FOR the last couple of months I’ve been looking at the history of Scottish plays, performances and theatres, introducing many works in Scots and English – but now we need to shift our thinking. The Gaelic world is different.

Start with the role of the seanchaidh, the storyteller, in traditional Gaelic society, a role that could be compared to that of both dramatist and actor, not just telling, but performing stories to an audience. And consider folk drama, sometimes involving an element of dance, and the Gaelic-language tradition of the ceilidh, a celebratory gathering with communal performance, including song and monologue as well as storytelling.

These performance forms were widespread in Gaelic culture and, after the Clearances, they travelled and settled themselves in industrial Scottish cities. Michelle Macleod, the editor of this new anthology, alerts us to these components of Gaelic theatricality in her essay “Gaelic drama: the forgotten genre in Gaelic literary studies”, in Lainnair a’ Bhùirn – The Gleaming Water: Essays on Modern Gaelic Literature, edited by Emma Dymock and Wilson McLeod (2011).

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And Adrienne Scullion has suggested that such songs and performances contributed importantly to the development of a specifically Scottish form of popular music hall performance. In the literary tradition, there were the còmhraidhean, or written dialogues, popularised by the Rev Norman MacLeod (“Caraid nan Gàidheal”, 1783-1862), published in Gaelic periodicals and collected in anthologies. MacLeod might be considered the first author of Gaelic plays as performed in the theatre tradition, which, of course, usually arises in an urbanised economy from which, for many centuries, the Gàidhealtachd was free.

Michelle Macleod identifies two ways of exploring the origins of drama in general – one is the concept of “performance” and the other the development of the dramatic “text”. Performativity is and always has been a key component in civic, social, political, even intellectual life. The courtroom is an intrinsically theatrical scenario. Its counterpoint is passivity, contemplation, resignation or resolution.

Performance requires action. Friedrich Nietzsche summarised this most memorably in Part 4 of Beyond Good and Evil (1886): “What? A great man? I always see only the actor of his own ideal.”

Macleod’s proposition suggests two ways of understanding drama: one, a capacity of engagement with others through acting, through gesture, in performance, and the other a literary text to be used in productions, a basis for performance, which mediates between the social world of day-to-day actuality and the political, domestic, human events from which an audience of civilians is normally drawn to witness, attend to, and learn from the production of this “text”.

The play, Hamlet says, is where he’ll catch the guilty conscience of the king. Plays are traps for the unwary, exhibitions, exercises for the speculating mind, tests for experimentation, staged constructions for trying out ideas, alternative prospects, interpretations of past events, thoughts about what might happen next, prompts for further understanding.

In the “Drama” section of the essay by Michelle Macleod and Moray Watson, “In the Shadow of the Bard: The Gaelic Short Story, Novel and Drama since the Early Twentieth Century”, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, volume 3: Modern Transformations: New Identities (from 1918), edited by Ian Brown, co-edited by Thomas Own Clancy, Susan Manning and Murray Pittock (2007), we’re told that Archibald Maclaren’s The Humours of Greenock Fair (1789) and The Highland Drover (1790), include dialogue in Gaelic, in the latter case without any translation being implied in the English-speaking characters’ responses.

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These were apparently performed in Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, Dundee and Greenock. These towns are all on the borders of then Gaelic-speaking areas, Greenock being a major fishing port with a large seasonal population of fishermen from all over the west coast, so audiences for these plays were quite probably bilingual in Gaelic and English. Audience records from the late 1700s are scarce, but these plays were successful enough to be toured around theatres close to the Gàidhealtachd.

Of all the literary arts, drama, with its need to employ actors and technical staff, is the most immediately dependent upon financial support. This usually comes through the box office. Managers don’t tour plays that aren’t making money around five theatres, let alone ones as relatively far apart as these were. Clearly Maclaren’s plays incorporating dialogue in Gaelic were successful in their time.

The seminal modern play about multilingual identity and its political and social contexts is Brian Friel’s Translations (1980), set in Donegal in 1833. Irish, Latin and Greek are familiar in the local village school but when Irish and English characters speak to each other they are mutually incomprehensible, although the words of the Irish characters are “translated” into English for the audience.

