Arbroath Abbey Pageant, 1981

Pageant type


The pageant was an initiative of the Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society set up in late 1947.

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

Year: 1981

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 8


31 August–7 September 1981

  • Monday 31 August–Sunday 7 September, nightly at 9.15pm. Daylight performance Saturday 5 September at 2.15pm. The performance lasted around 90 minutes.
  • The pageant took place within the ruins of the medieval Arbroath Abbey, which has long been roofless and open to the elements.
  • There is no note of a dress rehearsal.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Producer [Pageant Master]: Shaw, William D.
  • Stage Managers: David Smith; Peter Paterson
  • Props: Margaret Kerr
  • Lighting Operators: Ken Smith; Ken Heathfield
  • Spot Operators: Martin McLeod; Brian Milne; Philip Walker; Philip Chaplain
  • Sound Operator: Robin Kerr
  • Play Recording: Rob Stewart
  • Wardrobe Mistress: Ella Heathfield
  • Make-Up: Brenda McLeod
  • Sewing and Knitting Helpers: R. Berry; J. Cuthill; W. Gardiner; J. Hunter; J. Moir; M. Morrison; E. Robson; A. Robb; M. Scott; A. Thompson; H. Whyte
  • Stage Crew and Helpers: Eric Berry; Arthur Kerr; Robin Kerr; Ken Lownie; Tom McNeil; Frank Moir; Peter Paterson; Lawrence Tait; Dave Urquhart; Susan Urquhart; Anita Walker
  • Lighting Installation: Northern Light
  • Horses: Letham Grange Riding School1


The pageant producer, William [Bill] Shaw, was also chair of the Pageant Society.

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society:

  • Hon. President: The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Airlie, DL
  • Hon. President: The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Dalhousie, CBE, LLD
  • Chairman: William D. Shaw
  • Vice-Chairman: Miss A. Walker
  • Secretary: D. Langlands
  • Treasurer: A Geddes
  • Other Members: F. Thornton; A. Kerr; I. Lamb; J. Riley; J. McGugan; G.S. Shepherd; M. Scott; Mrs B. McLeod; J.W. Evans; D. Smith; I. McCrodden; P. Paterson; Mrs M. Kerr


As had been the case in 1980, women were better represented on the executive than in earlier years.

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

  • Thornton, F.W.A.
  • Milne, J. Crawford
  • Mackenzie, Agnes Mure


The poet J. Crawford Milne wrote the prologue; it had been used in many previous presentations of the pageant, including that held in 1980. The former pageant producer Frank Thornton wrote the script of the play The Laurel Crown as well as the commentary given during the Declaration scene. A further part of this scene was a recitation, in English translation, of the text of the Declaration of Scottish Independence. This translation was carried out by the popular historian Agnes Mure Mackenzie and had been used at every performance of this scene since 1948. Mackenzie had been a long-time supporter of the pageant until her death in 1955.3

Names of composers

  • Glover, William

William Glover was a teacher of music in Angus and composed original music for the pageant as well as arranging some pieces that had been used previously.

Numbers of performers


Around 80 players took part in the Declaration scene; this included three young boys in the roles of choir boys. In The Laurel Crown, there were around 35 players; this number included some women playing ladies of the court. A large number of horses were used. This was a slightly smaller cast than had taken part the previous year in 1980.

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society


Precise overall figures for pageant expenditure and income have not been recovered. However, it is clear that a loss was made. It was reported that following the pageant the Society was '£290 in the red', though the losses were not as bad as had been anticipated.5 The main expenditure was on erecting the stand and installing lighting, which together cost £12000. Additionally, the pageant was charged £600 for the use of the Abbey by the Scottish development department. Set against this, Angus District Council and Tayside Regional Council each gave a grant of £2000; and a local golf tournament raised £300.6

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


A record of the grandstand capacity has not been recovered; however, ticket prices for the stand were similar to those charged in 1980 when there was a 1000-capacity stand, so it is likely there was again a grandstand of this size. It is most probable that audiences were not as large as expected since the first three performances only managed to attract an overall 1000 spectators.7

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Seats £7.50, £5, £3 and £2; matinee £1.50.

Half price for children under 14 years and OAPs.
Reduction for parties.
Ticket prices were the same as those charged in 1980, with the exception of a cheaper ticket being made available for the matinee performance on Saturday.

