British colonisation of the north Americas began in 1607 with English efforts to establish a colony in Virginia, and continued throughout the eighteenth century.
In this period, many people believed that Highlanders and those indigenous to North America were alike in temperament; they were caricatured as ‘noble savages’. The ruling classes perceived both groups as uncivilised, brutish and primitive, but hardy enough to endure conditions in untamed landscapes and territories. To those eagerly snapping up land abroad, Scottish Highlanders were seen as ideal candidates to populate vast expanses and untamed wildernesses.
At the start of the 19th Century, Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, attempted to found a Scots settlement in Red River in Canada. Selkirk was seemingly sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed Highlander who had been lately forced off the land in favour of sheep.
Lord Selkirk also saw the profitability of such a venture. He used his vast wealth to buy land in the Red River Valley, and employed Highlanders to cultivate and till the land, in order that trade routes could be established.
As the play highlights, there is irony in the actions of Selkirk (and others like him) . In attempting to re-settle huge numbers of dispossessed Scots, the native people of northern America were, in turn, dispossessed of their own land.
The Scottish settlement in Red River Valley was not without its problems, as section two of the play outlines. A rival trading group – the French North-West Company – believed that the Hudson Bay Company settlement posed a threat to their established fur trading routes in Canada. The Nor’Wester traders chose to isolate the Highland settlers by refusing to trade with them. As the conflict continued, more and more Highlanders were shipped over to the Canadian settlements as additional manpower:
[…]The highland exploitation chain-reacted around the world; in Australia the aborigines were hunted like animals; in Tasmania not one aborigine was left alive; all over Africa, black men were massacred and brought to heel. In America the plains were emptied of men and buffalo, and the seeds of the next century’s imperialist power were firmly planted.
Meanwhile, at home, the colonisation of the Highlands continued. In 1848, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, acquired the lease on Balmoral estate. Queen Victoria’s residence in Scotland seemed to make the Highlands a fashionable destination for the elite.
The development of transport networks, especially the railways, made the Highlands accessible to the upper classes. Wealthy city dwellers and foreigners flocked to the Highlands for fishing, shooting and deer stalking. Hunting lodges and stately houses replaced the crofts. The tourist industry in the Highlands was born.
The development of hunting estates had long-lasting impact on the Highlands. In 1969, a few years before this play was written, a spokesperson for the Highland Development Board outlined the continued economic worth of the stag in the Highlands. Three and a half million acres of land were still preserved exclusively for deer.
In The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil the characters of Lady Phosphate and Lord Crask are caricatures of the ruling elites who owned or frequented sporting estates.