40 years on from The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

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By John Finnie

It’s the 40th anniversary of the 7:84 Theatre Company’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

I was teenager in the Highlands when it first took to the road across the Gaeltachd. I’d spend secondary education refusing to be told what was ‘excellent’ in literature. I’d make up my own mind. Plays for me meant Shakespeare. I didn’t understand the language and cared nothing of some wifie up a landing in Italy or some crazy Danish prince.

Yet, the ‘musical drama’ that was The Cheviot was the subject of conversation amongst my peers. Drink, football, shinty, girls and ‘did you know that 7 per cent of the people own 84 per cent on the land.’

So what got the youth talking about drama? Well, it was the relevance. Landownership was an important issue.

We knew about Keith Schellenberg, the owner of the Island of Eigg who had described his islanders as “drunken, ungrateful, lawless, barmy revolutionaries” or the owner of Raasay, Dr John Green, from Sussex. He visited the island only once ever and frustrated all efforts to improve the islanders’ lot. He became known as “Dr No” –though less polite versions were available.

The play covered ‘the Clearances’, when the lairds drove their kinsfolk off the land to make way for flocks of cheviots. Despite an education system that valued knowledge of the Battle of Hastings ahead of knowledge of genocide and ethnic cleansing on our very doorsteps, everyone knew of the Clearances.

The irreverence with which the play dealt with authority played to, and brought to life, the anarchic underbelly of the Gaels.

The stag of course gets a mention. Perhaps hard to understand by anyone from outwith, but many Highlanders do not accept the concept that anyone can own a wild stag or salmon.

Of course, the laws back the Lairds and were treated with real seriousness by the Sheriffs. ‘Poach a beast’, get caught and you lost your car. So, long before the high profile seizure of assets from the Mr Bigs of the drugs trade, the humble Highland poacher could lose his motor with all the dire consequences that could bring, jail being a serious possibility.

You need land for houses and the dearth of housing in the Highlands was mirrored in the play by the problems faced by those in the north east joining the burgeoning oil industry. There the Laird’s equivalent being the vulgar US oil baron, sharing the same exploitative outlook, whilst the workers and their families struggle to find somewhere to live.

The play’s author John McGrath, born in Birkenhead, writer and director of any of the early episodes of Z-Cars captured the essence of the Highlands and Islands.

He had empathy for exploited communities. He understood the pernicious power of the elites and whether it’s abuse of Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians or the Gaels the same principals apply. Gaelic was used in the play and featured in the memorable musical performances which peppered performances.

So what has happened in those forty intervening years? Many Lairds now come from across continental Europe, Asia and America. Land-access issues have been addressed by the Parliament.

‘Mountain closed’ signs would now be ignored but, as recent events in Wester Ross show, there’s maybe still a way to go yet. Housing remains a critical issue. Mrs Thatcher’s sell off of council houses created huge problems only now slowly being addressed with the first council houses in a generation being built.

Community ownership has been a success in some places, notably the Islands of Egg and Ghia, perhaps less so elsewhere. Major employers have come and gone from Invergordon, Thurso and Lochaber. However, Nigg is once again open, part of a reinvigorated oil sector with decommissioning and renewables providing additional work opportunities.

But all is not well, only today I read of the plight of tenant farmers. Lairds, anticipating a reconfiguration of EU subsidies, are not making available short-term grazing lets, threatening the viability of the tenant farmers.

It’s a recurring theme throughout history the world over, the elites exploiting the ordinary folk. My generation recognised that in The Cheviot and revelled in its raucous portrayals. It was a great phrase to band about ‘Do you that 7 per cent of the people…’

Where are we with that that statistic now? I checked the web and the first thing to come up was this, “Scottish landowners have long been called Lairds (Lords) and Ladies, and now you can enjoy the landowner’s lifestyle too with plots starting at £29.99 for one square foot.”

‘This land is my land. This land is your land’ actually it’s not, not unless you’re one of the 432 people who own half of Scotland.

I thank John McGrath for bringing his humanity to this drama. It invigorated, neigh radicalised a generation, the independence generation.

Courtesy of The Scottish Socialist Voice