Scotland, Theatre and Oil

Following the Scottish Government's recent declaration of a climate emergency, can two very different shows about Scotland's oil boom help us learn from our past mistakes?

Feature by Amy Taylor | 22 May 2019
  • Local Hero 4

At first glance, The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil has little in common with the new musical theatre adaptation of Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film, Local Hero

John McGrath’s 1973 verbatim theatre piece with songs tells the story of the violent displacement of Scotland’s crofters, told in three acts: The Highland Clearances (The Cheviot), further displacement for hunting (The Stag) and finally, the economic changes brought by the discovery of North Sea oil, or 'Scotland's oil', in the 20th century (The Black Black Oil). Meanwhile, the musical adaptation of Forsyth’s cult film follows what happens when Mac, an ambitious yet unfulfilled American oil executive, arrives in the fictional Scottish town of Ferness to buy the land so he can build an oil refinery. However, the occupants of the village are willing to sell; on their own terms. Both plays tackle the legacy of land exploitation in Scotland, but can we learn from past mistakes?  

"It’s Their Story" - Joe Douglas on The Cheviot...

It’s fitting that when we speak to Joe Douglas, the director of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, he’s in Inverness, getting ready to open the show at Eden Court. Having revived the show at the Dundee Rep in 2015, this National Theatre of Scotland production is now touring the Highlands and Islands as the original production by McGrath's 7:84 theatre company did for one very important reason. “Because it’s their story,” Douglas explains.

The Highland Clearances of the 18th century and the North Sea oil boom in the 70s had an undeniable impact on the land and the people – the resonance is still felt in these parts of Scotland. “Obviously, it’s more in the psyche of people up here, the memory of people up here. It’s still terribly, terribly taught in Scottish and British schools; the Highland tragedy and the ethnic cleansing,” Douglas continues.

The Cheviot perfectly captures the tragedy of generations of people being displaced and robbed of their lands and livelihoods to make way for farming, then hunting, and most recently, oil, through the words and music of the people. And although it was written in the early 70s, it’s still an eerily prescient piece of theatre for modern Scotland.

“It speaks more widely to Scotland about where we’re at now, particularly as we’re beginning to address the climate emergency,” says Douglas.

“It’s our oil”

The climate emergency declared last month by Nicola Sturgeon adds a new urgency to Scotland’s resources and lands. To a modern audience, the appeal or perhaps the charm of Local Hero lies in its innocence. It takes place in 1983, a few years after the discovery of oil in Scotland, when the effects on the environment wouldn’t have been seen as a 'big issue.'

“I think it’s really interesting, partly because they didn’t know then that oil was going to turn out to be this catastrophic climate-changing thing,” says David Greig, who adapted Local Hero for the stage with Forsyth.

“Maybe some people did, but basically, in terms of popular culture, the only thing really was, ‘Well, this is really great, don’t spoil it with a big refinery,’” he continues.

Forsyth’s snapshot of Scotland in the early days of the oil boom was inspired, in part, by a real-life event in the 70s in Shetland, where a local councillor made the oil company an unusual offer. “He said, ‘You can do it, but you have to give the community royalties.’ And nobody else in Scotland did that! What I love about it is he’s [Forsyth] transformed it into a different thing, it seems in some way like an epic fairytale, but it was inspired by a canny civil servant on the island of Shetland in 1975,” explains Greig.

This “epic fairy tale” of oil being a golden opportunity rather than something that could be harmful to the environment is echoed by Douglas. “In the 70s, that wasn’t part of the discourse around the oil, it was all about, 'It’s our oil! It’s down in the ground! We need to get it!'" he says.  

A Warning from History?

Although the creators of the Local Hero musical were keen to not draw parallels between the show’s storyline and similar real-life events, such as the ongoing issues with Trump’s planned extension to his already controversial Turnberry Resort in Ayrshire, the spectre of land exploitation was never far from the rehearsal room, where forgotten subversive gems from the film were unearthed and reappreciated.

“There’s a scene where Mac’s talking about how great oil is and all the things you can do with it,” says Greig, “and he says ‘Imagine, a world without oil!’ And all you can see is the rock, and the beach and the trees!”

It’s easy to forget that the film was made in a different time, when the impact of oil refineries was either unknown or underreported. So, if we view it through a more contemporary lens, then who are we to judge them for wanting the better life that selling their land to an oil company would bring them?

“To see things from a community’s point of view, where you need three jobs to survive, who are we to tell them what they should be doing and shouldn’t be doing with their lives?” asks Mark Knopfler who wrote the music and lyrics for the musical, and the celebrated soundtrack for the original film.

“So, from that point of view, as an educational tool it’s a fantastic thing; the story. And part of the challenge for us is to make it relevant for now. We’re setting it in 1983. We’re looking at it in a different time entirely,” he continues.

What price is home?

However, unlike the people who were forcefully displaced as portrayed in The Cheviot, in Local Hero they are given a choice. And after a bit of peaceful protest, and a stroke of good luck, a deal is struck to build the refinery offshore.

It feels like a victory; the company get the oil, the people get their share on their own terms, and Mac finds the sense of belonging he’s been looking for. But what price can you put on your home, the land that raised you? How much is it worth? It’s a universal message that is perhaps more topical now, given the climate crisis, than it was in 1983.

“I also think it still stands the test of time,” says John Crowley, who directed the musical adaptation of Local Hero. “Because it's still about what’s important in life. Now, there may be more urgency about environmental issues – the story now has a few more layers of irony than it did, back then.” 

Can we learn from past mistakes?

Meanwhile, Douglas believes that Scotland is about to experience another boom, and it’s important that the government learns from the mistakes of its past.

“We’ve got an opportunity now with renewable stuff in Scotland – there’s a boom coming," he says, "and we have to organise it differently this time. We can’t let the same thing happen again because if it happens differently it could be an opportunity, an extraordinary thing,” he says.

The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil is currently touring Scotland
Local Hero premiered at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in March and will open at The Old Vic, London, in June 2020