by: Barron, Charles
Indigenous Drama in the North East has never made much impact on the national scene. Whether this was because of our impenetrable dialect or just our natural insularity I can't say. In fact, only one dramatist from our area has become a national figure - and he did it by eschewing Doric almost entirely.
Robert Kemp, though born in Orkney, has always been claimed by Aberdeen on the strength of his education. He achieved some success as a writer in the London theatre, played a crucial part in the re-discovery of The Thrie Estaits by making the "translation" for the famous Edinburgh Festival production of 1948 and he did deal with several Scottish themes over the years. However, he tackled home-based material only once when he was asked to write something for Aberdeen University. This might have been his chance to put Doric drama on the map.
For The Scientific Singers (originally known by the more intriguing title A Nest of Singing Birds) he chose subject matter from the history of the university - the 18th century conflict over the introduction of stylish singing in the chapel. The play has powerful characters, a busy plot and a deal of humour, all wrapped up in a broad dialect. Yet, sadly, it is not our dialect. Though the characters are almost all Aberdonians the language is consistently that vague "Scots" that covers a multitude of regions. Never a fit, fan or fa to be found.
… the English are making a thorough job of it though it's no my idea of music, but what's this skraiching and droning I hear …? He wadna be sair pleased and very likely He would send them a weet hairst to bring them to their senses.
As Kemp says helpfully in a "Note to the Actors":
The writing of this comedy is in English with a strong Scottish idiom. It should therefore be played with an authentic Scottish accent. Some of the parts … as far as speech is concerned more Scots than even they are written.
So if Kemp fails us in the attempt to find a famous Doric dramatist, where do we look next? By far the greatest writer of drama in the genuine tongue of the North East is Gavin Greig. Better known for his remarkable work as a collector of songs, he is nevertheless a playwright of considerable skill. There is nothing else in Doric to compare with his full length play Mains's Wooin' , which was written about 1910.
Vast in scope, with a range of fully-developed characters, an elaborate musical score, pageantry and, above all, a richness of language that few dramatists can hope to emulate, Mains's Wooin' is an incredible achievement, building on the flimsiest of foundations, as far as Doric drama is concerned. The very scale of it has hampered it in some ways because professional companies could never hope to mount a play with a cast of 17 plus "youths, maidens, harvesters and scholars".
It has however been phenomenally successful with amateur companies. There are stories of companies staging an annual production of Mains's Wooin'. It fell out of favour eventually, and inevitably, during the Second World War, but has had a number of revivals in recent years. A sequel, Mains Again, was much less successful, as is the nature of sequels, lacking the vigour and originality of Wooin'.
Greig was a master of the dialect. There is no doubt about the provenance of this dialogue:
MAINS - Peter man, jist ye ca canny, man. Is't you or me that's maister, Peter man?
PETER - O weel, ye're maybe maister in a wye; but I wid like to ken fa's tae be mistress at Mains o' Bungry. Gin ye can licht on ony dacent sensible wumman o' your ain age I'm nae jist carin' sae muckle. But daur ye to bring hame ony o' thae senseless jauds to be mistress at oor toon!
Not only is there the unmistakable rhythm and vocabulary of the North East dialect here, there is, too, even in such a short quotation, an echo of the social make-up of the area - the frank equality of speech between master and hired help, their shared attitude of mingled terror and worship of women and the blunt humour.
His keen eye ranged over the whole sweep of society in the North East. Laird, farmer, mistress, serving quine, policeman - all are gently satirised. Nor does he spare his own profession. He was headmaster of Whitehill school for 35 years and the Dominie in Mains's Wooin' is a wickedly accurate portrait of a certain kind of academic:
DOMINIE - (clearing his throat) Sir James the Rose, - A very pleasant duty devolves on me on this - ah - auspicious and festive occasion. Through your beneficient kindness, Sir James, it has been permitted us to perambulate those picturesque and - ah - delectable amenities, with their umbrageous and sequestered retreats - their - ah - so to speak, romantically sylvan - ah - ah - holes and corners, - qua pinus ingens albaque populus umbram hospitalem consociare amantr amis.
SOUTER - (aside) Preserve's a', fat's that?
Amidst interruptions the Dominie struggles on for a little longer but is finally silenced by the thoroughly down-to-earth:
PETER - (entering) Fat are ye scutterin' aboot here for a' nicht? The cairts is yokit.
The play has moments of tenderness and emotion as well as comedy, though even there the humour is seldom absent:
JOHN ANDERSON - (laying down newspaper) Ye're unco quaet the nicht, you folk. Some o' you lassies micht gie's a bit sang to cheer's up a wee.