The play presents map-making and the translation of Irish place names into English as part of a larger political, colonial struggle that has personal consequences, as lovers seek to cross linguistic and national divides with deadly results.

Maclaren’s 18th-century Scottish multilingual plays suggest language apprehension and fluency in Scotland were much better than demonstrated by the conventions of English-language plays in 21st-century Britain and America.

There seems to have been a play performed entirely in Gaelic by Edinburgh University Celtic Society in 1902, but title and author are unknown. Earlier, Macleod and Watson tell us that plays were published in Gaelic periodicals like An Gaidheal / The Highlander and An Teachdaire Gaelach / The Highland Messenger, but the earliest sign of broader encouragement came from Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, who published plays in his periodical Guth na Bliadhna in 1912.

More details are in the splendid new biography by Gerard Cairns, No Language! No Nation! The Life and Times of The Honourable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr (Perth: Rymour Books, 2021). He deserves an essay in his own right.

Meanwhile, drama was also becoming popular in Highlands and islands communities away from large urban centres and professional theatres. The tradition of the ceilidh combined with a developing amateur ethos and, after the Clearances, was influenced by the more urbanised experience of new generations. This helped develop the existing culture of performance towards something more recognisably theatrical and prompts a question about the relation between performativity and playwriting which remains healthily unanswerable.

If some early plays were often light-hearted and comic, Erskine of Marr insisted on the priorities of political engagement and education. Individual authors and plays might be noted: Rèiteach Mòraig / Morag’s Betrothal (1911) and Pòsadh Mòraig / Morag’s Wedding (1916) by Iain MacLeòid / John Macleod, which centre on traditions of betrothal and marriage; and Fearann a Shinnsear / Land of His Ancestors (1913) and Crois Tara / Cross of Tara (1914) by Dòmhnull Mac-na-Ceardadh / Donald Sinclair, which focus on Gaelic history, the Clearances and the 1745 Jacobite rising, endorsing the virtues of the Highlanders and scorning the vicissitudes of the Lowlands, while Domhnaull nan Trioblaid (1912, 1936) and Suridhe Raoghail Mhaoil (1929) are comedies about the lives of crofters.

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Both Gilleasbh MacCuillaich / Archibald McCulloch and Iain MacCormaic / John McCormick wrote plays leavened with songs, endorsing Gaelic identity but hardly opening it up to questioning of the ambiguities and liabilities that become more urgent in situations of cultural oppression.

Playwrights would often produce work for local drama groups. For example, Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn / Iain Crichton Smith wrote for the Oban Gaelic drama group. The principal characters and conflict, concerned with the impact of the Clearances on a Highland widow, in his classic English-language novel, Consider the Lilies, return in the play version, A’ Chùirt (1966).

In Ceann Cropic (1967) by Fionnlagh MacLeòid, bizarre dialogue and absurdist humour is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. As in Waiting for Godot, the isolated arena of the stage heightens the utterance of the characters: banalities become heavy with implication. There is no reason why Gaelic plays should be any less experimental, radical and leavened with existential humour, than any in Scots or English, or for that matter, any other language.

One strong advocate for Gaelic drama was Tormod Calum Dòmhnallach, whose plays sometimes begin with a song or a poem, from which the action elaborates and unfolds. The play Anna Chaimbeul arises from the song “Ailean Duinn” and A’ Bhean Iadach from the song of the same name, while Cnoc Chùsbaig or Na Seòid a th’ oirre sealg is based on the life of the poet Uilleam MacCoinneach (1857-1907),

whose poetry was prompted by the death of his wife and his departure from the Isle of Lewis. Aimhreit Aignis (1888) deals with the land rights movement and Bathach Chaluim with religious evangelicalism in Lewis.

In 1977 the first professional Gaelic theatre company was established, Fir Chlis, though it closed in 1981; one successor, Tosg, was established in 1996, although it didn’t last either, closing after a decade. Its brilliant founder, playwright, actor and director Simon Mackenzie, died in 2008. But generally, in Michelle Macleod’s words, “Gaelic drama has prospered in the environment of festivals and competitions”.

And there’s more to be said.