Fifty years ago, the Glasgow Herald’s drama critic, Christopher Small, enthused: “The latest enterprise of John McGrath’s 7:84 Theatre is his most effective exercise to date in the openly partisan objectives for which the company exists; a superb example of the way the stage can be used simultaneously for pleasure and political polemic”.

It was an excellent summary of what The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was about – entertainment intended to make its audiences think and then draw their own conclusions. A question that should be asked is why there has been nothing like it since, and is unlikely to be in today’s Scotland?

I have my own acute memories of The Cheviot. Along with friends from university, I had started the West Highland Free Press on Skye the previous year, a local newspaper with a radical purpose. To some extent we were extraordinarily lucky with stories that instantly presented themselves; though, in truth, the stories are always there if anyone goes looking for them.

The Cheviot blended Highland history with current events and the Free Press stories of the day provided much raw material for the latter element, brilliantly translated into satire alongside the righteous anger that characterised the historical elements. It was a truly wonderful piece of theatre.

Read more: Acclaimed production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil to tour Scotland

John McGrath, a skilled director, brought together a small but perfectly formed group of talents who contributed to the dynamism of the writing. Elizabeth, John’s wife, had her roots in Sutherland which led him in the direction of the play’s core themes. Dolina Maclennan provided the authentic Gaelic presence through word and song.

The Cheviot brought to the fore three extraordinary acting talents – John Bett, Alex Norton and Bill Paterson. Their genius ensured that the polemic would never become a finger-wagging bore. Instead, it moved effortlessly from high comedy to deep pathos, all infused with messages that informed audiences and challenged them to link past and present.

One of Bill’s characters, Andy McChuckemup, the Glasgow speculator who could see development opportunities where currently there was “hee-haw but scenery” has stayed with me for 50 years, so often does life continue to improve upon art. In fact, all of the themes that energised The Cheviot are just as real today, for anyone who cares to notice.

At its core, the play was about land, the history of Clearance, the needless destruction of a culture and the continuing power of landlordism in late 20th century Scotland, with its grotesque maldistribution of ownership. It told a story that had gone largely untold and took it to places where it was recognisable as first-hand experience.

I remember a summer’s evening on Skye when a BBC chap came from London to see this theatrical phenomenon. As we stood outside Broadford Village Hall, he enthused: “It’s marvellous. But why are they doing it here? Why isn’t it at the Royal Court?”. It was a hilarious case of missing the point. All was forgiven when the BBC made a brilliant production of The Cheviot for its Play for Today series. In that way, it was carried from village halls in the Highlands to an audience of millions throughout the UK.

I recall The Cheviot for lifelong friendships formed and its place in a series of unrelated events which briefly brought the land issue to the forefront of Scottish political debate. They also included Jim Hunter’s classic book The Making of the Crofting Community’, which shredded Scottish historical revisionism which had suppressed the brutal truth for so long.

The Herald: The writer John McGrath pictured in 2002The writer John McGrath pictured in 2002 (Image: Newsquest)

Perhaps most amazingly, there was a man in his nineties, John McEwen, in Blairgowrie, a forester and hater of landlordism’s power based on personal experience. John took the view that land reform would be helped by knowing who owned the land. So he set out to measure the estates’ acreages and research the owners for the original Who Owns Scotland?. There is still much of the answer that we don’t know.

And that really poses the question: how much has changed? Interest in land reform quickly returned to the fringes. There was a period between 1997 and 2005 when we captured some of the low-hanging fruit but in recent years nothing has been done or looks like being done through powers that now reside in Scotland which is, for some, an inconvenient truth.

Creatives with the same talents and motivation as the Cheviot team would have no shortage of targets. The hedge funds buying up vast areas to fill their boots for “re-wilding” while de-peopling continues… Flogging off cheap offshore wind leases to multinationals…. I imagine the ferries debacle would have alerted McChuckemup Marine Solutions, masters of the dodgy contract. And so on… But who would do it? Satire, if not formally banned in today’s Scotland, is certainly discouraged. The Cheviot was supported with Arts Council grants under a Tory government. Can anyone imagine a theatre company with the stated aim of lampooning Scottish Government failures getting across the door of Creative Scotland? So don’t ask the question if you don’t want the answer.

Read more: Portrait of late Scottish theatre writer and producer David MacLennan unveiled in Glasgow

I caught a Radio 4 programme about the Cheviot anniversary. With dreary predictability, it didn’t stick long with the story of how it was made and the great issues raised. It didn’t even speak to the surviving performers, with the exception of Dolina. Making a retrospective about the Cheviot without Bett, Paterson and Norton is like making an omelette without eggs!

Instead it became a laborious attempt to shoehorn it into a tendentious narrative about the constitutional debate’s evolution. I know that in some circles, nothing in Scotland exists without that context but it was ironic the programme walked straight into a trap the play itself avoided. Part of the brilliance of The Cheviot was that it presented the evidence without battering its audiences with conclusions.

So let’s hope the anniversary of the Cheviot can be celebrated for what it was rather than what our latter-day revisionists might wish it to have been – “a superb example of the way the stage can be used simultaneously for pleasure and political polemic”.