The following article, Highland Sparks, was written for bella caledonia, by George Gunn, From the Province of the Cat, 21.3.24

Let me begin by stating two things which are both true and untrue. One: Scottish theatre is full of talented and energetic artists. Scottish theatre is being pulled apart by managers and bureaucrats. Two: Highland theatre has a short and impressive past and a bright and beautiful future. Highland theatre doesn’t actually exist. This is a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat which in quantum mechanics is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, of quantum superposition. In the thought experiment, a hypothetical cat may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead, while it is unobserved in a closed box, as a result of its fate being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. In other words, as far as theatre is concerned, you can hold two opposite opinions at the same time and claim that each is as valid as the other. It’s what you believe that is important.

I believe that all art is people in a landscape. Without people there is no society and if there is no society there can be no art. It is this Highland landscape of hills and islands where we attempt to create our society. Everything else, including our art, follows from that. Our theatre is a manifestation of this reality drawn from the five bodily senses and spoken in a language which is poetry in three dimensions. Writing for the theatre you have to be aware that a play is as much instinctive engineering as it is a revolution of the mind. It has to be poetical, political and theatrical – these are the three verities of theatre.

I come from Caithness where I live and write and a lot of my work is set in that landscape. Now Caithness, contrary to what some people say, is very much part of the Highlands, as it is that far North Eastern portion, despite the reactionary concerns of those who confuse topography with culture and choose ignorance over history. That past is written. The future has yet to be written. But the present – the now of the play – lasts forever. Time moves forwards. In the theatre our plays and the characters in them enter from history, from the past, from memory. They exist in the now of the narrative. Then they exit into the future, into possibility, into dream.

Those are the universal laws of the stage narrative. But the perennial “now” of the stage story has a political and cultural context and what that is, I would advocate, is that we have to stop ourselves being swallowed whole by the English cultural project. That is what any theatre produced in the Highlands and Island in 2024 is for, in my opinion: that is, countering the pressure put on Scottish identity by the British State. It is a considerable achievement that our identity remains such a strong reality today for it is a unifying and inclusive thing. But sustaining both our theatre and our identity is a constant struggle. Not everyone in the arts, understandably, is suited to this. It requires a certain quality. Something almost intangible.

The Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who paid for his art with his life, had a name for this. He called it “the duende”: a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain. A power, and not a construct – it is a struggle and not a concept. It is creation made into action. For Lorca the true struggle is with the duende.

The Scots travelling people have an expression – the conyach – which exactly corresponds to the duende, which itself has a direct connection with the Gaelic word caoineadh, or weeping. In Caithness Scots weeping is expressed as cownin. Whatever word you call it without this quality even a splendid voice is powerless.

This mysterious power we must bring into our theatre making, most especially into our acting. What, practically, is acting but gesture, movement and language translated into story – what Brecht called the “gest”? All the component parts of the theatre have to be gestic if they are to come together in order to touch the audience, to have a meaning beyond themselves.

Acting is the miraculous made physical, the communication of the impossible, of observation turned into passion. And what is passion? It is something we value more than life itself. A play, according to Lope De Vega, the 16th century Spanish playwright, is two people with a passion on a plank. The plank, of course is the stage, which could be anywhere – a village hall, a community centre, an open space. The passion is the life struggle and of course the theatre is aways about two, the duality, as opposed to one, the singularity. There has to be forwards and back, up and down, night and day, good and bad etc and you cannot act on your own – you can perform on your own but that is another thing: the theatre requires that you give in order to receive, that you need the other in order to be yourself.

I am not interested in aptitude or technique or virtuosity here – I am interested in something else: to annihilate all that is non-essential. Our theatre has to be able to be performed anywhere at any time. It has to be flexible in form and radical in content. In fact, content dictates form.

Because of our long and tragic history, because of our cultural traditions and our artistic practise, this flexible form and radical content is what Highland theatre must embrace, because these require a living presence to interpret them in order to be true to ourselves and for our theatre to progress.

This is why prizes, awards and honours are dangerous because they say to the artist “This is for what you have done” but in their heart all the artists know, that in reality, they have done nothing. What is important, if you are an artist, is what you do next. For our art, the art of theatre, is the art of life, of perpetual love – our gift to the world: positivity and optimism. But it does not stand still: it constantly moves forward.

