Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Story of the Scots Stage
Chapter III - The Origin of Drama in Edinburgh

A LEISURELY examination as to the progress of music and drama in the Scots capital is full of interesting results. That those entrancing arts were looked upon as part of the amenities, as well as the duties of life, is abundantly proved by the rich harvest of material one can gather from a very casual gleaning in the regions of historical survey. And what is perhaps the most curious part of the study is to witness the constant struggle between the natural instinct of the people to seek out their own forms of pleasure, and the religious fanaticism which (what then stood for the Nonconformist conscience) sought to stifle the popular aspiration in that regard. In following out this study, the ethnographer will confirm his experience of a similar process of evolution in the drama of the other European races. Ever and anon he will discover the Church arising in jealous zeal, protesting in no uncertain manner against the popularity of its secular rival. Its beginnings may be traced to a religious source, which, in its further period of development, cuts adrift from ecclesiastical guidance, searching out a path native to its fullest desires. One has only to regard the beginnings of French drama, to find that what was once Scotland's ally pursued an almost similar course in the exploitation of its dramatic art.

The early period of Scots history will never, at any time, be found barren in evidence of the existence of the drama in its primary form. We have already traced songs and ballads back to the thirteenth century. James I. was not only a poet, but was also well accomplished in the art of music, besides being no mean performer on the harp. His Peblis to the Play (printed Edinburgh, 1548) describes many quaint dances.

Wedderburne in his Cornplaynt of Scotland (1549) speaks of a ring dance where "evyrie aid scheipyrd led his vyfe and evyrie zong scheiperd led her quhomc he luffit best." Thirty different dances are mentioned. " It was ane celest recreation to behold the licht lopene, galmonding, stendling, backwart and fordwart, dansand base dancis, panuans, galzardis, tardions, braulis and branglis, buffons, vitht mony uthir lycht dancis, the quhilk are ower prolixit to be rehersit."

Amongst the earliest records, we find that in the year 1456, James the Second granted, under his great seal, to the Magistrates and community of the city of Edinburgh and their successors for ever, the valley and low ground lying betwixt the rock called Craigingalt in the cast, and the commonway and passage on the west (known as Greenside) for all manner of sports, a privilege which was fully taken advantage of in the years to follow. The records as to the Town Pipers date as far back as August, 1487. They were supported by the wealthier classes, who each gave them " one day's meat."

In the Acts of the Lord High Treasurer (Sir William Knowles, afterwards slain at Flodden), according to the testimony of Tytler, we have many quaint entries relating to payments made to various Scots harpers, fiddlers, and English pipers who performed before the court of James the Sixth. Here is one:

"July July Jo, 1489.—Item, to Inglish pyparis that came to the Castel yet, and playit to the king xiij lib xiij s."

Another records (1488) a payment

"to Patrick Johnson and his fellows that playt a play to the King in Lithgow."

King James IV. was no mean musician, if one may judge from the fact that on the occasion of his first marriage he played on the "clavycordes and after on the lute."

When he met his bride (8th August, 1503), the Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry the Seventh, who had come from Dalkeith Castle, the citizens enhanced the welcome with a grand pageant. In this were represented Paris and the three rival goddesses; Mercury, the Virgin, and the angel Gabriel; the four Virtues; Justice treading on Nero; Force bearing a pillar with Holfooernes beneath her, armed; Temperance holding a horse's bit and treading on Epicurus, and Prudence trampling over Sardanaplus. The tarbret players performed in the procession as it moved from West Bow to Holyrood. At the marriage, in the same year, the famous minstrels of Aberdeen had the honour of singing, and were provided with silver badges bearing the arms of their city. A company of English comedians (supposed to have been in the service of Henry the Seventh), headed by John English, played "a moralitie " before the King and Queen. Masques and tournaments followed, in which the King appeared, entering the lists as the savage knight. Indeed, His Majesty seems to have been quite dilettante in his tastes.

The poet, William Dunbar, author of The Thistle and The Rose, written for this marriage, was the literary Master of the Revels, and composed many plays which were performed before the King and his courtiers, the company being sometimes supplemented with many noble foreign guests. Dunbar was awarded the post of Poet-Laureate. His work seems to have fallen into disfavour, for, in 1513, we find him complaining in one of his short pieces that, although he still enjoyed the Royal favour, the King seemed to prefer the company of jesters and light women. Perhaps the change was consequent upon the fact that in his later works the Rev. William Dunbar devoted his attention to religious subjects such as Divine and earthly love, and the character of our Lord.

About this period the Robin Hood plays came into vogue. An order, dated 1518, by the Earl of Arran, the Provost of Edinburgh, refers to the making of sports and jocosities, and excuses one Francis Bothwell from taking the part of Little John. The actors in these plays were chosen from the most respected of the citizens, and they could only be excused on payment of a fine.

