Keith MacKenzie was at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig at the end of last month to see ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’, performed by the National Theatre of Scotland in association with Dundee Rep and Live Theatre, Newcastle.
It might be close to two generations since ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil’ was first performed in Highland halls, but its appeal remains unmatched in the region from where the production draws so much of its inspiration.
The 7:84 theatre company’s 1973 tour made such an impression that many who’ve grown up in the years since will feel they know the play, its themes and message – even if they hadn’t actually seen it performed live.
So it was no surprise that there wasn’t a seat to be had at rare recent performances in Dornie, Sleat, Ullapool and Portree.
Those there (tickets were sold out weeks in advance) were treated, over two-and-a-half hours, to a rip-roaring evening of songs, dancing, laughs, history and political polemic.
Starting in the aftermath of Culloden, the play carries the audience through the major events that have shaped the Highlands and Scotland over the past quarter-millennium and right up to the present day. These range from the horrors of the clearances to emigration, empire and Victorian sporting estates continuing through the 20th-century wars, the North Sea oil boom and up to today’s pressing issues of climate change, mass tourism and the speculative holiday housing market.
Throughout, the avowedly socialist central assertion is that ‘capitalist improvement’ has exploited resources, damaged the environment and left no shortage of human misery on the way – a serious message, but one that if delivered in serious terms might risk sending all but the most committed of travellers to sleep.
Instead, ‘The Cheviot’ makes its point by having the audience up to do a Canadian Barn Dance, or by singing along to ‘These Are My Mountains’.
When the laughs die down, you’re hit with powerful real-life testimonies from the Napier Commission detailing the land struggles of the late 19th century – and the brutality that fight provoked, not least on Highland women whose contribution to the cause comes in for special recognition.
In a graphic and haunting depiction, the cleared from Strath Naver are shown being burned from their homes. But later the play moves seamlessly from the frightening to the farcical as the cast of seven – Billy Mack, Jo Freer, Christina Gordon, Alasdair Macrae, Calum MacDonald, Reuben Joseph and Stephen Bangs – showcase all their craft in comedy, music and impersonation across various roles.
A tremendous skit featuring a Glaswegian spiv hotel owner, and the two different American caricatures – one a schmaltzy 19th-century travel writer; the other a brash Texan Oil baron – are a memorable illustration of the cutting comedy for which the play was revered.
If the new production had any flaws, they came in the final 20 minutes when the focus turned to the past 45 years.
North Sea Oil was a wasted opportunity for Scotland, went the narrative – and few would question that the industry isn’t what it once was. But in a region where offshore wages have built many a five-bedroomed croft house, could anyone in the Hebrides say they truly recognise the portrayal of the down-trodden oilman?
Regardless, the play suggests that to avoid a climate catastrophe the oil now needs to stay in the ground and Scotland should find new ways of harnessing its energy.
Power in the glens, and power to the people.
Article by Keith MacKenzie
Photos by Tommy Ga Ken Wan