Associated events

  • A reception was held in Arbroath Public Library on the opening night. This was hosted by Angus District Council and attended by Lord Elgin and Alan Devereux (Chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board), as well as other representatives from the British Tourist Board and pageant officials.
  • A pageant procession with various tableaux presented on floats was held on Saturday of pageant week. The cast of the pageant joined in with this parade.
  • In advance of the pageant, the event was 'proclaimed' at various cities in Scotland. During these visits, members of the cast appeared in costume; this included an appearance in Edinburgh where on Wednesday 26 August performer Jim McGugan (who played Robert the Bruce in 1980 and 1981) also opened an exhibition entitled 'The Scottish Experience'. The exhibition took place in Shandwick Place in the New Town of Edinburgh and included many colour images of the Arbroath Pageant held in 1980.

Pageant outline

Opening Address

The Earl of Elgin, a direct descendent of King Robert the Bruce, gave a speech on Monday 31 August at the opening of the first performance of the week. Other speakers were planned to appear at the start of performances later in the week; for example, Captain John Hay of Hayfield spoke on Thursday 3 September. The activist Wendy Wood was scheduled to open the matinee performance on Saturday 5 September; unfortunately, she died some weeks beforehand.9 Details of other speakers, if they appeared, have not been recovered.


This was a verse written by the local poet, J. Crawford Milne; it had been performed many times as a prologue to the pageant. The verse extols the beauty of Scotland and praises the Scots of long ago and their fortitude. The poem then moves on to describe the start of the Wars of Independence and the emergence of Wallace as a heroic figure:

Yet was England's hammer made to know
That one Scot lived who held his manhood sure.
Within the heart of Wallace freedom stirred
And quickened to his country's need...

The words were spoken by George Rollo.10

Pageant Play. The Laurel Crown, 1305

The pageant programme details that this play was written by F.W.A. Thornton 'as a prelude to the great central fact of the pageant'.11 It had been performed many times within the Arbroath pageant. The drama features the trial of William Wallace at Westminster Hall in London in August 1305 which preceded his execution. Together with Wallace (played by John Henderson), the central characters are Edward I (played by Jim Patterson), the Earl of Pembroke (Arthur Kerr), the Earl of Sussex (Tony Place), the Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir Peter Mallory (Eric Berry), the Lord Mayor of London (Brian Naylor) and the Constable of the Tower (James Nangle).12 Supporting players took the role of guards, bishops and ladies and gentlemen of the court; a number of the supporting players were women. Altogether, it had a cast of around 35. This was a much reduced number compared with the performance of the play in the 1980 pageant. The dialogue was pre-recorded and the actors mimed their performance alongside the audio track.

The Scene of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence at Arbroath Abbey, 6 April 1320

This episode had been performed at every Arbroath pageant since 1947. F.W.A. Thornton wrote the scenario and voiceover commentary. Although small adjustments had been made over the years, it had remained largely unchanged until 1981 when a new tableau was proposed. The usual format was for the commentator to set the scene; and following this, the Abbot and monks processed into the arena. The arrival of King Robert the Bruce and an entourage of bishops, barons and soldiers disturbed their devotions. The signing of the declaration then took place during which time the words of the declaration were proclaimed. It is unclear at which point the new tableau was performed, or indeed, if this was performed; the new scene was described in the press as depicting 'the English harassment of the Scots'.13 If it went ahead, it is possible that it was placed at the head of the drama, which then proceeded as it had in previous years, but no mention of this is made in subsequent press reports. All of the narration was pre-recorded; the pageant producer, William D. Shaw, spoke this, but Frank Thornton's narration of the words of the Arbroath Declaration, which had been recorded in the 1960s, was again used. At the conclusion of this ceremony, the Abbot blesses the King, after which the King and his associates take their leave. The scene ends with the Abbot and monks processing out of the arena. Religious music accompanied this drama, and the score used in 1980 was again used in 1981. The main characters in the piece are Robert the Bruce (played by Jim McGugan), Lord Randolph (Stuart Fergusson), Lord Douglas (Gregor Robson) and Abbot Bernard (Ian Spalding).14