Passion plays were a popular form of entertainment at the pre-Reformation time, and upon the eve of the Reformation they were supplemented by plays satirising the vices of the ecclesiastics. In regard to this latter, there is a record of a summary form of censorship having been employed. Kyllor, a monk of the Blackfriars Monastery, was burned at the stake on Castle Hill for certain free expressions employed in a play performed before the Court.

In the accounts of the Treasurer to James the Fifth, under date 1530, appears an item that sounds somewhat Scriptural: --

"Item, to the Egyptianis that dansit before the King in Holyrud House, 40s."

Returning to the Greenside, where the Robin Hood sports took place, Sir David Lyndsay's Pleasant Satire of the Three Estates was presented, but, as it exposed the lives of the Scottish clergy, by a Council of the Church, held at the Black Priory in March, 1558, Sir David's books were ordered to be burned by the public executioner.

Its first performance is said to have taken place at Cupar in 1535, but of this no particulars have been preserved. According to Wilson, the "Pleasant Satire was played in 1544 before the Queen Regent, as is mentioned by Henry Charteris, the bookseller, who sat patiently nine hours on the bank to witness the play. It so far surpasses any efforts of contemporary English dramatists that it renders the barrenness of the Scottish muse in this department afterwards the more apparent." To the modern playgoer, the spectacle of a nine-hour auditor must be that of a veritable hero, when so few nowadays can stand the stress of a three-hour ordeal. In his Essay on The Drama, Scott differs materially from Wilson with regard to date and place of production of Lyndsay's Satire.

"The difference between the Catholic and Reformed religion was fiercely disputed in some of these dramas, and in Scotland a mortal blow was aimed at the superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church by Sir David Lyndsay in a Morality acted in 1539 and entitled The Satire of the Three Estaitis. In a letter to Lord Priory Seal of England, 26th Jany., 1540, Sir William Eurc (Envoy from Henry the Eighth) gives the following account of the play. 'In the feast Epiphane at Lightgowe before the King Queene and the whole connsaile, spirituall and temporall. In the first entres conies in Solare (whose part was but to make mery, sing ballets with his fellowes, and drink at the interluydes of the play) whoe showed firste to all the audience the play to be played. Next came in a King, who passed to his throne, having nae speche to the ende of the play, and then to ratify and approve, as in Parliament, all things done by the rest of the players, which represented The Three Estates. With him came his cortiers, Placebo, Piethank, and Flatterye, and sic alike gard: One swering he was the lustiest, starkeste, best proportionit, and most valeyant man that ever was; and ane other swore he was the best with. long-bowe, cross bowe and culvern and so fourth. Thairafter there came a man armed in harness, with a swerde drawn in his hande, a Bishop, a Burges-Man and Experience, cled like a Doctor, who set them all down on the deis under the King. After them comes a Poor Man, who did go up and down the scaffolde, making a hevie complainte that he was hereyet, throw the courtiers taking his fcwe in one place, and his tackes in another; wherethrough he had sceylcd his house, his wyfe and childrenc begging thair bredc, and so of many thousands in Scotland; saying thair was no remedy to be gotten, as he was neither acquainted with controulle nor treasurer. And then ha looked to the King and said he was not King in Scotland, fore there was ane other King in Scotland that hanged Johne Armstrang, with his fellowes, Sym the Laird, and mony other mai, but he had left ane thing undone. Then he made a long narracione of the oppression of the poor, by the taking of the corsepresaunte beists, and of the herrying of poor men by the consistoryc lave, and of many other abusions of the Spiritualitie and Church. Then the Bishop raise and rebuked him. Then the Man of Armes alledged the contraire and commanded the poore man to go on. The poor man proceeds with a long list of the Bishop's evil practices, the vices of the cloisters, etc: —This proved by Experience who, from a New Testament, shows the office of a Bishop. The Man of Armes and the Burges approve of all that was said against the clergy, and alledge the expediency of a reform, with the consent of Parliament. The Bishop dissents. The Man of Armes and Burges said they were two and he but one, wherefore should have most effect. Thereafter the King in the play,, ratified approved and confirmed all that was rehearsed."

The following is one of the speeches by the character, Correction:----

"Na realm, nor land, but my support may stand
For I gar kings live into royalty.
To rich and poor I bear an equal hand
That they may live into their own degree.
Quhare I am not, is no tranquility.
By me traitors and tyrants are put down,
Quha thinks no shame of their iniquity
Till they be punished by me, Correction.
Quhat is ane King? Naught but ane officer
To cause his lieges live in equity
And under God, to be ane punisher
Of trespassours against His majesty."

At the Tennis Court, Holyrood (situate on the opposite side of the Water Gate), in the year 1541 there was supposed to have been enacted a "litill farsche and play maid be William Lauder," which was produced before the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, on which occasion the author was presented with two silver cups.

