Willie McRae was a former vice-president of the SNP and a controversial anti-nuclear campaigner, when he was found dead at the wheel of his car in the remote Highlands. At first it appeared he had veered off the road and crashed in a burn but the later discovery of a gun and a bullet wound to his head led police to conclude he had killed himself.
However, it had been fired twice and conspiracy theories were fuelled when it emerged the book McRae was writing, and his briefcase containing key documents, were missing.
Now a play - '3000 Trees' - fictionalising the last hour of McRae's life, is to be staged at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It's writer, George Gunn, explains why the time is now right for such a play.
Sometimes it pays to wait. The Scots have waited for 307 years for a chance to undo the slippery knot of the Union of 1707. I have waited for 29 years to write a play about the death of Willie MacRae.
In either case this has not been from choice. The time has to be right both for political independence and theatrical production but I am a firm believer that plays, if they are meant to be, will eventually find their moment and I am glad to report that “Three Thousand Trees”, a fictionalised account of Willie MacRae’s last hour of life, will be performed by Grey Coast Theatre at next month’s Festival Fringe in Edinburgh.
I hope to be able to dance with joy on September 19th when the Scottish people vote “Yes” so that we can begin to build our own nation.
On March 3rd 1985 the National Union of Mineworkers voted to return to work and the bitter 1984 – 1985 strike was over. On April 6th 1985 the Glasgow lawyer Willie MacRae was found dead in his car off the A87 road, by Loch Loyne, heading West to Kintail in the Scottish Highlands. These two events were crucial in the creative germination of the play “Three Thousand Trees”.
Living in Edinburgh during the Miners Strike I saw at first hand, at Bilston Glen and Monkton Hall pits, the brutality of the state in ferrying in legions of police from England to attack the miners’ picket lines and the subsequent and prolonged agony of the communities engaged in trying to defend their jobs and livelihoods. Many of the police would wave their overtime payslips in the faces of the penniless strikers. Older miners saw their sons, who they thought were in the army and in Germany, in un-numbered police uniforms in the serged ranks opposite them. It was an ugly, polarised and violent time.
Just as the independence cause is undermined by the contemporary media likewise in the mid 80’s the broadcasters were equally venal and vicious in the un-truths and downright lies they printed and broadcast about the miners and their trade union. There was no internet or smart phone technology then to effectively counter the state misinformation and black propaganda which passed as the Six o'clock News on BBC One and ITV.
What did become apparent was that the British state – and most especially the security services such as the police Special Branch and MI5 – in its messianic mission to destroy the miners’ strike was, in fact, out of control. Thatcher’s government had let the kennet-hounds of hell loose and it is my opinion that they have never been returned to their compound. Instead of these agencies protecting us, the people, from harm civil society now has to protect itself from the security services. Just say hello to the very nice person from GCHQ who is reading this.
The other thing which happened during the 1984 – 85 miners’ strike was that ordinary people rediscovered solidarity.
At last, in the hangover from the rigged 1979 Assembly referendum and the insanity of the Falklands War in 1982, here was a situation which became a common cause for many thousands of non-partisan people throughout Scotland. Millions of pounds were raised for the miners’ support fund. No event or gathering was complete without a bucket or can being passed around.
From bingo nights to classical concerts the injustice being implemented upon the miners’ reached deep into the decency banks of ordinary Scots as well as into their pockets. That sense of solidarity, of giving by many who could ill-afford to give – for this was a time of mass unemployment - was deeply moving and it has informed my political outlook ever since.
The subsequent sense of defeat and depression felt by many when the miners’ went back to work was only matched by the hysterical triumphalism of Thatcher’s Tory government and their cheerleaders in the media. Now, they felt, they could do what they liked. And they did. And to a greater extent they still are.
All the promises issued by the Conservative government of 1984 have been shown to be lies. There are no coal mines in Scotland. All the predictions made by the SNUM have come true. There are no coal mines in Scotland. My contention is that Willie MacRae was both target and collateral damage, a casualty of this class war.
He was not the only one. Hilda Murrell, like Willie MacRae, was an active and prominent anti-nuclear campaigner and was also found dead in mysterious circumstances outside Shrewsbury in 1984. There have been others.
My interest in the case of Willie MacRae was heightened from the start. He had been a vice president of the SNP, he was a human rights champion, an anti-nuclear activist and he was on his way to Thurso after that ill-fated weekend to attend a preliminary hearing which would lead to a public enquiry into the building of a nuclear dump by NIREX at Dounreay. He was writing a book on the whole nuclear business. In his own words he had something on them. “I’ve got them now!” he was reported telling anyone who would listen.
