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Obituary: Donald Campbell – Playwright, poet and historian who influenced the Scottish cultural community

Donald Campbell. Photo: Gordon Wright

A playwright and poet who employed the rich, muscular vernacular of his native Scotland to often vivid effect, Donald Campbell, who has died aged 79, was a leading figure in the Scottish literary renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s and helped shape the focus and language of a generation of local theatremakers.

Born in Wick, Caithness, on Scotland’s remote, north-eastern coastline, Campbell was raised in Edinburgh, which remained his home throughout his life apart from some years in London as a banking apprentice.

He began his writing career as a poet, forming the cultural collective The Heretics in 1970 and publishing his first collection the following year. Appointed writer in residence to schools in Lothian in 1974, he abandoned banking to become a full-time writer. In 1976, he made his first foray into playwriting. Staged at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and described by The Stage as “a remarkable first play”, The Jesuit set contemporary colloquialisms against a 17th-century portrait of a Catholic martyr.

He returned to the Traverse with historical dramas Somerville the Soldier (1978) and the Fringe First award-winning The Widows of Clyth (1979), while 1980 play Blackfriars Wynd was seen at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, where he was writer in residence from 1981-83. All three plays, together with his 1981 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, made powerful, punchy and pungent use of colloquial Scots and were directed by Sandy Neilson.

A portrait of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns followed in 1982’s Till All the Seas Run Dry, and, in a rare nod to the mainstream, an adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for Dundee Rep in 1985. The same year, Strikers was a pithy and sharp mining family drama and he won a second Fringe First award for Howard’s Revenge, based on a rivalry between West End theatre managers in the 19th century.

Having ventured into community drama as a deviser and director with his own Old Town Theatre in the 1980s, for 7:84 he wrote the large-scale community theatre piece Victorian Values (1986) and was one of several writers for the company, alongside Rona Munro and Tom Leonard, of Long Story Short, a multi-hued perspective on contemporary Scottish life, in 1988. In 1990, he wrote the Brunton Musselburgh’s 10th anniversary show, The Fiddler Boy and the Honest Lass.

Late in his career he took to directing. Productions included John McGrath’s Plugged into History (Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 1986) and a brace of Walter Scott adaptations – The Heart of Midlothian (Edinburgh Old Town Festival, 1988) and St Ronan’s Well (Border Festival, 1989). With Tom Wright’s There Was a Man, he revisited the life of Robert Burns, seen through the eyes of women he knew, for Capstride Theatre Company (1994).

He also wrote six plays for television and more than 50 radio programmes, as well as two volumes of theatre history. In later years, he returned to writing poetry, publishing his final collection, Heard in the Cougait, in 2017. Donald Campbell was born on February 25, 1940, and died on March 8. He is survived by his wife and son.

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