Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953

Other names

  • The Seventh Annual Arbroath Abbey Illuminated Pageant

Pageant type


The organisation formally in charge of the pageant was the Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society; however, the burgh council also took a keen interest in the pageant even if they were not its official organisers and many of the Society's committee members were also elected town councillors.

Jump to Summary


Place: Arbroath Abbey (Arbroath) (Arbroath, Angus, Scotland)

Year: 1953

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 7


19–23 August 1953

Illuminated Performances: Wednesday 19 August to Sunday 23 August 1953, daily at 10.15pm
Daylight Performance: Friday 21 August 1953, 6.30pm
Gala Afternoon Performance: Saturday 22 August 1953, 2.45pm

Full dress rehearsal, Wednesday 19 August at 6.30pm, to which schoolchildren were admitted.1

The pageant took place within the ruins of the medieval Arbroath Abbey, which has long been roofless and open to the elements.

This was the seventh in the series of annual pageants celebrating the Declaration of Arbroath. When the pageant began in 1947, only three shows had been performed but in 1953 there was a significant increase in the number of performances with five shows carried out at night as 'illuminated performances and two 'by daylight'.2

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Producer [Pageant Master]: Thornton, F.W.A.
  • Pageant Producer [Pageant Master]: Shepherd, George S.
  • Art Director: William Reid
  • Electrician and Lighting Engineer: Fred Leslie
  • Sound Engineers: Alex Napier and Alan Wedge
  • Wardrobe Supervisors: Miss J.C. Hendry and Miss Ruby Melvin
  • King's Helmet: Made by William Craig
  • Choirmaster: Andrew Morrison3


Once again, the pageant was co-produced by the same two local men - Frank Thornton and George Shepherd. The programme in 1953 gave details of Thornton's professional affiliation for the first time and he was named as: F.W.A. Thornton, FSA (Scot).

Names of executive committee or equivalent

  • Chairman: Tom Matheson
  • Vice- Chairman: A. Sandison
  • Hon. Secretary: E.B. Mackintosh
  • Hon. Treasurer: A. Aitken
  • Hon. Auditor: J.W. Campbell
  • Convenor of the Production Committee: F.W.A. Thornton
  • General Purposes Convenor: William Stark
  • Publicity Convenor: Rev. Colin T. Day
  • Procession Convenor: Mr Sandison


The long-time Chairman of the Committee, A. Linton Robertson (who also played Robert the Bruce in the pageant) stood down at the end of 1952 and was replaced by a former Vice-Chairman, Tom Matheson. He was made an Honorary President of the Society.5

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Thornton, Donald
  • Thornton, F.W.A.
  • Mackenzie, Agnes Mure


The pageant's producer, F. W. A. Thornton, wrote the scenario and commentary for the signing of the declaration scene and the script of the pageant-play, Of His or her Own Experience. His brother, Donald Thornton, wrote the script of the prologue and epilogue. The historian Agnes Mure Mackenzie did the translation of the declaration used in the pageant

Names of composers

  • Irvine, Jessie Seymour

The tune 'Crimond' is generally attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine. This psalm was sung during the pageant using this tune.

Numbers of performers


Around 200 overall with 80 in the main scene. There was a large number of horses.There is generally little information about the numbers of performers for any of the Arbroath pageants held from 1947 up until this year. Aggregated numbers have generally included those performers who took part in auxiliary elements of the performance. However, there was an increase in volunteers in 1953 and what was described as the intended 'full-cast' of 80 took part in the Declaration scene.

Financial information

Items of expenditure:
Costume Hire: £188
Floodlighting and Sound Equipment: £314

Overall loss: £2057

Object of any funds raised

Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society


Press coverage of the pageant accounts indicates that income was down overall for the pageant in 1953. The collection at the procession was £22 less than in 1952. And there was a drop of 'nearly £100' in donations towards the production. On the other hand, expenditure was raised; costume hire cost £120 more than in 1952 and £165 more was spent on lighting and sound than in the previous year. All these outgoing contributed to the loss made.8

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Not Known
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 7000


Between 6000 and 7000 people in total attended the seven performances.9

The vagueness of the audience figures suggests that it included the dress rehearsal and those who watched the pageant parade but may not have attended the performance in the Abbey. However, it was reported that the Saturday night performance was sold out and people had to be turned away. On the other hand, all of the other performances had smaller numbers than those held in 1952, although these numbers are not specified.10

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


All performances except Saturday 22 August:
Grand stand (Reserved): 4s.
Area A: 3s. 6d.
Area B: 2s. 6d.
Standing Room: 1s.