But the good men of Parliament, ever solicitous of the morals of their people, saw in the Robin Hood plays and May Queen games an increasing menace to national righteousness, and so in 1555 we find them passing an Act of the following tenor: —

"Item. It is statute and ordanit that in all times cumrning na maner of persoun be chosin Robert Hude nor Lytill Johne Abbot Unressoun Quenis of Maij, nor utherwyse nouther in Burgh nor to landwart in ony tyme to cum. And gif ony Provest Baillies counsall and communitie chosis sic ane Personage as Robert Hude Lytill John Abbotis of unressoun or Quenis of Maij within Burgh the chefaris of fic sail tyne thair fredom-e for the space of fyve yeiris and utherwyse salbe punist at the Quenis grace will and the acceptar of sicklyke office salbe banist furth of the Realme. And gif ony sic persounis sic as Robert Hude Little Johne Abbotis of Unressoun Quenis of Maij beis chosin outwith Burgh and uthers landwart townis the chefaris sail pay to our Soverane Lady x pundis and thair persounis put in waird thair to remaine during the Quenis grace plesoure. And gif ony wemen or uthers about simmer treis singand maids perturbation to the Quenis lieges in the passage throw Burrowis and uthers landwart townis the wemen perturbatouris for skafric of money or utherwyse salbe takin handellit and put upon the Cukstulis of everie Burgh or towne."

Despite the passing of this Act, which the public seemed to respect in a mild way, as subsequent events proved, the Parliament had scotched the snake, not killed it. In the month of May, 1561, an Edinburgh mob became so enraged at the disappointment they had received in " making a Robin Hood " on the Greenside, that they rose in mutiny, seized the City gates, committed various robberies upon strangers, and, upon one of the ringleaders being condemned by the Magistrates to be hung, they forced open the jail, set at liberty the condemned man, and broke up the gibbet which had been erected for him at the Cross. The culprit was one, James Dillon, a cordiner's servant, who had committed the heinous crime of being chosen Robin Hood and Lord of Inobedience. Following upon this action, the crowd assaulted the Magistrates as they sat in the Council Chamber, compelling them to seek the refuge of the Tolbooth, where they renewed their attack, battering the doors down and pouring in stones through the windows. An appeal was made to the Deacons of the Corporation to appease the mob, but they refused to intervene, making the laconic answer, " They will be Magistrates alone, let them rule the multitudes alone." That to the Constable of the Castle was also in vain, for the Magistrates were "held in strict confinement until they had issued the following proclamation idemnifying the rioters, all of which is set forth by the old city chronicler:---

"That the said provost and baillies sail remit to the said craftschilder all actioun, cryme and offens that thai had committit aganes thame in any tyme bygane and band and oblast thame never to pursue thame thairfor, and als commandit thair masters to resave thame agane in thair services as thai did befoir. And this being proclamit at the Mercat Croce, thai scailit, and the said provest and baillies come furth of the same tolbouyth."

When Queen Mary landed at Leith on 19th August, 1561, she was welcomed by a grand pageant. Along the road from Leith to Restalrig, and thence to Holyrood, banners and bands of music lined the route. It scarcely met with the entire approbation of the Queen, for, according to the old chronicler, she sighed and remarked to one of her attendants, "They mean well and we must be content." The ceremony which followed in the evening met with just as little approval, according to the. story of one of her French servants: "There came under her windows five or six hundreds citizens who gave her a concert of the vilest fiddles and little rebecs, which are as bad as they can be in that country, and accompanied them with singing psalms, but so wretchedly out of tune and concord that nothing can be worse. Ah! what melody it was. What a lullaby for the nightI"

On the 1st September, the City gave a banquet in her honour, for which the sum of 4,000 merks (£225 5s. 6d.) was raised by means of a tax upon the citizens. Amongst the masques which were performed was one shewing the doom of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, set forth by some of the more zealous Reformers as a picture lesson for the Queen's instruction and guidance in the paths of virtue.

The efforts of the Reformers were by no means confined to such measures. In 1563 the Assembly took the press under its direction, prohibiting all books concerning religion to be published till the printers had obtained, not only a license from the Magistrates, but also the approbation of the Kirk. The King's printer, too, had to receive assistance in the matter of a salary of £5o a year from the Church.

Stringent as the measures were that had been taken for the moral health of the people, the Court hardly believed in the maxim that what was sauce for the goose was equally suitable for the other members of the family, for we read of a Latin masque entitled The Pomp of the Gods being performed in July, 1567. Birrell, in his Diary, under date 17th January, 1568, also speaks of "a play maid by Robert Sempill " which was played before the Lord Regent and the nobility, and the author paid £66 13s. 4d. It is conjectured that the play was a comedy entitled Philotus, a copy of which has been reprinted by the Bannatyne Club. The entire story was said to have been borrowed from a work of Barnaby Rich, published under the title of Riche, his Farewell to Militarie profession: containing very pleasant Discourses fit for a peacable time.

