It’s not the ‘colonists’ who are the problem. It’s the Scots


By Kenneth Roy
I treasure it still, the letter from the Scottish Arts Council rejecting my request for a small grant to keep alive a professional touring theatre company – ‘the only one at the moment with the courage to seek new audiences in Scotland for new work by Scottish writers’ as the Glasgow Herald generously described it in the autumn of 1972. The letter said, and I’m quoting direct, that ‘as a touring company you are not eligible for the touring grant’. Brilliant.

Silly us, we toured – that’s all we did – and so the touring grant was out of the question. Of course we could have decided not to tour, in which case we would have been eligible for the touring grant. We had enough left for a final production – ‘The Fall of Kelvin Walker’ by a little-known Glasgow writer, Alasdair Gray – before the company folded. Then there were just the debts to settle. That did take a while.

The memory of this unhappy episode from my youth has been stirred by Alasdair Gray’s essay, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, the publication of which was the star turn of the pantomime season until another Glasgow performer fell off a hobby horse and hurt himself. Mr Gray is still riding his.

The essay, which seems to have been partly inspired by the author’s experiences of the theatre in Scotland and those who work in it, draws a distinction between ‘settlers’ – people who make a long-term contribution to Scottish society – and ‘colonists’, who come to make a name for themselves and then shove off to make an even bigger name for themselves elsewhere.

Unlike Alasdair Gray I have always been grateful for the colonists, although I dislike the term. I will mention two from different eras, neither of whom appears in his essay. The Irishman Tyrone Guthrie worked briefly in Scotland as a young director, moulding the semi-professional Scottish National Players into a creative force. Guthrie did not stay long, but it was long enough to provide a decent foundation for the repertory movement which emerged after the second world war.

When I met Guthrie in 1969 in Ireland, I was impressed by his perceptive analysis of the Scottish theatre so long after his own involvement. A colonist, yes, if we must adopt Alasdair Gray’s offensive usage; but a colonist who made a lasting difference.

From a much later era, the 1970s, there was Richard Eyre’s brief tenure as assistant to Clive Perry at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. Eyre, like Guthrie, was too ambitious to live and work in Scotland permanently. But for the short time he was with us, this gifted director enriched our lives. Must he too be written off as a colonist by Mr Gray and his friends in the Glasgow literati? I could name several more admirable examples of this endangered breed, but I’ll stop there and go on to challenge Mr Gray’s remarkably rose-tinted view of the native-born artistic entrepreneurs among us.

He is, it seems, a great fan of James Bridie, the Glasgow physician (real name: Osborne Henry Mavor) who founded the Citizens’ Theatre and praises Bridie’s support of Scottish writers (the implication being that the colonists were not so inclined to support indigenous talent). He names three writers supported by James Bridie at the Citizens’ – Bridie himself (well, that’s certainly true), someone called MacClellan, and Joe Corrie. Although I have a sound working knowledge of Scottish playwrights, I have never heard of a playwright called MacClellan; it is possible that, in the careless spirit of his essay, Mr Gray had in mind Robert McLellan.

The inclusion of Joe Corrie is bizarre. Corrie was not well supported by the Citizens’ Theatre and was so generally neglected that, in order to scrape a living, he was reduced to writing one-act potboilers for the community drama festivals.

Mr Gray disregards a fact inconvenient to his argument. Very few of the playwrights of the left-wing Unity Theatre found a stage at the Citizens’ once Unity had gone, and Bridie actively discouraged the best of them, Ena Lamont Stewart, refusing to put on any of her plays, including her masterpiece, ‘Men Should Weep’.

‘No one’s going to pick you up’, Bridie told her. No-one did until two fairly long-term colonists – Giles Havergal and John McGrath – jointly rediscovered her 35 years later. It was late in the day for Ena, who had lost her memory by the time ‘Men Should Weep’ was named one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century, no thanks to James Bridie.

Mr Gray gives an honourable mention to the Scottish Arts Council. It is true that it did tend to be run by Scots rather than colonists. The two people I met during my unsuccessful negotiations on behalf of the small professional touring company and its associated theatre magazine were both Scots: Ronald Mavor, Bridie’s son, who was responsible for the letter about our non-eligibility for the touring grant and his young assistant, Trevor Royle, who attempted to educate me in the importance of a proper committee to run my affairs (proper being synonymous with a committee nominated by the Scottish Arts Council). There were no hard feelings. Mavor even went on to become a semi-regular contributor to the Scottish Review.

But – I ask myself at the distance of 40 years – could I have done any worse if I had asked a couple of colonists to stump up the cash to save a good idea? I rather doubt it. Indeed my largest benefactor in the absence of public funding was John Counsell of the Windsor Theatre Royal. He was neither colonist nor settler, just a theatre practitioner of resources and experience who fancied backing a young man’s dream.

I have concentrated on the historical defects of Mr Gray’s essay, but there is, of course, a darker agenda: his suffocating vision for the arts in Scotland (and, by extension, for Scotland itself). Is this really the dark little country we can look forward to post-independence, a land from which most creative people will be banished? Reading Mr Gray’s essay is a bleak reminder that, most of the time, it isn’t the incomers who are the problem. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our colonists, but in ourselves.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review