A LONG tradition attaches to “The Galoshins” – travelling people who would come to local communities and stage productions performed by themselves and sometimes locals as well. The word is from Galatians – the people from Galatia, after whom a New Testament book is named, implying that for centuries, these players had travelled across all Europe, performing folk versions of the Christ story, and continued to do so in different parts of Scotland.

Walter Scott, when he was a wee boy, maybe played Judas in an early 1780s Edinburgh version. This is mentioned in Brian Hayward’s Galoshins: The Scottish Folk Play (1992) and comes from Scott’s notes to his poem Marmion: “It seems certain, that […] the Guisards of Scotland, not yet in total disuse, present, in some indistinct degree, a shadow of the old mysteries, which were the origin of the English drama. In Scotland, (me ipso teste,) we were wont, during my boyhood, to take the characters of the apostles, at least of Peter, Paul, and Judas Iscariot; the first had the keys, the second carried a sword, and the last the bag, in which the dole of our neighbours’ plum-cake was deposited.”

I have personal experience of this tradition. Talking with my grandmother in the 1970s, I remember her recollecting the “Galoshins” from her own childhood, in Salsburgh and Shotts, in Lanarkshire. They toured the places of her youth before the First World War and 60 years later she remembered their performances vividly and with great fondness. My grandmother never went to a professional theatre production in her life until I took her to the National Theatre in London in December 1986 to see Anthony Hopkins in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hopkins again with Judi Dench in Antony and Cleopatra. One of my most pleasing memories of my grandmother is the sheer joy and edge-of-her-seat engagement and thrill she effused sitting beside me in the theatre on the South Bank in London, that winter.

The “Galoshins” overlap or connect with the tradition of “guisers” performing stories or recitations in costume that disguised the wearer, for customary gifts, normally associated with Hallowe’en.

And “Guisin’” was common practice among my uncles at family parties when I was a boy. At big family gatherings – and it was a big family, and everyone would make a point of being present at Hogmanay for the ringing of the bells at midnight – two or three of my uncles out of a company of maybe 16 or 18 people (uncles, aunts, cousins as well as grandparents and parents) – would disappear. After 20 minutes or so some of us might notice they weren’t in the room anymore but before anything was said the doorbell would ring and these bizarre-looking people in strange costumes, fur coats, scarves, big hats pinned to their hair, men in women’s clothing with handbags and walking sticks, utterly unrecognisable, would be standing at the door, speaking in the strangest voices, almost incoherent words but in a very self-assured tone. These people were invited into our house to tell their stories, and they did, and the game was to see how long they could keep up the disguise. These were my uncles but you couldn’t tell who was who under the disguise, and the stories they told were fabulous and fantastic. It was a tradition of domestic performance I suspect now completely extinct.

These personal anecdotes alert us to three complementary theatrical traditions that have existed in parallel for centuries, that of the popular touring companies or groups like the Galoshins, that of domestic performance, and that of the repertory companies and established theatres whose most culturally canonical manifestation is a National Theatre.

Immediately after the First World War, the push to establish a National Theatre of Scotland was one of the strands in the literary movement led by Hugh MacDiarmid. He noted in an essay of 1924, “R.F. Pollock and the Art of Theatre”, collected in Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926; new edition 1995), that an authentic Scottish drama must represent “the profound differences in psychology between Scots and English”.

Musical comedy, London-based touring productions, Scots comedians and comic storytellers and singers all had a huge following but when the Scottish National Players gave their first performance in 1921, and the Scottish National Theatre Society was formed in 1922, the emphasis was on productions of literary impact and national character, such as Gruach (1921) by Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) and The Glen Is Mine (1923) by John Brandane (Dr John McIntyre, 1891-1947).

Gruach is about the future of the Highlands, and whether depopulated land should be the resource of wilderness or industrial mineral mining. The father and son who take opposing sides are compromised by their best and worst intentions (nostalgia and reverence for nature, greed and recognition of the need for progress). The problem of employment is as pressing in the Highlands as in any of the cities. Similar questions surface in The Inn Of Adventure (1925), set in 1829 (Scott and Byron are referred to as popular contemporary authors), and Heather Gentry (1927), set in the “present day”. Conventions of misapprehensions of inheritance, family and love-commitments are worked out in both plays to comic effect. George Reston Malloch (1875-1953) had five one-act plays and two full-length works performed by the Players, the most impressive being Soutarness Water (1926), a fluent Scots-language play addressing the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, concluding with incestuous marriage and suicide. This was hot stuff for its era and like so many plays in the history of Scottish drama, ripe for


MacDiarmid and Neil Gunn both wrote short plays and R.F. Pollock, following Stanislavski, speculated that a drama attentive to distinct

aspects of Scots’ psychology should begin by acknowledging that one characteristic of many Scots was a terse, restrained, succinct use of language: more goes on below the surface than is ever seen.

This might seem opposed to an art of verbal expressiveness, but it could empower a theatre of intensified action and implication, more like Beckett than Boucicault. In Liz Lochhead’s version of Euripides’s Medea (2000), you can see exactly how effective this is, and how powerfully it conveys the meaning of tragedy. In the more sedate Penguin translation by Philip Vellacott, the chorus brings the play to an end with these lines:

Many are the Fates which Zeus in
Olympus dispenses;
Many matters the gods bring to
surprising ends.
The things we thought would
happen do not happen;
The unexpected God makes
And such is the conclusion of our

Lochhead’s version has dramatic authority exactly in concurrence with Pollok’s and MacDiarmid’s perceptions:

the Gods look down
expect the unexpected
what we wish for work for plan for hope for
think is bound to happen won’t
what is fated will
end of story

Brevity risks bathos, but tone gives depth and restraint supplies a bitter power. But that was more than 70 years after MacDiarmid and Pollock were writing. In the 1920s and 1930s, new forms of Scottish theatrical production were still taking shape. Bringing the different traditions together as available possibilities for effective deployment is a long story, still without ending.