A Palatable Brutality: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil

One of the things that we were giving away on the Marchmont stall in the months leading up to the Referendum, was a DVD compilation of TV programmes. Amongst the predictable and usual suspects such as Diomhair from BBC Alba on the McCrone Report, the first item was a 1974 BBC Scotland broadcast of the 7:84 (the name comes from 7% of the population controlling 84% of the wealth in 1966 – that seems almost egalitarian by today’s standards) theatre company’s performance of ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil’ for the ‘Play for Today’ series, starring Bill Patterson and Taggart’s Alex Norton. I had heard of the play, but had not seen it, so towards the last days of the stall, I picked up a copy, finally getting a chance to watch it at the weekend.

Using narration from historical documents mixed in with reenactments, it deals with the story of the post-Act of Union Highlands, through the themes of the three great means of exploitation. It starts with the clearances, in the wake of the Marquis of Staffordshire marrying the Countess of Sutherland, and the simple equation of profitability of the land by removing the tenants in order to bring in herds of Cheviot sheep to withstand the winter weather of the Highlands. It then moves on to show the landowners trying to encourage remaining residents to sign up for the war in Crimea against the ‘evil Russian Tsar’ – only to be told that given the record of the landlord’s family over the preceding fifty years, that it could not be imagined that rule by the Russian Tsar would be any worse. It dealt with the promises by landlords of land – later unfulfilled, or reneged upon – for residents who went off to fight in such wars. Then there was the widespread introduction of deer so that landlords could mimic Victoria’s hunting trips, transforming large stretches of the Highlands into a form of bloodsport theme park. Then there was the 1962 discovery of oil in the North Sea (when the explorers were actually looking for gas) which led to the Westminster government opening the doors to a wave of Texas oilmen.

Although familiar with the general concepts of each of the three drivers for exploitation of the highland people, witnessing them retold within the context of this work was strangely sobering – perhaps particularly so in the grey post-Referendum light. The historical accounts and quotes brought the brutality of the evictions vividly home in a different way to the statistics of emigration, and made the lack of choice available to those who left, self-evident. As a tale of how the people of the Highlands have been successively and repeatedly victimised since the time of the Union (or, more specifically, Culloden) it is potent, poignant and tragic in equal measure.

As a 1974 production, the filmed interviews with oil industry workers in Aberdeen now have a similarly historical (as well as slightly chillingly prescient) feel to the other aspects, most of them no doubt long dead. But I did find myself wondering about its relevance as a production to the modern Yes movement. Inasmuch as it was undoubtedly a core cultural element within the 1970s and 1980s independence movement, Yes is now an extremely broad church of people who would have a great deal of difficulty in identifying themselves as Highlanders, or part of that heritage. There are a lot of ‘sassenachs’ – sensu stricto, lowlanders, from both north and south of the border, amongst which I count myself – in ‘Yes’ these days for which it does not have a direct cultural relevance. So is it a production that has lost its time, or even now is simply alienating? Or does it tell a broad story of people being taken advantage of, that is more directly transferrable to the present day? The story is one of the victimisation of the people of the Highlands, rather than the people in Scotland as a whole – although there are lessons there for all. However in microcosm there is a story of the pursuit of wealth by the few in power at the expense of the many with no voice.

There is a question of balance that comes in here, which I found myself reflecting on when I watched, in contrast, the telling of ‘Scotland’s Story’ at the National Museum of Scotland – there, the story of Darien is presented not as the consequence of the economic sanctions of a hostile neighbour, but as ‘entrepreneurship’. The mass emigrations in the wake of the clearances are reflections of the ‘enterprise’ of individuals, rather than a bleak consequence for those who had little choice. I watched this museum educational film, thinking about how the dark causal forces had been lightly airbrushed out of the story, to present it as simply a tale of a people ‘who liked to leave’, and I could not help but think that there would have to be a revisiting of such films in the wake of a vote for independence. It is all very well presenting things positively, and I can certainly understand that there is likely to be a certain political will to present the events leading to the Union (as well as in the immediate wake of it) in a positive light that is uncritical of the government, but omitting the motivations that underlay such desperate decisions does radically misrepresent why it happened, and misleads people’s understanding. I was reminded of the words of a political émigré interviewed after having settled in the UK, saying that you move city in order to get a better job, but you move country because you have no choice.

The nakedness of the discrimination shown to the tenants from that period makes it shocking to us, in a time when we are used to such measures being prepackaged by PR companies to make the brutality more palatable. Indeed, from the events of this last week in Westminster, one can look forward to a packaging of new devolution measures from the Smith Commission as a ‘great increase in powers for the Scottish people’, when it involves reduction in representation at Westminster and a massive cut in the budget for Scottish public expenditure. Of course, we live in an ‘age of spin’ – to an extent that I find it hard to imagine that today’s BBC Scotland would really rebroadcast its 1974 programme. The regime’s refusal to criticize aspects of Union and Britain (beyond the ‘Britishisation’ of so much BBC output in the last three years, as commented on before) makes it very hard to see that programme coming out in a primetime slot again (indeed, one wonders if the content of that episode of Diomhair referred to earlier would have been made by the BBC if it had been in English rather than Gaelic) – and not just because of a snooty attitude to 1970s production values.

Maybe it is in response to this different broadcasting climate, that a recent poll showed 54% support for broadcasting control to be devolved to the Scottish parliament. However I can see that as far less likely to happen than 100% of income tax. In fact, probably as unlikely as oil revenue control being devolved – because one could theoretically lead to the other (from the perspective of London) if broadcasting in Scotland did not continue to be celebratory of London, or – heaven forfend – critical of the Union.


“You move city or town for a better job. You move country because you have no choice.” (African political émigré)

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