Creative Dundee

Blog: Radical Happenings in Dundee

Ewan MacColl
Photo: Jim Maginn

Our blog series regularly invites guests to share their thoughts on different aspects of life in Dundee, their own practice, and anything in between.

In this edition, we hear from Matthew Knights: a writer, creative writing tutor and Artistic Director of Knights Theatre Company. He considers how collaborative creative projects can relay radical social history, including a tale of a fight for the right to ramble.


Most of the rights we have we possibly wouldn’t even identify as rights. Like the right to go for a walk. Hold on… Coronavirus… Ok, a lot has changed. Don’t stop reading because I wrote the C word. The rest of this is not about that.

I write plays and poetry and encourage others to make creative writing, even if they haven’t done so before. Writing is a form of empowerment. Even to write is a right. For vast periods of history, loads of people couldn’t. But that’s another story… You have to fight for all your rights, not just to party. And not just to win them for the first time, but to hold onto them. People make their own history, for better or for worse.

I am Artistic Director of Knights Theatre Company which makes contemporary plays about social history. We have been having fun in Fife and online the past couple of years developing a play about Jennie Lee, the founder of The Open University who was a miner’s daughter from Lochgelly and we are hoping to produce this in 2022. Since moving to the city last year I am keen to get some Dundee based projects up and running. It seems to me Dundee’s renaissance is only just beginning. I can already sense the buzz of creativity, collective solidarity and D.I.Y ethic that exists here and I am looking forward to starting projects, collaborating and seeing what other individuals and companies are getting up to.

I have enjoyed getting going with Logie 100, a project exploring the history of the first Council Housing scheme in Scotland, built at Logie in 1920 by the then Liberal government following the First World War. I am working with researcher Rachel Boyd, Dundee City Archives and Abertay Historical Society and as part of this we are hoping to do some oral history research, some creative writing and more.

The first Dundee-based project for Knights Theatre is called Ewan MacColl: Manchester Rambler and features the famous folk singer (writer of Dirty Old Town and First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and father of Kirsty) coming back from the dead to tell the story of the Mass Trespass of 1932 to some young people in a Dundee pub. The project is a collaboration with fellow Dundee based creatives Calum Kelly & Taylor Dyson of Elfie Picket Theatre. We will be working on a draft of the play and showing it back as a rehearsed reading in September, supported by Creative Scotland.

MacColl was a radical, born in Manchester in 1915 to Scottish parents. He later adopted the name of a forgotten Scots poet suggested to him by Hugh MacDiarmid, joined the Communist party, left it, proposed a new Scottish National Theatre (in the 1940s), participated in the first Edinburgh Fringe—when it was actually a fringe—with legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood and their trailblazing company Theatre Workshop, moved into folk music, and was a leader of the 1950s-60s revival before Bob Dylan came on the scene (he was not a fan). He invented the idea of the folk club which later “went viral” (including one in Dundee which he played at a couple of times with his wife and collaborator Peggy Seeger). and he collected songs from working people across Britain. Manchester in the 1930s was an industrial wilderness much like Dundee would also have been at the time. Working class people had very little, but MacColl and his friends were of the mind that when you were not either working or in the dole queue you might get out to the countryside and enjoy yourself a bit. The only problem being that it was virtually all off limits. Thus it was he participated in the Mass Trespass of 1932 onto Kinder Scout, an important episode in the battle for access rights in the countryside which still resonates today.

We are partnering with Erin Farley at Dundee Leisure & Culture to explore the local history of trespass in Dundee and the role of stories and songs in the social struggle through a combination of creative writing and discussion events alongside the play reading. Come and join in!

It takes a lot of people to make a theatre so if you are a theatre maker, stage manager, producer, technical person, graphic designer, website wizard, marketing expert, radical intellectual, activist or anyone reading this who likes the idea of being involved with a radical theatre making things happen in Dundee, get in touch by email or follow @Knightstheatre. Let’s get on with it!

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