Fiction and fact

In The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, John McGrath mixes fictional scenes with factual readings that both entertain and inform the audience.


Storytelling plays a hugely significant role in Scotland’s literary history. In the very specific instructions on how to stage The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil we find clear reference to the oral tradition.

From the beginning, stage directions alert us to the importance of storytelling and narrative: in the centre of the stage a huge book stands.

When the book is opened -

as in children’s pop-up books, a row of mountains pops up from in between the pages.

In the original 1973 staging, this pop-up book set was designed by the Paisley artist John Byrne. The staging suggests that what is about to unfold is fiction, or artifice.

Factual accounts

The audience are not there simply to be entertained by the ‘story’. They are to be moved to action by the play’s socio-political message. To this end, the play includes narrator figures (M.C.’s, readers, speakers, actors breaking character to summarise/explain) who deliver factual readings and accounts. These readings shape the narrative and thread it together.

These readings back up the satirical scenes and characters by providing information on real life events. It is clear what is true and what invented.

At the end of the play:

the rest of the Company comes on […] at the end of the song all stay on stage and speak to the audience in turn

All artifice and fiction is stripped away. The company reiterate in plain terms their message that the people do not own the land, before reaching out directly to the audience in the repeatedly asked rhetorical question: have we learnt anything from the Clearances?

By posing this question, the audience are being encouraged to take action, to intervene in the development of the Highlands and to help re-write the conclusion of the story.