MAGGIE - Weel, fat'll't be, father?
JEANNIE - Oh, I say, Maggie, gie's the "Bonnie Lass o' Fyvie."
JOHN ANDERSON - Ay, that's a fine-gaun ane. (To wife) Div'n ye think that, 'umman? Ye min' ye eest to sing't yersel' lang syne?
MRS ANDERSON - Ay, it's a rale bonnie sang.
MAGGIE - (sewing the while) sings The Bonnie Lass o' Fyvie.
[Greig here provides the words of 7 verses for her to sing, an echo of his devotion to Scots song.]
JOHN ANDERSON - That's fine. There's naething like the auld sangs yet.
MRS ANDERSON - That's somebody chappin'. Rin, Maggie, lass, and see fa it is.
(Maggie goes to door, and returns with SHEPHERD, who carries parcel containing MAGGIE'S boots. Mrs ANDERSON looks at him critically.)
JOHN ANDERSON - Oh, it's you, Shepherd? Come awa' in by and gie's yer crack. Ye'll hae been at the Fair?
SHEPHERD - (taking chair which MAGGIE offers) Ay, but I've been hame a while seen; and - and - happenin' to be at the Souter's, I thocht I micht - bring Maggie's boots wi' me.
MAGGIE - (taking parcel from Shepherd) O thank ye, Johnnie, thank ye.
MRS ANDERSON - Thank him? Thank him for what, I would like to ken?
MAGGIE - O mither!
MRS ANDERSON - Yes, and Jeannie's had a fool's errand for the boots the day already. It was kindly meant, I've nae doot, young man, but quite unnecessar' - perfectly unnecessar'.
MAGGIE - But - mither -
MRS ANDERSON - Never mind. - But isn't it time you lassies were gaun to your milkin'?
MAGGIE - But there's surely nae sic a hurry the nicht.
SHEPHERD - (rising) Oh, dinna lat me detain ye. I'm going at onyrate.
JOHN ANDERSON - Guidwife, ye're a kin' o' chasin' the young chap awa'.
MRS ANDERSON - Oh, he needna go unless he likes. Although it's aboot time a' dacent body was at their ain fire-en'.
SHEPHERD - Guid-nicht to ye a'.
JOHN ANDERSON and JEANNIE - Guid-nicht.
MAGGIE - (hesitatingly, following SHEPHERD to door) Guid-nicht, Johnnie.
SHEPHERD - Guid-nicht, Maggie.
(Exit SHEPHERD. MAGGIE returns with her apron at her eyes. She puts the boots away.)
It is under-stated, it is touching and it is theatrically beautifully crafted, with the scene-setting song by Maggie and the semi-comic prop of the boots.
Greig makes considerable demands on his production team. There are no fewer than 10 sets required in this play - and this in the days when audiences expected fine solid structures for each of them; none of your minimalist black tabs, in those days. Three of these scenes are exteriors - a hillside, a harvest field, complete with stooks, and a highway. Only one set is used twice in the play.
Equally demanding are the musical requirements: three huge set pieces for full chorus; a duet; a trio; half-a-dozen solos and a number of comic snatches of song. A fiddler and a piper are needed and there is an elaborate dance sequence.
All of this is bound up in a complex pair of plots that verge on the farcical and pantomimic and yet are based in a genuine feeling for character. Greig scarcely moved out of his native land and its nature is melded with his.
The fact that Mains's Wooin' was essentially a work for the amateur theatre is echoed throughout the story of drama in the North East. There was a huge number of plays written in our dialect, mostly between the Wars but most of it was written for the busy amdram market. This was the period when every village had a lively drama group, when competitive drama was at its height and when there was an audience for the product. Many plays were written for specific companies and never published, or privately published for distribution amongst friends. However, hundreds were published locally - by The Press and Journal, by Scrogie's (The Buchan Observer), by T. Buncle & Co. of Arbroath, by booksellers like Bisset's and Wyllie's in Aberdeen and - especially - Dufton Scott in Inverurie, of whom more later.
Most of these plays in the '30s and 40s were, of course, one-act, thanks to the needs of the SCDA and the SWRI. The opportunity to have a full-length play in Doric performed, even by amateurs, was rare indeed. The likelihood of a professional production of a full-length Doric language play seemed as remote as having it performed on Mars.