Tragically, inevitably, “they” got him before he could get “them”. In 2012 Rebecca Johnson, a former senior adviser to the Blix commission – which was instigated by the Swedish government - on weapons of mass destruction, writing about the Fukushima disaster in 2011, commented that “Nuclear disaster is both avoidable and inevitable. Nuclear technologies have too many inherent risks and widespread consequences to be a sensible choice for energy production.”
Willie MacRae’s death, the death of Hilda Murrell and others, because of – literally – the state we live in, have proven to be both avoidable and inevitable. My job as a writer is to make sense out of all this, to construct an honest narrative, to tell the story as best I can.
Despite the shining light offered by the referendum we live in dark times. It is a time for stark questions: is freedom a possibility or a necessity? Must we accept nothing much as opposed to nothing at all? Are human beings totemic creatures or are they fashioned by social and economic forces? Where does theatre and poetry fit into this and does it have a function anymore? In fact, is there any space at all in these dark times for art?
To tell any story a writer must give themselves some distance from the subject. The death of Willie MacRae, after 29 years, is now so significantly historical that its causality can be detached and examined so that we, as a society, can learn from it.
As all history is a mere construction, as is a play, then the theatre – where people physically come together to observe, to witness something – is the appropriate forum where this examination and learning can take place.
For example the distance necessary, the detachment required, is achieved by not making “Three Thousand Trees” about Willie MacRae but about a character called Willie Mackay who enters a petrol-station shop in North Sutherland on the same day as Willie MacRae was killed. The former circumstance is fiction, the latter is fact.
The actor you see on the stage is playing Willie Mackay – whom everyone supposes is a representation of Willie MacRae – but in actual fact that person is neither Willie Mackay nor Willie MacRae; he is the actor Billy Riddoch, alive as can be. As he will be every night for four weeks in August in Edinburgh and hopefully for a long, long time afterwards.
The Austrian playwright Peter Handke once noted that in the theatre:
“The light is brightness pretending to be other brightness; a chair is a chair pretending to be another chair.”
From its very ancient origins the theatre has always been a mixture of reality and illusion whose purpose is to reveal the truth. Its other purpose, of course, is to entertain and to give pleasure. A theatre in which you cannot laugh is a theatre to be laughed at. In this duality or reality and illusion resides the theatres endurance. The theatre always has a fixed destination but is in constant movement. It has a specific set of circumstances but it is in perpetual transition.
This is what the ancient Greeks called the “agon”, that almost untranslatable word which brings together such ideas as “the gathering”, “the struggle”, the debate and dialogue between the characters and has given us such restless words as agony, antagonism and protagonist. In human affairs the theatre, the “agony”, has been in continual symposium, in timeless session, in a never ending performance. History, likewise, is in constant transition as all societal and political certainties eventually melt into thin air.
In “Three Thousand Trees” when Willie Mackay walks through the door into the petrol-station shop in the fictional Altnasheen he enters from the realm of the living into a kind of purgatory where he meets Life in the form of Kirstag Mackenzie, the daughter of his best friend, and Death in the form of Sinclair Oliphant, a MI5 operative “undercover” with Strathclyde Special Branch. The play is the struggle between Life and Death for Willie Mackay.
When he walks out of the same door as he came in Willie is walking to death but we, the audience, we are very much alive because “Three Thousand Trees” is, if it is anything, a celebration of life. The “agony” is that death and the struggle are necessary at all. The illusion is that Willie Mackay will be reborn and die every night for a month.
The reality of Willie MacRae’s life is that his story, in however an imperfect and alienated form, is being told and that freedom is possible and it is necessary. Willie MacRae’s death, in real life, was a tragedy for Scotland. Willie Mackay’s nightly one hour of stage traffic is a triumph for life, for us, the audience who have gathered to witness his victory over violence and cynicism, we who can go out and vote “Yes” on September 18th and live.
We have eaten too long of the bread that is baked in the dark.
- Bertolt Brecht, 1948
At the end of June the up and coming band Neon Waltz played at the Wicker Warm-up event in Glasgow. In the Sunday Herald they were described as a “powerful six-piece band hailing from the remote wilderness of Caithness.” In the NME they were described as coming from “nowhere”. “Three Thousand Trees” likewise is a play which comes from the “remote wilderness of Caithness” but it does not come from “nowhere”. I am from Caithness, both Helen Mackay who plays Kirstag and Adam Robertson who plays Sinclair Oliphant are from Caithness, Thurso to be exact, and it was to Thurso that Willie Mackay, in the play, and – eventually – Willie MacRae, in real life, was headed.
Why? Because of the on-going nuclear experiment at Dounreay. In the 1980’s an underground nuclear repository was being mooted for Dounreay where nuclear waste from all over Britain was to be deposited/dumped into the sedimentary rock formation of the North Caithness coast. This was seen by many – and still is – as part of the ongoing militarisation of the Far North of Scotland as well as being environmentally toxic.
Willie MacRae certainly thought so which is why he was planning to give evidence at the Public Enquiry which was held in Thurso in the Town Hall in 1985. He never got to give his evidence. It is clear now – with hindsight if not peerless police forensics – that Willie MacRae was taken out – by persons unknown – from life and from the democratic process of public debate. The theatre can, to a degree, redress this injustice.
In the theatre society has a forum where freedom is indestructible. The stories society tells itself on the public stage refreshes all aspects of society in a way no other art form or legal or political process can, because in the theatre we are all free: in the theatre “they” cannot get you. In the theatre free speech is essential which gives rise to one of the great ironies of the dramatic art: no fiction will communicate directly or indirectly to an audience unless it is true.
As it is with storytelling so it is with acting and language. The natural language of the theatre is poetry and “Three Thousand Trees” is written in a loose iambic with occasional rhyme and this, hopefully, allows the actor to present the character without drowning in the empathic requirements of naturalism.
I believe that the language we use in the theatre must embrace sensuality and recognise the human community which produced it and have a gestic quality which liberates the actor rather than imprisons them. As in the actor’s movement, gesture and attitude likewise in poetry, the truth is primarily what we look for. “In poetry morality”, as Brecht would have it “lies not in indignation but truthfulness”.
When all the elements of theatre come together it is the most powerful, the most revolutionary art form known to humanity simply because it raises consciousness, it educates and it entertains. Which is why funding for theatre is such a heavily managed affair. One of the tasks of the new Scotland we are trying to create is to change that, to open out the opportunity theatre offers to many more people. Once people see and hear the truth they cannot get enough of it. Theatre embraces people, it does not exclude them.
Yet, in the scheme of things, it is from the remote and wild places, which “most people” consider as “nowhere”, where change and truth often comes because it is the last place “most people”, including the watchdogs of the state and arts funding, expect it. When “most people” look at the wide open spaces of Kildonan and Strathnaver what they see is scenery. What I see is poverty and loss.
Which brings me back to the question: what is the function – even the possibility – of art as this dark history grinds on? What function does the poet really have any more in the digital age of twitter and drone strikes? In the play I use Hamish Henderson’s “The Flyting o’ Life and Daith” as a dramatic device to allow Kirstag and Oliphant to “flyte” for Willie.
On whether poetry or humanity is totemic or social Hamish Henderson has this to say:
“Art depends on the society. In primitive societies the poet or bard was an honoured person. Integrally part of the community. His songs or hymns were part of reality for the people… (But) in all class societies the completeness of the artist’s perception of reality is to a certain extent crippled… Gradually the poet and the community must be threaded together again – and we must start here, where we stand…”
So in August in Edinburgh Grey Coast Theatre comes out of the remote wilderness to give you our play, “Three Thousand Trees”, not “crippled” but standing tall. We make no claims for our play's perfection but I would claim that it is “part of reality for the people”. It is a theatrical attempt to repopulate the empty straths of our nation and of our mind.
It is totemic in as much as it is the ancient story of a hero meeting his fate and like a staging of Antigone with horse skull-heads on poles the setting is stark, “primitive” as Hamish Henderson would have it. But as current events unfold and today becomes yesterday and eventually history, the British state is revealing its true horse-skull beneath the smiling face of public schoolboy plausibility: it is itself becoming totemic, barbaric.
I remember once in the mid 1990’s at a poetry festival when I had finished performing at an event in the hall of a certain castle in deepest Aberdeenshire, the castle owner and local landowner pointed to the minstrel’s gallery which extended out from a balcony and said
“In days gone by that would be the natural place for you, George.”
I replied, “I doubt it.”
“Why?” he asked, rather disappointedly.
“Because,” I said “my head would more than likely be on a spike by the main gate.”
The artist and the community have to be “threaded together” again and each artist must begin that process, as Hamish Henderson insists, “where we stand”. Art does not come from “nowhere”. It has to come from somewhere and the joy of Scotland at this moment is that artists are everywhere.
'Three Thousand Trees' will be at Venue 109, Gryphon Venues, Hilton, Bread Street, Edinburgh at 7.15 pm from 1st August to 24th August. Come and share in the solidarity we must all have with the future.
For more information go to http://3000trees.com