Saturday 22 August:
Grand stand (Reserved): 5s.
Area A: 4s. 6d.
Area B: 3s. 6d.
Standing Room: 2s.11

Seats in areas A and B were unreserved.

In advertisements, standing room was stated to cost 1s., so the price may have been reduced from that charged in 1952; and it was stated that there was room for 1200 standing spectators.12

Associated events

Monday 17 August 1953: Scottish Country Dance in the Drill Hall, Marketgate, 8pm. Tickets 2s. 6d.

Tuesday 18 August 1953: A Pageant of Children Dancing by the pupils of Miss A. Reid and Mr Bert Lowe in the Drill Hall, Marketgate, 7.30pm. Tickets 2s., children half-price.

Saturday 22 August 1953: Grand Historical Procession through the Town, 5pm.
Order of Procession:
  • The Aberbrothock Pipe Band
  • Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland
  • King's Herald
  • The Barons of the Realm of Scotland
  • Foot Soldiers
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • Acolytes
  • Bernard de Linton, Lord Abbot of Aberbrothock
  • Bishops of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Aberdeen followed by the bearers of their standards
  • Canons
  • Bearer of the Banner of St Columba
  • Monks
  • The Cast of 'Of Their Own Experience'
  • Edward I of England, Hammer of the Scots
  • British Legion Pipe Band
  • Tableaux:
  • ‘Queen Margaret Attending the Sick and the Poor’ by Arbroath Branch British Red Cross
  • ‘Wedding of the Thistle and the Rose’ by Business and Professional Women's Club
  • ‘The Murder of Rizzio’ by the Women's Citizens' Association
  • ‘Queens of Scotland’ by Arbroath Herald Limited
  • ‘Hiding the Inheritance: The Honours of Scotland at Kinneff’ by British Legion Women's Section
  • ‘The Chieftains Swear Loyalty to Prince Charles’ by Arbroath Merchants' Association
  • ‘Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’ by Arbroath Housewives Association
  • ‘The Stone of Destiny at Arbroath Abbey, 11th April, 1951’ by Arbroath Covenant Association
  • Arbroath Instrumental Band
  • Arbroath Boy Scouts' Association, ‘On Trek’
  • Junior Agricultural Club, Tractor Wedding 
  • Boys' Brigade Pipe Band
  • Industrial Section:
  • Messrs Alex. Shanks
  • Braemar Knitwear Ltd.
  • Followed by
  • The Saltcoats Entertainers, ‘The Jolly Beggars’
Sunday 23 August 1953: Pageant Thanksgiving Service in the Abbey conducted by Rev. Canon C.M. Copeland, Minister of St Mary's Episcopal Church; address by Rev. Charles Edward Duff, BD, Minister of St Vigeans and Moderator of Arbroath Presbytery.

Pageant outline

The National Anthem

Opening ceremony (Saturday afternoon only)

Chair: The Provost of Arbroath, A.K. Moir

Address: Major-General Sir James Syme Drew, KBE, CB, SSO, MC, DL

Act of Worship

This included prayers and ended with singing of Psalm 23 to the tune of 'Crimond'. Names of officiating Ministers have not been recovered.



Neil Gow delivered this monologue in the guise of a warrior of old.15 He describes knowing the Abbey in times gone by, exhorts the audience 'to honour the men who chose Freedom', and bids them recall 'Scotland's darkest hour' during the wars of independence. Gow performed standing on a high pinnacle on the broken wall of the Abbey.16

Pageant-Play. Of their own Experience [1296]

This was the second enactment of this play written by Thornton (previously performed in 1952), who was also the author of the Declaration scene. It had seven speaking roles and was set in 1296 when the English army under the command of Edward I invaded Scotland and defeated the Scots. The same cast members as had appeared in 1952 played the main parts. The play purports to depict a visit to Arbroath Abbey by the English monarch. Following this, Abbot Henry is banished to the south. The characters included: Edward I (played by Edward J. Ross); two English knights, De Clifford and De Loring (John Eddie and James Riley), Abbot Henry of Aberbrothnock (Ian Spalding), Prior Nicholas the Almoner (William Hutchison), Bother Joseph (George S. Shepherd) and David de Braikie (James B. Crockatt).


