Review: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

Just over 40 years after it was originally preformed, the Dundee Rep ensemble has revived the play The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (running until 26 September). The original was written and performed by the 7-84 theatre company (named after the statistic 7% owned 84% of the wealth). Last year’s independence referendum in Scotland revived many of the politics found in the play so it is only fitting that it should get shown again in Dundee the “yes city”.   Dominic Jones reviews this play for rs21.

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For these are my mountains and this is my glen
The braes of my childhood will know me again
No land’s ever claimed me tho’ far I did roam
For these are my mountains and I’m going home

The play opens with a rendition of ‘These are my mountains’ involving both cast and audience. This is a fitting song since the central theme of the play is who owns the mountains and who owns the glens.   Audience participation, or at least breaking the boundaries between performers and audience members, is another part of the play that has been kept from the original 1970s version.

In many ways the play is a history lesson told through the mediums of music, dance, and drama. It starts in 1746 with Culloden, recalling the persecution of the Highland culture in both language and dress in the aftermath of the famous battle.   The real struggle for the Highlands began, however, with the arrival of the Cheviot (a hardy bread of sheep) and large scale clearances by land owners to replace tenant farmers with sheep.

The bloody encounters and struggles that resulted are recounted. Women were the ones who fought back the most, attacking those coming to evict them and burning the eviction notices. The response was brutal. The the play accounts of injuries women suffered are read out and house burnings are re-enacted. As is often the case, the focus is on those who fought back, however the role of the church in ensuring that this didn’t happen in many places is also explored.

More successful struggles of communities on Skye are highlighted. Here there was a successful rent strike in the 1880s including the battle of the Braes between the crofters and 50 Glasgow policemen.

In addition to recounting the events, the cause of the clearances is also explored. The need to obey the law of capitalism, to invest money to make more money, is blamed. Parallels are also draw between with British colonialism all over the world and the experience in the Highlands.

Throughout the play the Gaelic language is used both in (un-translated) dialog and also in songs. This is being done as a political point, although, as is pointed out in the second half, attempts at suppressing the Gaelic were very successful. Dundee is not a place you will hear the language: at one point the actors asked audience members who spoke Gaelic to put their hands, there were only three.

The history of the British ruling class using Highlanders as soldiers for wars all over the world is also examined. The focus is on the fight back, so the failed attempts of the Duke of Sutherland to raise men to fight in the Crimea are dramatised. After warning against the “mongol hoards” sweeping across Europe and burning houses and driving you into the sea, things we have just seen the very same Duke do to his tenants, he is met with the response that since he seems to prefer sheep to men, he should look now to his sheep to defend him. The play does point out, of course, that this was the exception and many Highland regiments served all over the world fighting for the British Empire.

The place the play struggles slightly is the final section on oil. The play was originally written at the start of the Scottish oil boom and was a rallying call to fight the exploitation of this resource without benefitting the Highland population. Unfortunately much of what the play was rallying people to fight against has come to pass. Much oil has been pumped out with the profit going to the few and the price being shouldered by all. The section has become more of a history lesson than it was originally. There has been some updating of the play, at one point we get David Cameron dancing around in union jack boxer shorts, and the exploitation of the oil was an issue in the referendum so has not gone away.

The call to arms is still there. In the final scene audience members were brought up to read out a rallying call. What people make of it is up to them. One of the audience members specially put on his 45% hoodie to read his line. I would definitely recommend people go to see the play, although the run in Dundee is nearly finished. The Dundee Rep should be congratulated for managing to successfully review this radical play without destroying it’s politics or message.

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