This tale is the second in the series. Philotus, a very rich and very old man, is enamoured of Emelia, the beauteous daughter of Alberto, but is unsuccessful in winning her regard. The old suitor makes an appeal to her father, who gives his consent, but is unable to command that of his daughter. To this enter FIavius, Emelia's lover. Disguised as a young main, Emelia Ieaves her father's house. Meantime Philerno, her brother, returns after a long absence, and is mistaken for his sister. Falling in with his sister's plan, he consents to marry Philotus, who commits his bride to the care of his daughter, Brisilla. This couple find each other's company so agreeable that, after certain invocations, Philerno pretends to be metamorphosed into a man. The marriage of Philotus is celebrated, and Philerno, "fearing to be discovered, maketh a brawling that same night with Philotus, abuseth him vyllie and to colour the matter the better agreeth with" a courtesan to go to bed with Philotus. Flavius, secretly married to Emelia, becoming suspicious as to her real identity, dismisses her as an evil spirit who had assumed an earthly shape. She returns to her father's house and is there met by Philotus: the one complains of her husband, the other of his wife, and a comic situation is thus produced. The mystery being explained, Emelia returns to Flavius and Brisilla is married to Philerno. The play is not divided into acts or scenes, but follows out the easy style of eight-lined verse. [As Batnaby Rich's book was not published till 1581, the fact of this being the play produced is flatly contradicted. The first edition of P4ilotur was not printed in Edinburgh till 1603. It was upon this story that Shakespeare founded his Twelth Night, which rust have been produced late in the year 1600, or early in the following year.]

In the department of itinerant performers, Calderwood mentions that, in 1571, one named Kircaldy danced before the cock of the steeple at St. Giles. Against such, Parliament levelled their Act, dated 1574 (James VI., 873).

"It is declared that all ydill pfonis gazing about in ony countre of this realme using subtile crafty and unlauchfull playis, As juglecrie fast and loose and sic utheris. And all minstrallis sangstaris and taill tellaris not avowit in speciall suice be sum of the lordis of Pliament or greit barronis or be the heid burrowis and cities for comoun menstrallis . . . salbe takin adjugeit demed and puneist as strang beggaris and vagaboundis."

In the same year, the question arose before the General Assembly on August i ith, when a Commission was appointed to enquire into the violation of the Sabbath day by profane plays. The following year they prohibited all dramas founded upon Scripture. The censors were the Kirk Session, before which body the piece was first read. One stipulation was that "Nae swearing, banning, nor nae scurrility shall be spoken, which would be a scandal to our religion, and for an evil example to others." An interesting sequel to this decree will be found in the Assembly's proceedings for 23rd October, 1576.

"Anent the supplicatioun given in be the toun of Dumferling for liberty to be granted them to play upon a Sunday aftcrnoone a certain play which is not made upon the Canonical parts of the Scriptures. The Assemblic refuses to give libertie to the Bailzie of Dunfermling to play upon a Sunday afternoone a certain play quhilk is not made upon the Canonicall parts of the Scripture, in respect of the act of the Assemblies past in the contrair, exhorting the Bailzie of Dunfermling presenter of the bill to request- to keep the ordinance of the Assemblie."

A further attempt upon the liberty of the subject was tried in 1578, when the General Assembly, by an Act, of April 24th, concluded

"That an Universall Fast shall be keeped, thro' all the Kirks of this realm . . . and that this Act be intimat to the King his Majestic and Counsell, and his Grace and Counsell be humbly required to discharge be proclamation all kinds of insolent playes as Robin Hood, King of May, and such like in all persons as well scholers (bairns at the schools) as others, under such paines as they shall think good."

The punishment for vagabonds and beggars was detention in the stocks. The culprit was tried at the Assizes six days afterwards, and, if found guilty, scourged and burned through the gristle of the right ear with "ane het Irne of the Compasse of ane inche about": all this being done "to the greit pleasure of almichtie God and commoun weill of the realme." If discovered a second time within sixty days, the miscreant was to be hung as a thief (Act 1579 James VI.). There is a cheerful tone about this law that must have afforded infinite comfort to the soul of the judge whose duty it was to pronounce sentence.

That the Kirk had some difficulty in persuading its own officials to obey their commands with regard to plays, is suggested by a question which arose at the July session of the Assembly, 1579.

"Q. What aught to be done to sick persons, that, after admonition, will passe to May playis; and speciallie elders and deacons and uthers quha beares office in the Kirk?

"Responsis. They aught not to be admittit to the sacrament without satisfaction: in speciall elders and deacons."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus