Arbroath Abbey Pageant, 1956

Other names

  • Arbroath Abbey Pageant: Tenth Annual Season

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 members of the Society's committee were also elected councillors.

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

Year: 1956

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 6


22–26 August 1956

  • Wednesday 22 August–Sunday 26 August at 9.30pm
  • Saturday 25 August at 2.45pm and 9.30pm

For this year's event, there was only one day-time performance, on Saturday; however, the night-time illuminated performances were moved forward to start at 9.30pm instead of 11.00pm as previously. A finishing time of 11.00pm was stated in advertisements, making the pageant 90 minutes long including breaks between scenes. Late buses running to Forfar, Brechin, Montrose, Carnoustie, Monifieth, Broughty Ferry and Dundee were also advertised.1

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

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Producer [Pageant Master]: Thornton, F.W.A.
  • Producer of the Pageant Play [Pageant Master]: Shepherd, George S.
  • Art Director: William Reid
  • Electrician and Lighting Engineer: Fred Leslie
  • Costumes: Miss C.J. Hendry
  • King's Helmet made by: William Craig
  • Choirmaster: Andrew Morrison

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society:

  • Honorary Presidents: The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Airlie, KT, GCVO; The Provost of Arbroath
  • Honorary Vice-Presidents: The Hon. Mrs Lindsay Carnegie; Dr. J.B. Salmond; Hon. John S. McLay, CMG, MP; Mr. E.J. Joss; Mr. A. Linton Robertson, MRCVS; Miss C.J. Hendry
  • Chairman: Mr Thomas Matheson
  • Vice-Chairman: Mr Alex Sandison
  • Hon. Secretary: Mr Eric B. Mackintosh, CA
  • Hon. Treasurer: Mr A. Aitken
  • Hon. Auditor: Mr A.M. Eason


  • The Chairman (Convener): Mr F.W.A. Thornton
  • Vice-Convener: Provost J.K. Moir
  • Other members:
  • Miss M. Brodie
  • Mrs W.D Webster
  • Messrs A. Aitken, J.G.H. Clyde, D.L. Gardiner, A. McConnell, R. Meekison, A.B. Mitchell, A.R. Ramsay, A. Linton Robertson, A. Sandison, G.S. Shepherd, J.G. Tollerton
  • Bailies D.A. Gardner and D.A.S. Smith
  • Councillors H.A. Farmer, D. Goodwillie, E.J. Joss, A.M. Keith and D.D. Wilson


There were few changes of personnel in the committees for 1955. The Costume Designer Miss Hendry had resigned from the executive and had been appointed Hon. Vice-President of the Pageant Society. Three new members were elected to the executive (J. Doyle, R. Meekison and A. McConnell).

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

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


F.W.A. Thornton wrote the script of the play Of Their Own Experience and the scenario and commentary for the Declaration scene. The historian Agnes Mure Mackenzie provided the translation of the Declaration from the original Latin, which was used in the Declaration scene.4 The script of the epilogue that was first used in 1952 and written by Donald Thornton was probably used again used in 1956, although since this information is not included in the pageant programme, this cannot be verified.

Names of composers

  • Irvine, Jessie Seymour

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

Numbers of performers

Numbers of performers unknown. The main scene involved horses.

Financial information

The pageant made a loss of £467.

Income to the Society:

  • Income from the street procession: £121.
  • The Ladies Committee donated: £500.

Final statement showed £134 in cash in the pageant account and costumes to the value of £344.5

Object of any funds raised

The Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


Audience figures are unknown.

There was no grandstand at the 1956 event; this allowed for savings in expenditure and a reduction in ticket prices. There was, however, a 'raised platform' for seats.6

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

3s. 6d.–1s.

  • 3s. 6d. (reserved seats)
  • 2s. 6d. (unreserved seats)
  • 1s. (standing).7

The cost of seats was substantially cut in 1956 (previously they had been 5s. for reserved and 3s. 6d. for unreserved seats).

Associated events

A Pageant Exhibition:

  • This was organised by the Ladies' Committee of the Abbey Pageant Society and opened on Wednesday 15 August in the Drill Hall, Marketgate.

A Carnival Procession (Saturday 25 August 1956, 7pm): 

  • Few details have been recovered; it was reported to have been much smaller than in previous years. It was renamed a 'carnival' procession as opposed to a 'pageant procession', which had been its usual description.

Pageant outline

The National Anthem

Introduction (Saturday afternoon performance only)

For the Gala performance on Saturday 25 August, James K. Moir, the Provost of Arbroath, chaired the pageant and introduced Captain J.A.L. Duncan, MP for South Angus, as speaker.11

The Prologue

No record has been recovered of which version of the Prologue was used in 1956. It is unlikely to have been that written by the local poet, J. Crawford Milne, since his authorship was usually acknowledged. It is more likely to have been the prose version written by Donald Thornton where the narrator is a warrior from the Wars of Independence. Frank Thornton, the pageant producer and brother of the Prologue author, was once again narrator.12

Pageant-Play: Of their own Experience: a Historical Interlude in One Scene[1296]

This was the third enactment of this one-act play written by Frank Thornton, 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 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; two English knights, De Clifford and De Loring, Abbot Henry of Aberbrothock , Prior Nicholas the Almoner, Brother Joseph and David de Braikie. The performers' names have not been recovered. In 1956, George S. Shepherd produced the scene.


The Signing of the Declaration of Scottish Independence [1320]

This performance continued largely unchanged from previous years (there may have been small adjustments that have not been detailed in news reports). It was designed to have a cast of around 80 players, but in most years – 1956 included – there was a shortfall and it was played with about 50 performers. In addition, the Arbroath Male Voice Choir who played the parts of a choir of monks (usually around 18 choir members) supported this cast. The main characters were as follows: Abbot Bernard De Linton, Robert the Bruce, Lord Douglas, Lord Randolph, the Bishops of St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dunkeld, plus several bearers of standards, heralds, monks and soldiers. Performers' names have not been recovered. Voiceover commentary written and performed by Frank Thornton was pre-recorded. The action can be summarised thus:

  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 King and retinue.
  5. The Lord High Abbot, Bishops and Monks seen in Ceremonial Procession.

The Epilogue

No record of the content of the epilogue has been recovered for 1956. In previous years it was a short piece of prose written by Donald Thornton, which extolled the gift of freedom. It is probable that this was also the format followed in 1956.


There is no note of what form this took or who led the prayer. However, it was concluded with the singing of Psalm 23. This had traditionally taken place at the opening of each performance as part of a religious service, but since this element was dropped in the 1955 pageant, and again in 1956, this may have been a concession made to tradition and to religious sensibilities about the use of the Abbey to hold the pageant.

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, which performed during the signing of the Declaration scene. The choirmaster was Andrew Morrison. The choir performed singing of the Ave Verum (specific arrangement unknown) during the Declaration scene. An electric organ was installed at the Abbey in 1955 to accompany singing and this was likely used again in 1956. 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. It was sung at the close of the pageant.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

The Arbroath Herald
The Arbroath Guide
The Scotsman

Book of words


No book of words produced.

Other primary published materials

  • Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society Presents, Arbroath Abbey Pageant: Tenth Annual Season, Souvenir Programme, One Shilling. Arbroath, 1955.

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.
  • Hutchison, Isobel Wylie. 'Poets' Voices Linger in Scottish Shrines'. National Geographic Magazine CXII, October 1957, 437–87. The pageant was featured in this travel article around literary shrines in Scotland.
  • Ritchie, 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

  • Arbroath Public Library holds two copies of the souvenir programme. Shelfmark: 18.94.5.
  • A photograph of a scene that includes a performer as King Edward I at the Arbroath Abbey Pageant, 1956. Shelfmark: MS747/18/1360.

    Angus Archives 

  • A large number of undated photographs of the pageant which may include some taken in 1956. See, for example, shelfmark: MS781.

    Angus Archives

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Mackenzie, Agnes Mure. Translation of the Declaration.

  • John of Fordun. Chronicle of the Scottish Nation.

    Angus Archives

  • 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 1956 souvenir programme and in many previous programmes.
  • The epilogue quotes or closely 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'.14


Many Arbroath pageant organisers had been reluctant to pursue another pageant in 1956, but they lost the argument to those who felt that the pageant must not lose momentum come what may. Significant among the proponents of keeping the show going was a 'Ladies' Committee' of the Pageant Society. It is unclear when this was instituted (it may have been long running but working quietly in the background), but it certainly sprang into more prominence following the crisis of confidence in 1955. However, there is no doubt that with falling audiences and poor revenue, enthusiasm must have been in short supply among many involved in the event, and it had been well publicised that some leading Society members would have preferred to have taken a rest from the pageant in 1956. Perhaps, in light of this, there was little innovation in the format in this year, save for the fact that the souvenir programme contained many attractive colour photographs of pageant scenes from years gone by. Also, ticket prices were cut quite significantly.

It was business as before in other areas. As in 1955, there was no opening religious service and, as with several previous years, an opening ceremony was confined to the Saturday afternoon performance. There was also a return to the tried-and-trusted night-time illuminated performances (although these now started slightly earlier at 9.30pm), and the experiment with more evening performances that had been tried in 1955 was not tried again. Where the dramatic elements of the pageant programme were concerned, these also reprised presentations that had been played before. For example, the play Of Their Own Experience written by the producer Frank Thornton, which had been premiered in 1952, was the curtain-raiser. The Declaration scene, as ever, as the centrepiece and main point of the pageant, remained unchanged.

There was, however, one small modification to the drama at the start of the pageant. Instead of taking a position on the walls of the Abbey ruins, Frank Thornton decided to recite the Prologue on a platform erected in the centre window above the high altar—on a 'a ramp so ingeniously contrived and cleverly lit that it gave the impression of the commentator being suspended in the air'.15 This was likely an inexpensive addition, but it undoubtedly added to the drama. Thornton, a trouper to the last, evidently gave his all and was described as delivering the Prologue 'in ringing tones that at once set the atmosphere for all that followed'.16 Although audience numbers did not improve, and performers must have been aware that the likelihood of a pageant in 1957 was slim, there does seem to have been a lot of effort made to put on a good show. Indeed, the prospect that this might be the last in the series of annual performances seems to have brought out the best in many of the actors.

In a National Geographic article published in 1957, in which a tour around many of the literary landmarks of Scotland is described, 'the climax' of the tour was a visit to the Arbroath Pageant. The author of this piece, Isobel Hutchison, described the Arbroath Declaration in terms used many times before; it was, she said, 'the Scottish Magna Carta'. Hutchinson, moreover, was clearly impressed by what she saw, stating that her attendance at 'the splendid pageant' took place under 'a full moon riding over the old red ruins of the Abbey'. Even more romantic is her depiction of Thornton as he opened the performance:

A beam of gold stabbed the crowded darkness of the nave, lighting for its thrilled spectators a warrior in silver mail in a niche high above the altar. He spoke the Prologue...17

The finale of the pageant was similarly described to evoke the atmosphere of the occasion. At the end of the Declaration scene:

Darkness again filled the ruins. A monk bearing a lighted torch crossed the nave. His light flickered up narrow stairs in the south wall. Soon he reappeared high overhead at ‘Arbroath's O,’ an empty circular window space, and plunged the burning torch into a cresset—an iron vessel filled with oil—such as used to blaze out over the North Sea to guide mariners home... a great glow of flame crackled skyward. It was the Light of Freedom, Scotland's message to the world.18

The local press were equally impressed, writing that the version put on in 1956 had been the most inspiring so far and that people who had seen the pageant many times corroborated this opinion. Whether or not a financial success, it was, according to reports, an artistic triumph. As was its wont, the Arbroath Herald went on to chide the local population, stating that 'it was well-known that hundreds of Arbroathians' had never taken the trouble to see the pageant in all of its ten years of running'. Yet, as the editorial went on to say, perhaps some blame for the event’s lack of popularity had to rest on the shoulders of the Pageant Society for 'not introducing frequent changes in its presentation'.19 Even so, the paper concluded that community apathy was the main culprit. The dwindling number of tableaux in the pageant procession was cited as a further example of lack of support, along with 'the meagre display of flags and bunting' in the town.20 The lack of historical tableaux was evidently substituted with other attractions and the pageant procession was renamed a 'carnival' parade’. Chief among the highlights of this were 'the pretty girls' representing a local knitwear firm.21 This example highlights that, as a seaside town where tourism was very important, one of the other problems that the pageant was facing was undoubtedly changing tastes in entertainment.

Predictably, when the Pageant Society met in November, the decision was taken to take a break from annual presentations. As the mainstay of the whole production over ten years, Frank Thornton appeared to be well aware that new blood and new ideas were needed. He advocated holding the next pageant in 1958; however, his long-time co-producer, George Shepherd, went further and said that the pageant should wait for its next outing until 1960. It was then decided by 17 votes to 6 to hold the next pageant in 1960. Shepherd stated that the Society should use the intervening years

For training cast, discovering new material and increasing the general strength of the whole idea... and to raise a sufficient amount of money for the presentation of the new pageant which was envisaged.