Nonetheless, plays flowed from the rackety typewriters of scores of writers, surprising numbers of them, considering the ethos of the period, women. There was, for example, the prolific Donald Campbell (not to be confused with his later, better known, namesake who wrote The Jesuit and The Widows of Clyth). He was always described on the printed copies as "Donald Campbell, MC" - presumably a hero of World War I. He was one of those published by D. Wyllie and Son in Aberdeen and perhaps owes something, in his characterisation and plotting, to Greig. He made similar demands of stage managers, too, often requiring a complete new set for a scene lasting only a few minutes.
His dialogue is rich and vigorous, enlivening the usual domestic settings. Here, in a 1930 play, Kirsty's Surprise, Mrs Kirsty Webster oversees the setting of the table by her daughter Tibbie and a friend, Agnes Cameron, "home from Australia".
TIBBIE - Faur will I place the white scones, mither?
KIRSTY- Doon opposite Captain Graham, of coorse, an' pit the treacle anes, Miss Cameron, alang there faur Postie an' Robbie Scott'll be sittin'. They didna turn oot awfu' weel.
AGNES - There are two table napkins here, Mrs Webster.
KIRSTY - Aye, lassie, they're for yersel' an' the Factor; the rest o's winna spull.
TIBBIE - I'm sure Robbie wad like ane, mither.
KIRSTY - Nae doot, an' mak' a hanky o' 't. Na, na, jist lat him be daein'.
AGNES - Now, that's everything except the butter.
KIRSTY - Set the platie wi' the muckle roun' patties neist the fyte scones, an' lat the muckle daud o' margarine sit aside the treacle anes; it's auld an' needs usin'.
A wonderful evocation of character and social habits. Campbell lived near Banchory.
About the same time, and equally productive, there was Peter Grey, usually published by the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Whereas Campbell had handled his own arrangements with companies interested in performing his plays, Grey was one of several authors who used an agent, the same Dufton Scott mentioned above. In fact, Grey dedicated one of his plays to Scott - "To my friend, Dufton Scott, who has shown to his compatriots all the world over that the finest Scottish humour is clean and kindly". Which must be the most complimentary comment any author has ever written about an agent.
He had a neat line in naïve men, easily taken in, especially by women, as this farmer who has mistaken the laird's wife for an old busybody:
HENRY - Gweed preserve me, fat can the cratur think o' me? … I suppose it wadna be onceevil tae ca' yer ain laird's wife an auld ewe, a deeleerious cadger, an auld wizened bisom, a randy, an imposin' scare-craw, an outrageous female. I'll never haud ma heid up efter this. An' I order't her oot o' 'er ain hoose; aye, an' mair, I tell't 'er I wis sair temptit tae gi'e 'er a clour on the heid wi' ma tattie chapper! This is awfu', gweedwife! Fat'll I dee?
It should be pointed out, perhaps, that in the thirties the word "randy" descibed a loud-mouthed, aggressive woman, without today's sexual connotations.
Another who used Dufton Scott as an agent was the unremarkably named John M Smith, of Arbroath (published by T. Buncle & Co), dominie at Carmyllie. His lists of characters are remarkably similar to those of almost everyone writing plays at the time - farmers and their wives, lairds, cobblers, tailors. And it is true that there is a certain sameness in the plots and characters chosen by all the writers of one-act plays between the World Wars, not only in the North East but in Scotland as a whole; the playwrights were answering a need for plays that were homely, funny and - ultimately - comfortable. There are hundreds of variations on the same few themes. Parritch-pot, rather than kailyard, school of drama.
A stalwart of SWRI drama was Johanna Airth, whose royalties were handled by a Mrs Cooper of Old Meldrum - possibly Johanna's married persona? Plays aimed at SWRI rather than SCDA tended, of course, to have more female parts and a possibly even more domestic slant.
MARGET - Oh, ma'am, ma'am, an affa thing has happened!
MRS CRAIG - Out with it, woman. Has there been an accident to the car?
MARGET - Far waur than that, it's Yvonne. Joan and she have gone awa galavantin up the street to see the R.A.'s mairch by, and a her bonnie bakin is burnt to a ciner. It's affa, affa. She's just a flibberty-jibbet, and Slappie will get his fill o her yet.
MRS CRAIG - Woman, could you not have kept her at her job?
MARGET - For guid sake, dinna blame it on me, ma'am. I've raced myself deen rennin up to the bakers', an a he has left were some o they blawn-up empty pastries. It's a peety; but it's nae my fault.
MRS CRAIG - Oh never mind, Marget, the tea will taste good anyway. Let's go and have it. I trust you have all brought your sugar ration with you.