Main scene. The Signing of the Declaration of Scottish Independence [1320]

This continued largely unchanged from previous years (there may have been small adjustments that have not been detailed in news reports), but the action was as follows:

1. Entrance of the Lord High Abbot, Bernard de Linton, in ceremonial procession with bishops, canons and monks.

2. Arrival of King Robert the Bruce, accompanied by cavalcade of barons and squires, with retinue of foot soldiers.

3. The Signing of the Declaration.

4. Departure of the king and retinue.

5. The Lord High Abbot, bishops and monks seen in ceremonial procession.

It had a cast of around 80 main and supporting players (the largest ever appearing for this scene); this included the Arbroath Male Voice Choir who played the parts of a choir of monks (around 18 choir members) and many others playing the roles of foot soldiers (number not known). There may have been some women in the King's entourage although this is not specified in listings; overall, however, the great majority of the players were male and all of the main players were men. F.W.A. Thornton who also wrote the script and was the pageant producer delivered commentary. The main players were as follows:

King Robert the Bruce (played by A. Linton Robertson);
Abbot of Aberbrothnock (George S. Shepherd);
Lord Douglas (S.E.S. Burnett);
Lord Randolph (Walter S. Burnett);
Bishop of St Andrews (Thomas Matheson);
Bishop of Aberdeen (D.L. Gardiner);
Bishop of Dunkeld (David Goodwillie);
Herald (Alexander Rintoul);
Cross Bearer (Ian Spalding);
Acolytes (Norman Caird and William Shaw);
Canons (Robert, William and Kenneth Meekison, and Alasdair Ogg);
Bearer of the Banner of St Columba (Frank Conacher);
Bearers of the Bishops' Standards (William Hutchison, D.B. Lowe and A.B. Mitchell).17


This reprised the role of the soldier who appeared in the monologue and was again performed by Neil Gow from a high point on the Abbey's walls. It was a short monologue extolling the gift of freedom.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Robert I [Robert Bruce] (1274–1329) king of Scots
  • Bernard (d. 1330/31) administrator and bishop of Sodor
  • Douglas, Sir James [called the Black Douglas] (d. 1330) soldier
  • Randolph, Thomas, first earl of Moray (d. 1332) soldier and guardian of Scotland
  • Edward I (1239–1307) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine

Musical production

There was a male voice choir (who performed as monks) during the signing of the Declaration scene. There was organ music for the religious service relayed from the nearby Hopemount Church. There were fanfares played but this may have been recorded music. The tune 'Crimond' is usually attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836–1887). Composed in 1872, this is commonly used for singing Psalm 23, 'The Lord Is My Shepherd', in Scotland and elsewhere. Psalm 23 had become a ritual part of the opening act of worship within the pageant.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Arbroath Guide
Arbroath Herald
Dundee Courier
The Times

Book of words


No book of words was produced.

Other primary published materials

  • Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society Presents the Seventh Annual Arbroath Abbey Illuminated Pageant of the Declaration of Scottish Independence Within the Twelfth Century Abbey of Arbroath 19th to 23rd August, 1953 Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953). Four copies in Arbroath Public Library. Shelfmark: 394.5.
  • Arbroath Abbey Pageant 19th–23rd August 1953. Publicity pamphlet. One copy in NLS. Shelfmark: 5.6671.

References in secondary literature

  • There is a brief mention in The Third Statistical Account of Scotland, see Gladstone-Millar, Rev. W.E. 'The Abbey Pageant'. In The County of Angus, edited by William Allen Illsley. Arbroath, 1977. At 525.
  • Ritchie, J. N. Graham. 'Images of the Declaration: The Arbroath Pageant.' In The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Significance, Setting, edited by Geoffrey Barrow. Edinburgh, 2003. At 86–107.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Angus Archives at the Hunter Library, Restenneth, near Forfar. holds photographs of the pageant procession. MS747/18/1381–2.
  • Arbroath Public Library.
  • National Library of Scotland.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Mackenzie, Agnes Mure. Translation of the Declaration.
  • John of Fordun. Chronicle of the Scottish Nation.

The Translation of the Declaration by Agnes Mure Mackenzie was first published in the 1949 souvenir pamphlet and was read in performance of the signing of the document. This was reproduced in the 1953 souvenir programme and in many subsequent programmes.