He went on to propose that the aims of the society could be kept in public view by such means as holding a service in the Abbey on the anniversary of the Declaration, and having a 'practice play' in the town's Drill Hall in the summer season to allow cast members to act their parts and raise money. Shepherd also suggested a concert in the winter as well as encouraging continued fund-raising by the Ladies Committee. His final appeal was that the Town Council should make an annual grant to the society for the pageant in recognition of all that the event did for the town. He said that the aim should be for a fund of £2000 to start up the pageant again.22

For Thornton, the 1956 pageant was perhaps not a complete disappointment. Indeed, in defiance of local apathy Thornton had always kept faith with the pageant. One of the fundraising initiatives of that year had been an exhibition put on in the town during the run up to the pageant and chiefly organised by the 'Ladies Committee' (Convenors Mrs A.B. Mitchell and Mrs A.K. Adamson). Lady Dalhousie opened the event which showcased Arbroath history and local arts in the shape of needlework and painting; but its centrepiece was a display of costumes from the pageant. It also had a tableau of a 'But and Ben' (a traditional rural cottage of two rooms) with costumed women volunteers taking part.23 It was stated that the ladies aimed to raise £1000 to assist with the pageant and the exhibition was part of this aim. At the launch of the event, Thornton was asked to comment on the exhibition and stated that 'for him it was the realisation of something he had wished for years. The Pageant had become a real community effort'. He further stated that 'we in Arbroath have a message to send out to a torn world, a message in the words of a declaration more than 600 years old, but which has in its passages the hopes and aspirations of the united nations to-day.'24 Statements such as this revealed what had kept the organisers going over a long decade and in spite of so many disappointments. It was an augur, too, that the world had not seen the last of the Arbroath Abbey Pageant.


  1. ^ Advertisement for the pageant including details of late buses, Arbroath Herald, 10 August 1956, 1.
  2. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society Presents, Arbroath Abbey Pageant: Tenth Annual Season, Souvenir Programme, One Shilling, (Arbroath, 1955), np.
  3. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society Presents, Arbroath Abbey Pageant: Tenth Annual Season, Souvenir Programme, One Shilling, (Arbroath, 1955), np.
  4. ^ A copy of her translation is included in Arbroath Abbey Illuminated Pageant of the Declaration of Scottish Independence: Souvenir Programme, One Shilling (Arbroath, 1955), np.
  5. ^ 'Next Pageant in 1960', Arbroath Herald, 30 November 1956, 7.
  6. ^ 'Tenth Annual Abbey Pageant Maintains Inspiring Features’, Arbroath Herald, 24 August 1956, 8.
  7. ^ Advertisement for the pageant including seat prices, Arbroath Herald, 10 August 1956, 1.
  8. ^ 'Past and Present Meet at Pageant Exhibition', Arbroath Herald, 17 August 1956, 8; and 'Arbroath's Treasures Captivate the Public', Arbroath Herald, 17 August 1956, 9.
  9. ^ The change of time for the procession was advertised. See Arbroath Herald, 17 August 1956, 1.
  10. ^ 'Where were the Tableaux?' Arbroath Herald, 31 August 1956, 8.
  11. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society Presents, Arbroath Abbey Pageant: Tenth Annual Season, Souvenir Programme, One Shilling, (Arbroath, 1955), np.
  12. ^ 'Tenth Annual Abbey Pageant Maintains Inspiring Features', Arbroath Herald, 24 August 1956, 8.
  13. ^ See entry by Richard Watson in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, ed. Elizabeth Ewan et al. (Edinburgh, 2006), 180.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 'Tenth Annual Abbey Pageant Maintains Inspiring Features', Arbroath Herald, 24 August 1956, 8.
  16. ^ 'Tenth Annual Abbey Pageant Maintains Inspiring Features', Arbroath Herald, 24 August 1956, 8.
  17. ^ Isobel Wylie Hutchison, 'Poets' Voices Linger in Scottish Shrines', National Geographic Magazine CXII, October 1957, 480.
  18. ^ Hutchison, National Geographic Magazine CXII, October 1957, 480.
  19. ^ 'For Scotland', editorial, Arbroath Herald, 31 August 1956, 4.
  20. ^ 'Where Were the Tableaux?' Arbroath Herald, 31 August 1956, 8.
  21. ^ These were young women from the Braemar Knitwear Co. See Arbroath Herald, 31 August 1956, 8.
  22. ^ 'Next Pageant in 1960', Arbroath Herald, 30 November 1956, 7.
  23. ^ 'Arbroath's Treasures Captivate the Public', Arbroath Herald, 17 August 1956, 9.
  24. ^ 'Past and Present Meet at Pageant Exhibition', Arbroath Herald, 17 August 1956, 8

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Arbroath Abbey Pageant, 1956’, The Redress of the Past,