Atmosphere at the 1947 – 1956 Arbroath Abbey Pageants

An article written and researched by Patrick Moran for the online series The Making of a Pageant: 1947-2005.

The string of Arbroath Abbey Pageant performances from 1947 to 1956 can be credited for affording Arbroath’s status as the UK’s pageant capital. An innovation in 1951 – Performance Under Illumination – further cemented Arbroath’s place on the pageant map. Under Pageant Masters Frank Thornton and George Shepherd, the Pageants, and the ancillary events of ‘Pageant Week’, grew to be a much-anticipated feature of the town’s holiday season.

My archive- and interview-based study of the early Abbey Pageants pieced together a nested assemblage of pageant atmospheres: first, the festive atmosphere of Pageant Week, and second, the enchanting atmosphere of the pageant performances themselves – especially those taking place at night-time under illumination.

The Pageant Spirit

By its third year, in 1949, Pageant Week was praised in local press for returning the ‘pageant spirit’ to Arbroath. The scene across the town was described by the Arbroath Guide:

Decorations are up again. Flags fly from many masts. They emblazon the fronts of buildings in main streets which have a colourful canopy of criss-crossing streamers of fluttering bunting. It is all very gay and exhilarating […] a wonderful spirit of community co-operation gives a Continental sparkle to the festive air of a staid Scots seaport town successfully extending its rather limited holiday season.

‘Pageant Week’, Arbroath Guide, 22 August 1953, p4

The festive air of Pageant Week was punctuated by a raft of community events, including most prominently the performance of an ‘old-time fisher wedding’ at the Drill Hall…

Fisherman’s wedding in Arbroath, 1947: Fisher wives and escorts convey baskets of dishes and other wedding presents to the couple’s new home, led by the fiddler.
Source: SCRAN Archive, originally printed in The Arbroath Herald. (Ref.: 000-000-124-153-C)

…and a Grand Historical Procession of Pageant performers, bands, and floats.

Saturday afternoon’s Procession of Historical Tableaux through the streets was led by “King Robert the Bruce and Barons of Scotland”. This colourful cavalcade attraction for crowds outside the Abby every night during the week was enthusiastically greeted by vast crowds.
Source: Arbroath Herald, 18 August 1950, page 8

The festive spirit of each successive Pageant Week carried its own unique quirks. In 1952, for instance, an anonymous donor gifted a substantial prize for the best-groomed horse and harness featured in the Grand Historical Procession. Messrs Thos of Muir, Son & Patton Ltd. was the lucky winner of the main prize. Embellished by these kinds of niceties, Pageant Week was more than simply a tourist innovation or a straightforward commemoration of the Declaration of Arbroath: it was a vibrant expression of community togetherness bathed in an atmosphere of post-War festivity. 

Best-groomed horse and harness in the procession: Messrs Thos. Muir, Son & Patton Ltd.
Source: Arbroath Herald, 22 August 1952, page 5

Illuminated Atmospheres

Nested within Pageant Week lied, of course, the Abbey Pageant performances themselves. It was at the illuminated performances from 1951 that distinctly enchanting atmospheres were engineered. Pageant-goers often spoke of being immersed in the scene of King Robert the Bruce and his Barons signing the Declaration of Arbroath:

“… the Arbroath Abbey Pageant has been praised for the realism of the scenes it portrays. Audiences have readily spoken of strong feelings of being transported back to time past. By day such impressions are vivid enough, but it is at night, when the silence of the Abbey is perfect and the scene glows in warm illumination that the full impact of the realism of the scene links audience and players in the unity of great experience.”

‘Arbroath Abbey Pageant’, Fraserburgh Herald, 25 August 1953: 4

The enchanting quality of the pageants under illumination was owed to several atmospheric generators, including the use of skilful up-lighting to rebuild the Abbey walls against the backdrop of the gloamin’, and the ghostly appearances of the commentator of the day, as if from the mists of the past.

High above the scene in the chancel, Mr Thornton made an impressive presiding figure as Pageant commentator. In this picture, taken at a floodlit performance, Ian Spalding, as Sir William Wallace, gives the closing oration in the play, ‘The Laurel Crown’. Source: Arbroath Herald, 22 July 1955, p9

Whereas by day the town was consumed with a festive pageant spirit, by night the performances transported pageant attendees to an eerie time past. Innovative arrays of spotlights and floodlights were integral, along with the red sandstone fabric of the Abbey itself and, on many an occasion, a haar rolling in off the North Sea. The words of some more recent pageant attendees spoke clearly to this sensation; one which many readers may also recall from illuminated pageant performances in their day:

“the chamber was filled with magic and the hair on my neck stood to attention […] all worldly thoughts were wiped from my mind”

Steven, attended 1966 & 1970 performances

“as you’re listening to it, this story, again your imagination’s running wild […] That was like the hairs on the back of your neck stuff. But you just, just felt really, it’s just a great feeling.”

Ewan, attended 1970, 1980, 1999 & 2000 performances

This article has been written and researched by Patrick Moran after he wrote his Undergraduate Dissertation at Cambridge University on Atmosphere and Illumination at the Arbroath Pageants on this subject and interviewed a number of people who attended the Pageants.