The epilogue quotes or paraphrases a well-known passage from John of Fordun's Chronica Gentis Scotorum [Chronicle of the Scottish Nation]. The passage extols the virtues of freedom and states that it is to be cherished 'above gold and topaze'.19


The organisers of the Arbroath pageant started off their preparations for the 1953 performance with high hopes. The number of shows was extended to seven, from the previous Pageant in 1952, five of which were to be held late at night and illuminated; and for the first time a full cast of 80 players were found to perform in the main Declaration scene. The timing of the pageant was set for the week preceding the Edinburgh Festival, as the organisers confidently thought that international visitors who arrived for this would surely 'pay a visit to Arbroath and the pageant'.20 By the start of pageant week, street decorations were up and all was 'gay and exhilarating' and had 'a Continental air' in this 'staid Scots Seaport town'.21 These hopes were overly optimistic because the regular nemesis of pageants, the weather, lay in waiting. It rained heavily during pageant week and inevitably, the bad weather was blamed for the substantial losses made by the whole event. The hoped-for crowds simply did not materialise, although it was said that the Saturday night performance was sold out and people waiting for tickets had to be turned away. It seems likely that, because of the weather, potential spectators waited to the last minute and did not buy advance tickets. By the final performance on Sunday, attendance was the smallest recorded compared to the previous years' audiences for illuminated performances.

There may have been more than the weather to blame, however. While the pageant had previously fought off accusations of nationalism that were reported in the press, its problem in 1953 seems to have been that there was generally less reporting of any kind in comparison to previous years. For sure, the local papers still supported the pageant, but others that had a large circulation in Angus, such as the Dundee Courier, seem to have experienced a little pageant fatigue, and notably fewer detailed articles appeared covering the annual event. Local jealousies may also have contributed to a lack of regional support. An editorial in the Arbroath Guide described efforts at 'emulation' when other towns in Angus attempted to provide entertainments that were not entirely successful.22 All of which suggests that by 1953 Arbroath had become something of a victim of its own success and of changing times.

The extended programme of seven performances included five held at night by illumination, as this had proved such a crowd pleaser before, adding to the 'dramatic effect' of the declaration scene.23 Inevitably, this increased the costs for lighting but unfortunately, since most did not achieve the audiences that had been anticipated, this extra outlay was not recouped. In addition, the negative accusation that the pageant was 'aye the same' was never more true in 1953 when more or less the same elements were included that had formed the show that had been put on in 1952.24 This included the pageant-play, Of Their Own Experience, and the same monologue given by a single performer in the guise of an ancient warrior which opened and closed each performance. This had been an innovation in 1952.

A positive feature was that repetition and technical innovation meant that the whole performance was slicker. In 1953, a new telephone exchange was installed, which allowed lighting engineers to communicate more immediately with the pageant producers. However, innovation was not confined to technology. Another notable difference, which created a significant cut in the running programme and brought the enactment of the whole pageant at most of the performances down to 'one short hour' in length, was the omission of a lengthy opening ceremony at most performances.25 The ceremony, which had been so much a part of the spectacle, was for the first time only held at the Saturday afternoon 'gala' performance when the then chairman of the British Legion, Major-General Sir James Syme Drew, gave the introductory address to the audience which included dignitaries from a number of other Scottish burghs. The fact that most of the shows were held at night doubtless affected this decision to drop the opening preamble, but it is likely that the heyday of military men and members of the upper classes being an audience draw was ending in these post-war years. Social change almost certainly had a part to play in shifting attitudes towards the kind of speechmaking that up until this point had seemed integral to Arbroath pageantry.

Nevertheless, on Saturday afternoon the Major-General gave a rousing patriotic speech as was usual. He referred to the Queen's coronation that had taken place earlier that year and claimed that 'affection for the royal family had never been greater'. In the speech he also maintained that the 'national spirit' of the Scots at home and abroad remained as strong as it had in the days of the Declaration, but that the Scottish people had that in common 'with all Britons and members of the Empire, as shown in two World Wars'.26 Allusions to the British Empire were perhaps still meaningful to the audience three years before the Suez Crisis, but as the nuclear race between the USA and the USSR began to take off in earnest, the writing was surely on the wall for this type of sentiment being given in an address by an old soldier.

As to the unchanging nature of the central part of the pageant, the author and producer, Frank Thornton, was belligerent on this point. He stated that the pageant simply could not be changed for 'we are not providing entertainment... but commemorating a historic event'. Thornton claimed that as 'the lights are going out all over Europe' the message of the pageant that 'each small nation should be allowed self-determination' was of critical contemporary importance.27 Thus, the Declaration scene did not alter and the cavalcade of characters in the shape of the Abbot of Arbroath, Robert the Bruce, and his allies, Lords Douglas and Randolph, continued to make their appearance and apply their seal to the document in a dignified manner. The programme in 1953 went so far as to claim that compared to other 'local celebrations', the Arbroath pageant stood 'in a class apart' and that it was 'the festival of Scotland' [italics in the text].28 Although this defence cut no ice with many local residents, in the run-up to the 1953 pageant it is clear there were greater attempts to engage locals. Recruitment to the pageant increased, as demonstrated by the full complement of performers in the main scene, and for the first time the pageant programme included a short piece highlighting the variety of people who regularly took part and their commitment to the annual event:

