer and director Davey Anderson said about the play.

“I saw the Cheviot on my honeymoon. It was October 1973, we’d got married in my home town, Rutherglen, and decided to take a road-movie holiday, hippies that we were … 

“First stop Kyleakin, Skye. The gig – Kyleaking Village Hall. The Audience – the good people of Skye. The Performers – a bunch of folk who didn’t seem ready: five minutes to go and they were still setting costumes, tuning instruments and blethering with each other and the audience. 

“Where were the curtains, the hushed reverence, the dinner jackets, the blue rinses? 

“… That night in a community hall in Skye proved to me that theatre was far from dead, as I has assumed it to be. 

“All the mince in the West End, where the actors couldn’t even be arsed acknowledging the presence of the audience was forgotten. Here was theatre that spoke to you about your life, the important things, the daft things, the things that give you joy and the things you can change. The company were startling in their energy, anarchic versatility and joyous commitment.”

Time for a revival?

(1) It was first performed at the What Kind of Scotland Conference in Edinburgh in April 1973. Thanks to Rob Gibson MSP for that clarification – he was at both performances. Another informant tells me of an earlier performance at a conference of the same name but held in Callendar Park College of Education.

Comments (20)

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  1. Zen Broon says:

    Would love to see McGrath’s Border Warfare again, too. I suspect both plays would be deemed far too ‘incendiary’ to stage at the moment…

  2. Zen Broon says:

    In fact, a grainy 3 part version of Border Warfare is also on Youtube.

  3. Iain says:

    Much to the dismay of some of the 7:84 company, and the irritation of Brian Wilson and the West Highland Free Press, audiences usually interpreted the play about exploitation as having a nationalist message, rather than the British socialist one intended (the SNP was breifly but pejoratively represented by a spiv, Alex McChuckemup). There was a significant element of disconnection: the strength of the audiences’ sense of Scottish identity was not anticipated.

    John McGrath, the founder of the company, had a rather pukka accent. At a filling station in the Highlands, the company van’s tank was being filled by the attendant (it was before self-service pumps). The attendant asked what the ‘7:84’ on the side meant. “Seven percent of the population own eighty-four percent of the wealth”, said McGrath. “Well,” replied the attendant, “there’s no need to boast about it.”

    1. Classy story, I love it. What would 7:84 be called these days? Post Occupy prolly 1:99 . . . There were at least two student productions of The Cheviot… in Aberdeen in the 1980s and a sort of spin-off play called THE STAG by Tapsalteerie.

    2. Iain (not the same one as above) says:

      I saw the play in 1973 as a first-year student in Aberdeen and agree with the other Iain’s assessment. We all assumed it was a pro-Scottish, anti-exploitation message. Was it at the old filling station in Drumnadrochit/Lewiston that the incident about the ‘boasting’ happened? I seem to recall hearing about it.

  4. Neil Winton says:

    Don’t know if you’re aware, but “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil” is one of the set texts available to study for the new Scottish Higher starting next year. It’ll be a swine to teach, but I’m looking forward to the challenge!

    1. Kath says:

      Hi Neil,
      I would love to teach this but not sure I have the nerve! Any chance of sharing ideas? Kath

  5. colin young says:

    The 7:84 performed at a primary school in Faifley Clydebank, it was packed and the audience loved it.

    Possibly the first time most had experienced live arts, kudos to the company for taking it to the people..

  6. Morag says:

    Isn’t there a copy with the right aspect ratio? Or can this be fixed by some technological wizardry?

  7. Ninian Fergis says:

    Brian Wilson. Ah, insignificant names from the past!

  8. DaveW says:

    Been trying to get access to W Gordon Smith’s play Jock – performed by Russell Hunter – for ages. My ex- wife, an Aberdonian and an accountant (neither category much given to being over-demonstrative) said of the final scene : if there had been a recruiting table for a Scottish National Army outside the hall she’d have been pushing her way to the front to sign up.

  9. tartanzen says:

    Thanks for posting that… fair enjoyed it. Really shows how much things haven’t changed.

  10. I had the pleasure and privilege of being in a party with John McGrath when he saw the Cheviot performed probably for the last time. It was an excellent production by pupils at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, around a year before he died. In place of the pop-up book there was a video wall behind the stage, and there were scenes shown on the screen that the pupils had filmed in the Highlands, and at the Braidburn Valley Park in Edinburgh (for the Battle of the Braes).

  11. Ken MacColl says:

    Saw the Cheviot in the Corran Halls, Oban where it played to a packed house who were in no doubt about the message that they took from it whatever the company intended.
    I recall that big Ian Cuthbertson, then starring in Sutherland’s Law filming in Oban, was sitting a row behind me and was frequently reduced to helpless laughter as the play progressed.
    I understand that there is hope the historic BBC production will be shown in Oban in early summer.

  12. anyone who saw Union at the Lyceum in Edinburgh will agree that Scottish theatre is in dire need of reviving.

  13. wanvote says:

    Would dearly love to see this play revived and shown in local community halls around Scotland and on STV as well.

  14. John Page says:

    Thank you so much to Andy Wightman for this!

  15. R Dawson Scott says:

    One tiny correction – that quote about seeing the play on his honeymoon is strictly from Dave Anderson, not Davey. I only mention it because there is a Davey Anderson – a very considerable musician and theatre maker in his own right (the music for “Black Watch”, including that eerie arrangement of “The Gallant 42”, was his). He is the son of the original Dave Anderson – though I have no information on whether that honeymoon had any part in his conception…..

  16. Dave Anderson says:

    The quote attributed to “Davey” Anderson was from me, Dave. Davey Anderson wasn’t born then…Best, Dave Anderson

    1. Thanks for the clarification!

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