When Iain Finlay Macleod moved part time to the Stockbridge district on
the cusp of Edinburgh New Town, it was as far spiritually from the
playwright, novelist and tweed-maker's Lewis birth-place as it was
Macleod had decamped to the capital to take up his post as the 2013
Institute of Advanced Studies for the Humanities (IASH) Edinburgh
University/Traverse Theatre Fellow, and the original plan was to write
something loosely based around the nineteenth century Enlightenment
which begat the thinking of David Hume and Adam Smith. Yet, s he spent
more time in the area, Macleod became increasingly drawn towards the
not always enlightened world of the legal profession. Then, when a
friend told him a story about someone looking after a dog which
subsequently died, forcing its minder to put its body in a suitcase to
take it across town to the vet's on the underground, it became
something else again.
The result of such a disparate set of inspirations is The Devil
Masters, a black comedy in which a well-heeled husband and wife double
act of legal eagles are forced to square up to the city's underbelly.
In the play's world premiere production which opens tonight at the
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, this comes in the form of a dog-napping
ne'er-do-well who inveigles his way into the front room of their New
Town des-res on Christmas Eve.
“It isn't entirely a drawing room play,” Macleod points out, “but it
isn't magical realism either. It went through quite a few drafts,
including being quite a straight play, but I do like a darker and more
This stems to unconfirmed rumours that a real life canine will join the
“The dog in the play is a Skye Terrier,” Macleod says, “but I've got a
whippet, and I was suggesting that we could just shove that onstage.”
The title of The Devil Masters is taken from the archaic lexicon of
legalese, and refers to the ancient art of devilling, a period of
junior work undertaken by aspiring advocates. In Scotland's legal
system, the juniors are put under the wing of a senior devil-master,
who, as tradition dictates, must not be a member of the Queen's
Counsel. Under their guidance, the devil masters' young charges follow
a programme set up by the Faculty of Advocates.
“My cousin is an advocate,” says Macleod, “and he went through the
process of devilling, where you have a kind of legal family. I wasn't
full time in Edinburgh, and moved about a bit before I became fully
settled in this great house in Stockbridge, where I wandered about with
my nose in the air.
“I know Glasgow much better, so it was interesting to find out
something about Edinburgh's history, and to see how Edinburgh folk are
a little bit different to Glasgow folk.”
The Devil Masters is Macleod's first play to be produced by the
Traverse since I Was A Beautiful Day in 2010. This was the last of a
trio of plays to open at Edinburgh's new writing theatre over the
previous decade, all of which subsequently toured the Highlands. The
Traverse also premiered Broke, Macleod's version of French writer David
Lescot's play, Un homme en Faillite.
More than fifty other works across stage, screen and radio have
included Somersaults for the National Theatre of Scotland, and an
opera, St Kilda, produced at Edinburgh International Festival, and
performed in five European countries simultaneously in four languages.
Macleod was also an associate playwright for two years with
Playwrights’ Studio Scotland and writer in residence at Sabhal Mor
Beyond The Devil Masters, it was announced that Macleod's new Gaelic
version of Compton Mackenzie's famously filmed novel, Whisky Galore,
will form part of the National Theatre of Scotland's 2015 season.
Produced in association with Oran Mor's A Play, A Pie and A Pint
venture and Macleod's own Lewis-based Robhanis company, Uisge-Beatha Gu
Leòr will tour Scotland next Spring.
“The season looks at a couple of classic Scottish novels,” Macleod says
of a programme that also includes an adaptation of Muriel Spark's
novel, The Driver's Seat, “and Mackenzie writes English in quite a
funny, comedic way, so this is a bit of a retelling of Whisky Galore
from a Gaelic point of view.”
Given the real life backdrop of the story which has been seen onstage
in both Mull Theatre's radio version and Pitlochry Festival Theatre's
musical take on things, Whisky Galore still has an emotional resonance
to people living in Lewis, close to Eriskay, where the incident
“There's another level of reality to what happened,” Macleod explains,
“and I don't think the islanders on Eriskay have ever quite recovered
from the fact that the film was shot on Barra. You can hardly believe
that it happened at all, that this boat full of whisky ran aground.”
As Associate Artist (Gaelic) with the National Theatre of Scotland,
Macleod is at the forefront of a focus on Gaelic writing in all forms.
“The development in novel writing in Gaelic has been quite significant
over the last ten years or so,” he says. “Before then there were only a
handful of novels written in Gaelic, but now there are tens more of
them. Theatre is getting the best of support now as well, and I'm
helping to mentor Gaelic writers through Playwrights Studio Scotland.”
Now safely ensconced back on Lewis, Macleod's sojourn into Edinburgh
appears to have laced his own writing with a hitherto untapped wildness.
“I was interested in how people present themselves to the world, and
what happens when civility breaks down,” he says. “With The Devil
Masters I was trying to get under the surface, and see how far people
can be pushed. When Orla O'Loughlin read the first draft of the play,
she said she liked it, but she told me to put a bomb under it, and
that's what I've done.”
The Devil Masters, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 6-24.
Iain Finlay Macleod - A Writer's Life
Iain Finlay Macleod was born on Lewis in 1973.
He was encouraged to write at a young age by his uncle, Dr Finlay
Macleod, a dramatist and writer of children's books. His first
experience of making theatre came at the National Gaelic Youth Theatre
in the early 1990s.
In 1994 Macleod attended The International School for Writers, Actors
and Directors at the Royal Court Theatre, London, and began submitting
work to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.
For the Traverse, as well as The Devil Masters, Macleod has written The
Pearlfisher, I Was a Beautiful Day, Homers and Broke, a version of
David Lescot's Un homme en Faillite.
Macleod has written more than fifty dramatic works for radio, theatre,
television and film, and his work has been shown in America, Germany
Other plays include Somersaults for the National Theatre of Scotland
and St. Kilda - The Opera, which was performed in five European
countries simultaneously in four languages.
Macleod was Associate Playwright for two years (2007-2009) with
Playwrights’ Studio Scotland and Writer-in-Residence at Sabhal Mor
Ostaig for two years.
Macleod was awarded the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship in 2009, and
is currently Associate Artist (Gaelic) with the National Theatre of
The Devil Masters was written when Macleod was the IASH Edinburgh
University/Traverse Theatre Fellow in 2013, based at the Institute of
Advanced Studies for the Humanities at Edinburgh University.
The Herald, December 9th 2014