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Wallace, Sir William (d. 1305) patriot and guardian of Scotland
  • 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
  • Valence, Aymer de, eleventh earl of Pembroke (d. 1324) magnate
  • Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey [earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne] (1286–1347) magnate

Musical production

All or most of the music was recorded with the exception of choral singing in the Declaration scene; singers who also played the parts of monks in the scene delivered this. The pageant's Musical Director, William Glover, wrote a new, original score for the 1980 pageant. Unfortunately, no details have been recovered.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

The Arbroath Herald
The Scotsman
The Glasgow Herald
The Scots Independent

Book of words


A book of words was not produced, although the script of the commentary in the Declaration scene was included in the Book of Words produced to accompany the 1970 Arbroath Pageant.15

Other primary published materials

  • Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1981, Souvenir Programme 40p. Arbroath, 1981.
  • Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1981, August 31–September 6. Publicity pamphlet. Arbroath, 1981.

References in secondary literature

  • Gladstone-Millar, Rev. W.E. 'The Abbey Pageant'. In The County of Angus, edited by William Allen Illsley. Arbroath, 1977. See p. 525 for brief mention of the pageants in The Third Statistical Account.
  • Hutchison, Isobel Wylie. 'Poets' Voices Linger in Scottish Shrines'. National Geographic Magazine CXII, October 1957, 437–87. The 1956 Arbroath 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.

The pageants held in Arbroath are discussed in these texts; however, none of these deal with the later pageants held after 1970.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Arbroath Public Library: one copy of the souvenir programme and one copy of the publicity pamphlet. 18:394.5.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Mackenzie, Agnes Mure. Translation of the Declaration.

The Translation of the Declaration from the original Latin was by Agnes Mure Mackenzie; this was first published in the 1949 souvenir pamphlet and was read in the performance of the signing of the document. It was reproduced in the 1981 souvenir programme and in many previous programmes.


Following a 10-year hiatus, the Arbroath Abbey pageant was again performed in 1980 to critical success, winning an award from the British Tourist Board for 'outstanding enterprise'.16 Although this event lost a substantial amount of money, the Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society, buoyed up by its achievement, decided to run the pageant again in both 1981 and 1982. This harked back to the pageant's previous tradition of being an annual event when it had been put on every summer during the years 1947–1956. Thereafter, it had only had sporadic resurrections in 1964, 1966 and 1970. What had encouraged the Society to make such plans was the promise of financial support from local government and, crucially, the Scottish Tourist Board. Encouragement from these statutory bodies in the early 1980s can be explained by the fact that the pageant was seen as a visitor attraction, and tourism was at the time viewed as a possible economic driver that should be further developed in the light of the depressed state of many of Scotland's traditional industries.

In the light of this, there was a great deal of optimism at large when the 1981 pageant was planned. In the past, the Arbroath pageant had often suffered from a lack of funds, a lack of support from the local community and dwindling audiences. It had also been accused of failing to innovate in terms of its script and performance; lastly, it had been dogged by accusations of political nationalism. Yet in 1980 these problems seemed to have receded, and, for the first time, the pageant had been able to count on generous financial support from government, as well as from various fundraising initiatives held locally. New blood had come into both the Pageant Society and the cast, and any possible political allegiance with a home rule agenda was not given a high profile in 1980. Yet by the time the pageant closed in 1981, all these spectres had again come back to haunt the event. What went wrong?