Throughout the year, between the close of one Pageant season, and the start of rehearsals for the next, scarcely a week passes without some detail of preparation being considered... The pageant wardrobe has to be augmented and repairs effected. This valuable stock of costumes has been made for the [Arbroath Abbey Pageant] society by local ladies... when rehearsals start, the cast is recruited, and year after year the same enthusiasts form the core of members. The cast is truly representative of the entire community; Robert the Bruce is played by a veterinary surgeon; his principal barons by a riding school proprietor and a farmer. The Bishops are a jeweller, a master painter and a civil servant. There are engineers and merchants, schoolmasters, printers, salesmen and others from all branches of the town's commercial and industrial life filling the many roles.29

However, although the pageant’s players may have represented a democratic selection on social class grounds, gender was another matter. A photograph displayed beneath the description given above shows the entire cast for the 1953 production, with not a single woman in sight. The fact that women were so much in the background was an issue about which the pageant committee seems to have been untroubled, and the question never seems to have been raised that this might have been one of the problems affecting general attitudes to the pageant among townspeople.

One success story did emerge in 1953; after many broken promises the BBC did at last film the pageant. Perhaps disappointingly for the pageant organisers, however, they did not show the entire footage but instead featured selected scenes within the news.30 This was good publicity nonetheless since, following the televising of the coronation, many more homes had invested in a television set. The pageant society certainly thought so, and, despite the financial loss sustained and questions being raised about whether a pageant should be held in 1954, they unanimously decided to keep going for another year.


  1. ^ 'Stage Set for Abbey Pageant: Biggest Cast for Production of Historic Scenes', Arbroath Guide, 15 August 1953, 6.
  2. ^ These descriptions are included in the souvenir programme frontispiece, see Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  3. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  4. ^ 'New Chairman of Pageant Society', Dundee Courier, 26 November 1952, 2.
  5. ^ 'New Chairman of Pageant Society', Dundee Courier, 26 November 1952, 2.
  6. ^ 'Stage Set for Abbey Pageant: Biggest Cast for Production of Historic Scenes', Arbroath Guide, 15 August 1953, 6.
  7. ^ 'Abbey Pageant Again Next year', Arbroath Guide, 28 November 1953, 5.
  8. ^ 'Abbey Pageant Again Next year', Arbroath Guide, 28 November 1953, 5.
  9. ^ 'Record Audience for Saturday Night Performance', Arbroath Guide, 29 August 1953, 2.
  10. ^ 'Record Audience for Saturday Night Performance', Arbroath Guide, 29 August 1953, 2.
  11. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 19th-23rd August 1953, publicity pamphlet (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  12. ^ See, for example, advertisement in Dundee Courier, 13 August, 1.
  13. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  14. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  15. ^ The Arbroath Guide, 15 August 1953, 6 names the performer.
  16. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  17. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  18. ^ See entry by Richard Watson in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, ed. Elizabeth Ewan et al. (Edinburgh, 2006), 180.
  19. ^ This famous text has been translated from the original Latin and reproduced several times; see, for example, 'John of Fordun's Chronicle of the Scottish Nation’, trans. Felix J.H. Skene, in The Historians of Scotland, Vol. IV, ed. William F. Skene (Edinburgh, 1872), 45.
  20. ^ 'Preparations for the Abbey Pageant', Arbroath Guide, 8 August 1953, 6.
  21. ^ 'Pageant Week', editorial, Arbroath Guide, 22 August 1953, 4.
  22. ^ 'Pageant Week', editorial, Arbroath Guide, 22 August 1953, 4.
  23. ^ 'Preparations for the Abbey Pageant', 6.
  24. ^ Arbroath Guide, 28 November 1953, 4.
  25. ^ 'Preparations for the Abbey Pageant', 6.
  26. ^ 'Scots Provosts at Abbey Pageant', Arbroath Guide, 29 August 1953, 2.
  27. ^ 'Preparations for the Abbey Pageant', 6. Presumably Thornton was referring to the deepening Cold War tensions emerging in central and eastern Europe regarding Soviet ambitions.
  28. ^ This was quoted from part of a speech given at the 1950 pageant by Lord Cooper and reproduced in the Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  29. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953, Souvenir Programme One Shilling (Arbroath, 1953), np.
  30. ^ 'Pageant on TV', Dundee Courier, 26 August 1953, 5.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1953’, The Redress of the Past,