Anne Downie had never heard of The Yellow on the Broom when she was approached with a view to adapting the first part of Betsy Whyte’s memoirs of growing up in a Scottish Traveller community in the 1920s and 1930s for the stage. The idea had come from playwright Tom McGrath, who was then Associate Literary Director for Scotland, who suggesting to John Carnegie, the then head of Winged Horse theatre company that Whyte’s captivating story, which she first started writing in the 1970s, might make a good play.
“It toured everywhere,” says Downie on the eve of a revival of the play at Dundee Rep almost thirty years after it first appeared. “It opened in Skye, and went all over Scotland. It was on at the Tron in Glasgow, and a woman came up to me from what I think was then Strathclyde Region, and she wondered if there might be any possibility of it going on in the camps, because while the women from the camps would come and see it, the men wouldn’t go into theatres. It never happened, which is a pity, but they did a production in Arbroath, and Betsy’s husband and family came.”
Downie met Whyte with a view to collaborating closely on the project. Whyte, alas, died before it could come to fruition.
“I met her once,” says Downie, “but she was found dead in her caravan at a folk festival, so we didn’t really get a chance to collaborate at all. The one thing she did do was give the play its opening. I kept wondering how I was going to begin the play, because it’s all a series of her memories, and I said to her at that meeting, how do you feel now living in a house, because her husband had a bad back, and they had to live in a house in Montrose. She said, there’s many a night I count the tiles from the cooker to the window, and I’m out there in the open air. As soon as she said that I had my beginning.”
Downie had her eyes opened to such cultural differences from the start.
“I thought Betsy’s book was an insight into a world that I knew nothing about, and that most people knew nothing about,” she says. “That was the interesting bit for me. The fact that they had certain beliefs about doctors that went right back to body-snatching days, and ideas about cleanliness, that dirt comes out the ground not dirty, these were totally different beliefs to anything most people know about. I think people get confused now because of things like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, but there’s the fact that Travelling people have been in Scotland for hundreds of years. There was an article I read recently that said there were references to Travellers dating back to 1102.”
Downie discovered all this while she and Carnegie delved through the archives of the
School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
“There was a lot of Betsy’s stories and songs there,” says Downie, “and we got a lot of information from that, because I wanted to be true to her and not impose my own ideas on it. I wanted to find out where Travellers came from, and one of the things I found out from the School of Scottish Studies was that a lot of people joined the Travelling community after the Jacobite Rebellion, so there seems to have been a travelling community for hundreds of years, but I think now, you don’t have the freedom to roam, so there’s a way of life that’s being lost.”
Downie also integrated ideas from Whyte’s sequel to The Yellow on the Broom, Red Rowans and Wild Honey into her adaptation, which she has revisited for Dundee Rep’s production, shortening it slightly, as well as adding new material.
“I was re-reading Red Rowans and Wild Honey recently,” says Downie, “and I took this idea from the book that not only is a way of life is being lost, but the fact that the countryside isn’t what it was. In those days there was no pollution, and you could drink from any mountain stream, but now that land’s polluted. That’s so true, so in a way The Yellow on the Broom isn’t just an elegy for the travelling community, but for the countryside as well.”
The Yellow on the Broom, Dundee Rep, August 28-September 22. Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, September 26-29.