The plan for the 1981 pageant was to run it again mainly as a night-time performance in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, with only one matinee show on the Saturday of pageant week, just as had been the case in 1980. The pageant's format was also to stay the same: J. Crawford Milne's prologue introduced the performance, the one-act play The Laurel Crown which depicted the trial of William Wallace was to come after this, and the climax was to be the scene of the Signing of the Declaration—a perennial feature since the first ever pageant. The latter, which had a narration scripted by the pageant's former producer, Frank Thornton, was, of course, the raison d'être of the whole pageant, as it depicted the famous creation of the 1320 Declaration of Scottish Independence—or Declaration of Arbroath, as it was increasingly called—and featured the national hero Robert the Bruce. Nothing much about this performance had changed since 1947, save for elements of stagecraft wherein clever lighting made the drama seem more atmospheric and innovation in sound that enabled the audio soundtrack to be pre-recorded. In 1981, however, the sacrosanct nature of the Declaration episode was disturbed with the proposed introduction of an additional new dramatic element. It is perhaps telling that the local press made only one small note of this, describing it as 'a tableau depicting the English harassment of the Scots' that was devised by the pageant's producer.17 Pageant organisers in the past had often taken a contrary stance on the politics of the pageant. While many were known supporters of home rule or, indeed, separatism from the UK, they were at pains not to jeopardize the appeal of the pageant for audience members who did not share their views, denying that the pageant had any such political undertones. The local press often colluded with this.18 Yet the dramatization of the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace's treatment at the hands of the English was a favourite pageant episode, and the words of the Declaration, which were read out during the main scene, could not help but be something of a clarion call to Scottish independence enthusiasts. The introduction of this new tableau into the main scene, we may surmise, was a risky initiative, laden as it was with old acrimony against England and the English. Unfortunately, no details of what exactly was staged in the new tableau have yet been recovered, but if this did go ahead, it may have antagonised some and not helped the cause of remaking the pageant into an annual, cultural event.

In addition, as had been the case in 1980, a famous person opened the pageant at the start of the week. Robert the Bruce's ancestor, the Earl of Elgin, performed in this role in 1981 and brought with him a sword that, it was purported, had belonged to the Bruce. The weapon, which it was alleged had been used to fight off the English foe, was displayed during the pageant's opening, carried in by the Earl's son, who was described as the '35th generation in direct descent from our hero-King'19. The device of having a celebrity open every performance of the pageant was a tradition that had once been untouchable at Arbroath but had largely been discarded during the mid-1950s in favour of a single opening speech either at the start of pageant week or at the matinee performance. In 1981, however, it was decided to make opening speeches a feature once again, and such introductions were planned for several performances during the week. As a member of the peerage, the Earl of Elgin may have seemed an uncontentious choice for the opening night, but one of the other speakers scheduled to appear later in the week was the infamous patriot Wendy Wood.20 Sadly, Wood died in June 1981, and so this plan never came to fruition. Yet this choice of speaker may tell us something about the politics that bubbled just under the surface of this pageant. Had Wendy Wood showed up, there can be no doubt that she would have made every effort to make connections between the past and present in respect of Scottish protests against English governance: a scenario that would likely have resurrected accusations of anti-Englishness, and may well have annoyed the Tourist Board. The Pageant Society would have been aware of this, yet it seems to have been willing to take such a risk. Perhaps mischievously, the local press reported that before her death Wood had written her speech and a portion of this was quoted:

When you leave this holy place, may the spirits of Sir William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce be in you, to achieve the independence of Scotland from English rule. Soara Alba! May the Pageant proceed.21

The invitation to Wood suggests that even if the Pageant Society was willing to accept 30 pieces of silver from the Scottish Tourist Board—a quango that seemed solely interested in turning Arbroath's pageant into yet another example of commercialised heritage—it was not willing to relinquish all control over its own event. Indeed, the nature of the new proposed tableau and the welcome extended to Wood both imply a new boldness about the Society's agenda; perhaps a decision was taken to be more forthright about the politics of the pageant? It is impossible now to know for sure.

Aside from such conjectures, the 1981performance was, in any case, doomed. Audiences were disappointing with figures for tickets sold 'down two-thirds on 1980'.22 Naturally, there was once again heavy financial losses, although the precise figure for the deficit was not released in the local press. Moreover, local support appears to have wavered; while the pageant of 1980 had its biggest ever cast, there was once again a struggle to get sufficient volunteers in 1981. Only two weeks before the start of pageant week, appeals were being made for actors and singers to fill vacant places.23 The Scottish Tourist Board, which had given the pageant its enthusiastic support for a second time, must have been disappointed by this turn of events, but it did not immediately give up hope.