Now that is all very well and good but the theatre is comprehensively ambivalent to everyone – that is its cruel democracy – so you must protect your work from or against what Lorca called “incomprehension, dilettantism and the benevolent smile”. The latter condescension – the benevolent smile – is by far the worst (usually you get it from theatre critics) and I have encountered it all of my professional life. It is the product of middle-class incomprehension. The theatres in Scotland are the domain of the middle-class but in reality, in my experience, the middle-class hate theatre, or at least the kind of theatre I produce and am interested in: that is a theatre of and for the people, a theatre that comes out of the ground, the hill, the bog, singing and dreaming and snarling for justice. Democracy is nothing without justice and theatre and democracy are the two sides of a civilised society. Most theatre produced in Scotland today is a product of that dilettantism Lorca warned us against before his untimely death in Grenada, aged 37, at the hands of a Falangist fascist gang in 1936. A theatre produced for and serving the dilettantism of the middle-class will achieve nothing, will change nothing, because that it is what it is designed to do. We have the opportunity, here in the Highlands and Islands today, to do something better, something far more radical and far more interesting.

We must remember that an oral culture has survived in the North of Scotland since the Bronze Age. It is that storytelling tradition we must draw on. As I’ve said, I myself come from Caithness, with its duality of Norse and Celt – both in bardic and skaldic culture, the two languages weaving together to produce a spontaneous yet sardonic creativity; in other words a resilient tradition in which the people can dream and dream together which makes our oral culture radical and subversive. That is the substance and dialectic of my theatre and I would argue should be the inspiration for any new wave of theatre making in the Highlands. What I would urge is that as poets, playwrights, actors and directors we must draw on what has sustained us culturally thus far, for it is important to remember that the songs and poems of, for example, Rob Donn Mackay of Strathnaver from the 18th century, are a testament to the resilience of a popular and an ancient culture. His work was both the preservation and championing of lived experience – it gives the historic injustice of eviction and emigration a voice and out of that struggle was born an inspired act – which was that all his poems and songs were remembered, collectively, by the people of Sutherland from 1777 to the present day. It is our job as modern theatre makers to learn from that example and to fight both our own irrationality and the oppression of our tragic history.

As Lorca has his character say in the play Mariana Pineda,

If my heart had

windowpanes of glass

you would look in and see it

cry drops of blood

So it is, with all my talk of cultural history and tradition, the theatre is not a preservation society. For too long what passes as theatre in Scotland keeps everything questionable in our society safely in unquestioning aspic. However theatre is a public forum where change and alternative possibilities are experimented on in public. In the theatre our society thinks out loud. We do not make theatre for ourselves but for the audience, for the people. The drops of blood may be from the poets heart but they spill onto the threshing floor of the people. They are the passionate evidence that our society desires, craves, dreams when we dream, of change, of transformation, that inspiration which provides instead of stagnation and exploitation the desire for opportunity, freedom, liberation, justice. The conflict arises when the people demand that the theatre provide them with stimulation, education, passion and possibility and the state, through funding or other measures, conspires either to control or prevent it. This conflict is the starting point for any drama.

Why should this be? Because as artists, as poets and theatre makers, we must always be on the side of those who have nothing, either materially or culturally, politically or economically, those who have been denied self-expression and self-respect, who have lost everything in war including their own country. That is our challenge so let us accept it with open hearts. We are blessed as being the tradition bearers of a brilliant and robust culture. Let us use it to create a theatre that has love at its core, poetry on its lips and passion on the stage.

We are heading, unless Scotland can extract itself politically and constitutionally from this process, to a fascist future and if we do not struggle and dream we will be swallowed up. This is why the instinctive engineering of the playwright is so vital.

In theatre there is no place or function for the writer as a “vigilant solitary” as James Joyce put it. Rather the quality needed for any writer who chooses the theatre is that of outrage or, again to use another Joycean term, “indignity”. A writer who dares to dream of a better, a new, imagined Scotland – now, such an artist is of great use to the theatre. A playwright who prefers the demeaned standards required by the status quo of the UK state is of absolutely no use to anyone. Poetry may be the language of the theatre but it is a language of political challenge and a muscular language that forever seeks new forms out of the old: forms which insist on active participants and which eschews passive consumerism. What all this translates as is a theatre which can show us what it means to be alive here, now, today.

This was delivered at the Highland Sparks, the Dogstar Theatre Festival of new Highland playwriting, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness on 18.1.24

George Gunn’s play “Call Me Mister Bullfinch” will be performed in a moved reading at Lyth Arts Centre of Friday 29th March at 7.30 pm


Lyth Arts Centre