Obituary: Donald Campbell, playwright, poet and historian, transformer of the Scottish cultural community
Donald Campbell, who died in Edinburgh at the age of 79, was part of a generation of writers who, from the 1970s onwards, illuminated the Scottish literary and theatrical scene with an impressive new sense of ambition and confident, writing contemporary drama and poetry in a distinctively Scottish voice that spoke on behalf of a modern nation rediscovering its own history and potential, at a time of enormous social change.
In Edinburgh around the turn of the 1970s, Campbell was a young bank official by day but by night a key figure in the city’s thriving poetic scene, appearing regularly at spoken word events hosted by the Writers Collective. The Heretics radicals. Campbell’s first two collections of poetry, published in 1971 and 1972, were very well received, especially by enthusiasts of the new Scottish language writing, and led to his appointment to the new post of writer-in-residence in the Lothian schools, which he held from 1974 to 1977; a short film titled Giving Voice, produced by the Scottish Arts Council in 1976, shows Campbell passionately engaged in persuading high school students in Edinburgh that poetry is for them and that it should be a part of their lives.
Poet and novelist John Herdman, who introduced Campbell to The Heretics, describes how the calm-voiced poet also quickly became a charismatic performer of his own work, with a clear knack for creating character and dialogue; and no one who knew his work was surprised when, in 1976, Campbell and his friend actor-director Sandy Neilson came together to create a sensationally successful production of his first play The Jesuit, about imprisonment and the 17th century Scottish Catholic execution. martyr Saint John Ogilvie.
Despite being produced by The Heretics, Campbell’s big and vigorous drama – tackling the still controversial theme of Scotland’s sectarian history – was hosted in Traverse by the theater’s artistic director at the time. , Chris Parr, a powerful champion of the new Scottish dramaturgy who saw Campbell’s voice as an essential part of the new Scottish repertoire he was building. âAlmost all of the playwrights we worked with at the time were from west-central Scotland,â says Parr. âIt was Tom McGrath, Billy Connolly, John Byrne, Marcella Evaristi. But Donald always seemed to me to be a true Edinburgh playwright, with that different and very powerful voice, and a real gift for tragedy rather than comedy.
The Jesuit was followed, in 1978, by Campbell Somerville’s second play The Soldier, and in 1979 by The Widows of Clyth, based on the true story of a fishing disaster in Caithness passed down from the family of the mother of Campbell. These three huge hits formed the basis for a theatrical career that continued into the new millennium, as well as Campbell’s long award-winning career as the author of over 50 radio plays; and although Campbell turned to poetry during the last decade of his life, his relationship with the theater, as a writer, director, adaptator, historian, and stubborn dissident of establishment views of the art form, has remained one of the central passions of his life.
Donald Campbell was born in Wick, Caithness, in 1940. His father was a man from Edinburgh who eventually became a telephone engineer, his mother a Caithness woman working in Edinburgh; and at the outbreak of war in 1939, the family returned to Wick. They returned to Edinburgh, however, in time for Donald to start school at Craiglockhart Primary in 1945; and when he left Boroughmuir High School in the mid-1950s he became an intern at the Bank of Scotland, spending a few years working in London, where he began to write poems.
He returned to Edinburgh and in 1966 married Jean Fairgrieve, a civil servant who later became a teacher; their son Gavin was born in 1968, when Campbell was submitting poems to publications such as John Herdman’s literary magazine Catalyst. It wasn’t until he became Lothian Schools’ writer-in-residence in 1974, however, that he was able to give up banking work and become a full-time writer.
After the enormous success of his three major plays of the late 1970s, Campbell became writer in residence at the Lyceum Theater from 1981 to 1983, then held similar positions at the University of Dundee, Perth and the Napier University. In 1980 his popular musical drama about the history of Edinburgh’s High Street, Blackfriars Wynd, was performed on the main stage of the Lyceum, and in the late 1980s he co-founded the Old Town Theater Company, working at Netherbow (now the Scottish Storytelling Center) to create a community drama of the genre he loved. He was also an avid theater historian. His Lyceum Theater story, A Brighter Sunshine, was published in 1983 and was followed in 1996 by his Scottish theater story, Playing For Scotland.
âDonald was a man of the left,â says his friend John Herdman, âand a supporter of Scottish independence; but I think he preferred to express these ideas through the character of his work. When The Heretics started in 1970, there were a lot of people writing some sort of synthetic or made-up Scottish, based on their political beliefs. But Donald’s Scots was the real thing; this is what he heard in the streets and in the pubs and on the football terraces. He once told me in an interview that âthe only thing for me is soundâ; and if a line sounded better to him with an English word than a Scottish word, then he would use it.
Campbell also told Herdman that it was the underground poetry and literature movement that really commanded his loyalty; and although Campbell’s work and life seems a far cry from the countercultural imagery often associated with the 1960s underground, his career has nonetheless been shaped by an uncompromising creative radicalism and integrity that may have limited his success in conventional theater structures, but left him with a strong sense of pride in his own achievements.
âDonald hated snobbery and pretension, both intellectual and social, and wanted classless theater,â says his friend and longtime collaborator Donald Smith, artistic director of the Scottish Storytelling Center. âIt has helped put the socially authentic Scottish language on the main stage and give voice to aspects of Scottish history and experience that had not been heard there. This was the source of its great impact in the seventies. And even towards the end of his life, when he no longer worked in the theater, he recalled with immense pleasure his theatrical work. He felt, I think, that he had achieved what he had set out to do.
Donald Campbell is survived by his wife Jean, his son Gavin, his daughter-in-law Margaret and his grandsons Lewis and Andrew; and by a Scottish cultural community he helped transform, as part of a great generation who believed in the possibility of giving a voice to all Scots and their stories, and the power of those voices to generate a real change, both in individual life and in the rest of the world.
The film Giving Voice can be viewed here, as part of the National Library of Scotland’s Video Archives. https://movingimage.nls.uk/film/3269