For this was during the war, the Second World War. Much less opportunity for drama on-stage, naturally, and therefore fewer dramatists needed. It was the SWRI that kept amateur drama going in so far as it survived, and the need was even more for plays without men since so few were available. Johanna Airth's fame rested on her having been the winner of the 1942 SWRI Anstruther-Gray Challenge Cup, as is proudly stated on the front cover of most of her plays. I suppose it is amazing that they were printed at all, in view of the wartime shortages. At least one of them had to be contracted out to a printer in Stoke-on-Trent who must have had well-hoarded stocks of pre-war paper.
That war brought an end to the wealth of Doric drama being published. For quarter of a century it is as if the dialect has disappeared from the stage. It did survive, though, in one form - in sketches. The character monologue or the two-handed four-minute sketch had always been popular both in rural home-grown concert parties and on the variety stage. Professionally, Harry Gordon became Scotland's most successful comedian, basing his material entirely on Doric dialect and humour. So did the Aberdeen Students Show, still a major example of the Doric being kept alive on stage and - until recently - Scotland the What? but after 1940 there were remarkably few actual plays, even one-acters, written or staged and even fewer published. Until the mid-sixties Doric was rather out of fashion anyway.
On the amateur concert platform, one man had been particularly important - Dufton Scott of Inverurie, again. Alongside the support he gave to Doric playwrights as publisher and agent, he had kept alive the tradition of the short comic sketch, usually character-based, often a monologue. He began writing them during the 1st World War, and went on pouring them out in their dozens for over 20 years, performing them even on radio and on recordings.
But when I started writing plays in the sixties, no-one was using the North East dialect. Though I regretted it, I accepted the brutal fact that no professional company was going to read, let alone choose to produce, a play in our dialect. Part of the reason, I think, is our chaotic, because never codified, spelling. Throughout the extracts I have quoted here we find the same word being spelt completely differently, sometimes within one author's work - gweed or guid; thae or they. Or an attempt at a simple question - Fa's 'at ava? - looks like Swahili to a hasty reader. Yet few, even English, listeners would doubt the meaning in context. So our printed texts of plays have often put off potential directors who reject the manuscript before they have any idea of what it is about or how it would actually sound on stage.
For 10 years I wrote in English or in the de-localised "Scots" that in performance is always transformed by professional actors into a Glasgow accent.
It was only with the courage that comes from a little success that I was emboldened to set some plays in the North East, with characters speaking in Doric. It was only one-acters, at first, aimed at the rejuvenated SCDA market but as much to my surprise as anyone's, one, The Buchan Trap, was accepted for publication by Brown, Son and Ferguson, a Glasgow publishing house, specialising in one act plays. It has seldom been performed by native speakers, usually ruthlessly played either in undisguised Glasgow accents or - worse - in what a Glasgow amateur actor thinks is an Aberdeenshire accent.
But it was a start; interest in the Doric was growing; it was becoming respectable to study it even in schools; I persevered but always with the nagging thought that we had as much right to deal at length with subjects belonging to our area, in our own dialect, as those in Glasgow, Newcastle or Liverpool. So I allowed myself the indulgence of a full-length Doric play, Fooshion, set in the present day and handling serious subjects. The fact that it won the Total Oil Scottish Playwriting contest seemed to me a triumph for the dialect as much as anything else. Maybe it wouldn't have happened if the North East hadn't been forced out of its isolation by the incoming oil men; maybe the Doric work of so many poets and short storywriters was gradually having its effect.
As far as I can discover, the first production of Fooshion was the first professional production of a play written almost entirely in the Doric. Sadly, only one of the cast was a native speaker; the production team had to bring in "sooth-moothers" who were willing to risk the embarrassment of twisting their tongues round the foreign vowels of Aiberdeen. It has since had other productions with native speakers and - the final accolade - is even studied in a few schools for the Scottish Contemporary Theatre element in Higher Drama.
Since that break-through I haven't hesitated to use our dialect wherever appropriate and it's no longer met with the automatic assumption that no-one south of Stonehaven will understand it. The 20th century began with no-one at all writing drama in a North East dialect; the second and third decades saw the remarkable flowering that I have described, dozens of playwrights and hundreds of plays, though limited largely to one-acters; then three decades of decline; finally, a wee resurgence. It's a sad story compared with the wealth of material produced in the other literary genres in this period but in the words of the greatest practitioner of them all, Gavin Greig - "sincere felicitations for the present, and our best wishes for the future".