28 January 1907
Linmill Farm, Kirkfieldbank, Lanarkshire, Scotland
27 January 1985 (aged 77)|
High Corrie, Isle of Arran, Scotland
|Language||Scots and English|
|Alma mater||University of Glasgow (1925-1928)|
|Literary movement||Scottish renaissance|
Robert McLellan OBE (1907–1985) was a Scottish dramatist, poet and writer of the Linmill Stories, working principally in the Scots language. His plays were generally popular comedies with exceptionally well-realised historical settings, including most notably Toom Byres, Jamie the Saxt, Torwatletie, The Flouers o Edinburgh and The Hypocrite. He also wrote works of dramatic verse such as The Carlin Moth. His Linmill cycle of short stories, collected posthumously in 1990, are counted with Lorimer’s Bible as being among some of the most important Twentieth Century prose in Scots.
McLellan was born in Lanarkshire, grew up in Milngavie and attended the University of Glasgow in the 1920s. He had begun to write drama in Glasgow by the early 1930s and most of his plays in this prolific early period were first produced by the Curtain Theatre. After marriage in 1938, he moved to the Island of Arran. During World War Two McLellan served with the Royal Artillery mainly in coastal defence on postings outwith Scotland, including the Faeroe Islands. On return to Scotland in 1946 he resumed his career as a full-time playwright with hopes of a transformed culture for Scottish drama spearheaded by the likes of James Bridie’s newly founded Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. But after his rupture with Bridie in the late 1948, McLellan grew increasing dissatisfied with a Scottish theatrical culture which showed insufficient understanding of Scottish subjects and language. During the 1950s he turned increasingly to the medium of radio, finding greater sympathy for his aims with the Scottish BBC drama producer James Crampsie. By the 1960s his works began to break into Scottish television while a number of his stage plays, particularly Flouers o Edinburgh, were a staple part of a popular Scottish repertoire.
McLellan was elected as an Arran District Councillor in May 1955. He also served nationally as President for the Scottish Association of District Councils (1962-4) during his tenure. He stepped down from local politics in 1965, although he continued to write. His final stage plays were Young Auchinleck (1962) and The Hypocrite (1966). In later life he turned more to non-fiction on the subject of his adopted home of Arran, and in 1971 published a full-length non-fiction account of the island's geography, history and people. Despite McLellan's importance to Scottish drama, his reputation since his death has tended to rest more on his short stories. After an abortive attempt in 1981 to collect his drama, a comprehensive edition of his principal stage plays was finally published in 2014.
Early life and education
McLellan was born in 1907 at Linmill, a fruit farm in Kirkfieldbank in the Clyde valley, the home of his maternal grandparents. He grew up in Milngavie where his father, John McLellan, in c.1912 founded and ran the Allander Press. McLellan was educated at Bearsden Academy in Glasgow before studying philosophy at the University of Glasgow, although he did not complete his degree due to ill-health. He met his future wife, Kathleen Heys while climbing in the Lake District. They were married in 1938 and settled in Arran where they lived modestly on his income as a playwright.
McLellan dedicated himself to writing in Scots, the living language of the communities he grew up in. As he himself said in an article written for Scottish Field in 1956: "When I found that what I wanted most to do in life was to write for a Scottish Theatre I knew that I should always be poor, but I consoled myself with the thought that I could at least live where I liked." Drama in Scotland was undergoing a resurgence in the early twentieth century, led initially by the short-lived Glasgow Repertory Theatre and Scottish National Players.
Most of McLellan's early work was first premiered by Curtain Theatre in Glasgow, and other respected amateur companies such as Dumbarton People's Theatre. His first play was the one act comedy, Jeddart Justice (Curtain, January 1933) set in the feuding Border country of the sixteenth century. (Jeddart Justice is condemnation without a hearing.) This was followed by Toom Byres (Empty Cowsheds) in 1936. His masterpiece, Jamie the Saxt, was first performed by Curtain at the Glasgow Lyric in 1937, making Duncan Macrae, who played Jamie, one of Scotland’s most celebrated actors, an overnight star. It was revived by the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in 1947 and by the Scottish Theatre Company on Scottish tour in 1982, and received its English premiere in 2007 at the Finborough Theatre.
War service and post-war works
He saw wartime service in the Royal Artillery from 1940–1946 and after the war, returned to exciting new possibilities for Scottish drama. Glasgow Unity Theatre was formed in 1941 and the Citizens Theatre in 1943. His work was enthusiastically embraced by both. Glasgow Unity Theatre in 1946 saw the first performance of Torwatletie. In The Flouers o Edinburgh (1948), he explicitly and hilariously explored the sociolinguistic tension between Scots and English in Scotland, but his satirical treatment was rooted in a deep love for the language of Lowland Scotland. His belief in Scots as medium for Scottish drama, and the vigour, lyricism and humour that he found in it, did much to extend the literary range of a language whose registers had been eroded since the Union of the Crowns. But in spite of his prolific output, he did not receive the acclaim he deserved because writing in Scots has in the past been perceived, however unjustly, as a barrier to widespread and frequent productions.