A survey of spectators conducted at the 1981 pageant revealed that just over half the audience were tourists; of these tourists, fifty per cent were from other parts of Scotland, twenty-five per cent were from England, and the remaining twenty-five per cent were from overseas. 24 These figures demonstrated that the promotion of the pageant by the Tourist Board, particularly overseas, was making some inroads, even if there was a long way to go. With this in mind, and despite the disappointments of the 1981 pageant, representatives from the Tourist Board and the Local Authority engaged with the Pageant Society about the possibility of going ahead once more in 1982. Initially, it was agreed to do so provided enough support was shown locally and some economies were introduced (a smaller grandstand was suggested). This consensus did not last long, however, and it seems clear that some backtracking occurred; it was revealed as late as March 1982 that Tayside Regional Council, Angus District Council, and the Scottish Tourist Board had not specified the exact amounts they would grant to the pageant.25 This, coupled with the fact that unemployment was then running at almost one in five of the working age population in Arbroath, generally created low morale and uncertainty in the town.26 Against this backdrop, the Pageant Society decided not to wait for any more bad news to arrive and cancelled plans for 1982. The longer-term strategy was to keep the Society going, gather funds, and get the pageant restarted at some time in the future. However, it is unlikely that any Society members would have guessed just how long the wait for another pageant might turn out to be. The sixteenth Arbroath Abbey Pageant was eventually staged just before the close of the century, in 1999.


  1. ^ 'Bruce's Sword Returns', Arbroath Herald, 20 September 1981, 20.
  2. ^ 'Pageant in 1981? Yes If funding Available', Arbroath Herald, 21 November 1980, 11.
  3. ^ See entry by Joan Morrison Noble, in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, ed. Elizabeth Ewan et al. (Edinburgh, 2006), 229.
  4. ^ See Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1981, Souvenir Programme 40p (Arbroath, 1981), np for cast lists.
  5. ^ 'Pageant '82 Gets Go-Ahead', Arbroath Herald, 23 October 1981, 13.
  6. ^ 'Pageant '82 Gets Go-Ahead', Arbroath Herald, 23 October 1981, 13.
  7. ^ 'Bruce's Sword Returns After Six Centuries', Arbroath Herald, 4 September 1981, 20.
  8. ^ 'Scotland's Heritage', Arbroath Herald, 28 August 1981, 20.
  9. ^ 'Pageant Time', Arbroath Herald, 14 August 1981, 7.
  10. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1981, Programme, Price 40p (Arbroath, 1981), np.
  11. ^ Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1980, Programme, Price 40p (Arbroath, 1980), 3.
  12. ^ Performers' names listed in Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1981, Programme, Price 40p (Arbroath, 1981), np.
  13. ^ 'Scotland's Heritage', Arbroath Herald, 28 August 1981, 20.
  14. ^ Performers' names listed in Arbroath Abbey Pageant 1981, Programme, Price 40p (Arbroath, 1981), np.
  15. ^ See The Scots Pageant: The Script of the Arbroath Abbey Pageant August 1970 (Arbroath, 1970), 31–33.
  16. ^ This was emblazoned across advertisements for the pageant in 1981.
  17. ^ 'Scotland's Heritage', Arbroath Herald, 28 August 1981, 20.
  18. ^ The editor of the Arbroath Herald, George Shepherd, had long been involved with the pageant as a producer and performer; he was a known supporter on Scottish independence. See obituary for Shepherd, Arbroath Herald, 17 November 2000, 7.
  19. ^ 'History Made At Abbey', Arbroath Herald, 4 September 1981, 19.
  20. ^ Wendy Wood (1892-1981) had a career variously as an artist, writer and broadcaster but is best remembered for her dedication to the home rule campaign and the many direct actions she undertook in order to gain media attention. For further information about Wood see entry by Rosy Addison in Elizabeth Ewan et al (eds) The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh, 2006), 379-80.
  21. ^ 'Scotland's Heritage', Arbroath Herald, 28 August 1981, 20. The Gaelic slogan 'Soara Alba' is generally held to translate as 'Free Scotland'.
  22. ^ 'Pageant '82 Gets Go-Ahead', Arbroath Herald, 23 October 1981, 13.
  23. ^ 'Pageant Time', Arbroath Herald, 14 August 1981, 7.
  24. ^ The survey showed that forty-eight per cent of attendees returned to their own homes after the pageant; twenty percent of this number lived in Arbroath and the rest in other parts of Tayside. It is unclear who conducted the survey, but it is probable that this was done on behalf of the local authority. See 'Pageant '82 Gets Go-Ahead', Arbroath Herald, 23 October 1981, 13.
  25. ^ 'Further Setbacks', Arbroath Herald, 19 March 1982, 18.
  26. ^ Ibid.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Arbroath Abbey Pageant, 1981’, The Redress of the Past,