Few dramatists have matched Robert McLellan’s skill at deploying the vigorous vocabulary of Scotland and his language is the beautifully lyrical, witty and intelligent Scots of his time. As a younger Scots playwright, Donald Campbell, said: "Robert McLellan wasn’t just a playwright, he was something else – something different, something special. He was a superb lyric poet who happened to have the additional gift of a theatrical imagination".
In addition to plays, McLellan also wrote five radio plays, The Linmill Stories, two poetic works – The Arran Burn and Sweet Largie Bay which was awarded The Scottish Arts Council’s Poetry Prize in 1956, and a history of the Isle of Arran published in 1969.
Robert McLellan played an active part in the community as a member of Arran District Council and as a president of the District Councils Association of Scotland. He also worked in the interests of his fellow writers as chair of the Scottish Sub-Committee of the League of Dramatists, chair of the Scottish Sub-Committee of the Society of Authors, Honorary Vice Preses (sic) of the Lallans Society and Honorary Vice President of the Scottish Society of Playwrights.
He was awarded a Civil List Pension in 1968 for "services to literature in Scotland" and received the Order of the British Empire in 1978.
He died in 1985 and is buried on the Isle of Arran.
Works by Robert McLellan
Unless indicated otherwise, the titles in this list refer to full-length stage plays with details of first production in brackets.
- Jeddart Justice (Curtain, 1934), one-act play
- Tarfessock (Curtain, 1934)
- Flight of Graidhne (1934, no production details traced)
- The Changeling (Clydebank Little Theatre, 1935), one-act play
- Cian and Ethlin (Curtain, 1935)
- Toom Byres (Curtain, 1936)
- Jamie the Saxt (Curtain, 1937)
- (brief residence as screenwriter in England, c.?1937/8)
- Portrait of an Artist (Curtain, 1939)
- (begins composing what will become ‘Linmill Stories’, September 1939)
- The Smuggler (Whiting Bay Drama Club, 1939), one-act play
- (completes Torwatletie under the title The Bogle (1940); not produced until 1946)
- (starts writing verse c.1943 while on active service in the Faeroe Islands)
- ‘Perrie Becomes Captain’ (BBC, 1944), short story, broadcast on radio
- The Carlin Moth (BBC, 1946), verse drama written for stage; first produced on radio
- The Cailleach (c.1946?, first production details uncertain), one-act play
- Torwatletie (Unity Players, 1946)
- The Flouers o Edinburgh (Unity Players, 1948)
- Mary Stewart (Citizens, 1950)
- An Tàcharan and A’ Chailleach (1950), translations into Gaelic of ‘The Changeling’ and ‘The Cailleach’
- The Road to the Isles (Citizens, 1954)
- As Ithers See Us (BBC, 1954), play for radio
- This is My Country (BBC, 1954), first in a number of series of historical dramatisations McLellan wrote for Scottish schools radio
- Sweet Largie Bay (BBC, 1956), verse drama for radio; awarded 1956 Arts Council of Great Britain Award for Poetry
- Rab Mossgiel (BBC radio and TV, 1959), Burns bicentenary play for radio; adapted for television later in the same year
- Kirstan and the Vikar (written but not produced, 1959), play for radio
- Kilellan (written but not produced, 1960), television sit-com (proposed to the new STV company in Glasgow)
- Linmill Stories (first radio series, BBC, 1960), autobiographical prose
- Balloon Tytler (BBC, 1962), play for radio
- Young Auchinleck (Gateway, 1962), produced for the Edinburgh International Festival
- Pageant for the Burgh of Kirkintilloch (community production, 1964)
- Waverley Gallery (BBC, 1964), series of stories from Scott dramatised for radio
- ‘A Cure for the Colonel’ (1964), episode for Dr Finlay’s Casebook (not broadcast)
- (television adaptation of Young Auchinleck, BBC TV, 1965)
- Mum and Sally (written but not produced, 1965), television drama
- The Old Byre at Clashmore (BBC, 1965), play for radio
- Arran Burn (BBC TV, 1965), poem for television, read by Iain Cuthbertson
- The Hypocrite (Edinburgh Lyceum, 1967)
- My Dear Dear Sister (1970), draft play (unproduced)
- A Pageant of Dumbarton (1970), adapted community production in 1972
- The Isle of Arran (1970), general reference book
- The Ancient Monuments of Arran (1977), HMSO guide book
- Film version of Linmill story ‘The Daftie’ (BBC TV, 1978)
- Film version of Linmill story ‘The Donegals’ (BBC TV, 1979)
- Linmill Stories (1990)
- Playing Scotland’s Story: Collected Dramatic Works (2013)
- David Hutchison, The Modern Scottish Theatre, 1976.
- Joy Hendry (ed), Chapman, double issue 43-4, 'Scottish Theatre Today', 1986.
- Colin Donati (ed), Robert McLellan, Playing Scotland's Story: Collected Dramatic Works, 2013.