1936: The Mercators are born... or how the
maidens went looking for men
1947: The post-war revival... but don't forget your ration book
The 1950's: The Club is firmly established... or it's fun
to stay at the YMCA
The Swinging Sixties... and one giant leap for Mercators
The Successful Seventies... May the farce be with you
The Expanding Eighties... The Fringe and beyond
The Nervous Nineties... Our numbers dwindle
The New Century... Onwards and
During the early 1930's, a drama group for former pupils of Mary Erskine School
for Girls in Edinburgh performed various plays. Mary Erskine was one of four
fee-paying schools run by the Merchant Company of Edinburgh - a wealthy
organisation of merchants, bankers and businessmen. The other schools were George
Watson's Ladies' College and two boys schools - George Watson's Boys' College
and Daniel Stewart's College.
The Merchant Maidens drama group entered plays in the annual
competitive drama festival run by the Scottish Community Drama Association.
After being criticised by one adjudicator for "extending into adult life
the common school practice of casting women in men's parts", they decided
to invite former pupils of other Merchant Company schools to join them,
especially gentlemen from the boys' colleges!
Thus the Mercators were founded in the autumn of 1936. The name
"Mercator" is the Latin for a Merchant and the club's logo (Right) came from the link with the Merchant Company - historically
a company that traded worldwide in sailing ships.
The Mercators gave their first public performance in the hall
of George Watson's Boys' College (described as "an intimidating cavern that
could seat a thousand schoolboys") on the 11th of March, 1937 with performances of
two plays; a curtain-raiser comedy (as was the fashion on those days)
"Heaven on Earth" by Philip Johnson, followed by a three act comedy
"She Passed Through Lorraine" by Lionel Hale, a comedy
set in 14th century France five years after the death of Joan of Arc (see
newspaper photo). In January of the following year, they returned to George
Watson's College with a production of Dodie Smith's comedy, "Call it a
Day", then moved to the Mary Erskine School Hall in Queen Street in April to
present a programme of four one act plays, a formula repeated in December with
another four one act plays.
Despite the dark clouds hanging over Europe, 1939 began with
the club's first entry into the Edinburgh round of the SCDA One Act Festival. It
is interesting to note that in those halcyon days, the festival had 21 entries playing
over 7 nights, whereas the present Edinburgh round struggles to fill
In March they returned to George Watson's College to perform
another double bill of curtain raiser followed by a three act play. That play
was not only one of the most popular comedies of its day, but one that has
stood test of time; Noel Coward's "Hay Fever". But future plans by the
Mercators were dramatically changed by events elsewhere on the world stage...
Although the Second World War
ended in 1945, it took Britain many years to recover. Even by 1947, when the
revived club staged its first post war production in the SCDA One Act Festival
with J.M. Barrie's "The Twelve Pound Look", food, petrol and clothing
rationing was still in place. The secretary's report for 1949 records how club
members gratefully received items from a food parcel sent by a drama group in
In that year, the club staged another double bill of curtain
raiser and three act play. This time the venue was Mary Erskine School Hall in
Queen Street and
the chosen plays were "The Grand Cham's Diamond" by Allan Monkhouse
and that masterpiece of British comedy "The Importance of Being
Earnest" by Oscar Wilde (Right). Making his debut in that double
bill was a young man by name of Douglas Currie (Second from right in photo).
That young man is still an active member of the Mercators today - currently club
secretary and appearing onstage in our next production. Douglas's most vivid
recollection of that production was the venue itself.
"A flat hall with poor sightlines where umbrellas were needed to shield
some from the rain dripping through skylights which couldn't be closed; no
"props" but what we could lay hold of from families; only borrowed
costumes (rationing still on); the stage lighting a derisory death-trap with its
plugs and wiring a compliment to Victorian installers; finally where no charge
for tickets could be made in an unlicensed hall and where the club had to rely
on the generosity of the audience with an interval collection".
It was clearly time to find a new venue...
The 1950's were the decade of the Coronation of
Queen Elizabeth, the Suez Crisis and Sputnik.
In February 1950,
the Mercators moved to a new venue, the YMCA hall in St. Andrew
Street. It was a small, intimate and comfortable venue seating around 200
people. So what was the catch? The lighting was still fairly rudimentary and to
get from one side of the stage to the other you had to go down one flight of
stairs, through the dressing room and back up via a second flight of spiral
stairs. If your entrance was stage left, you had to make sure you were
waiting offstage left. Needless to say, many club members can recall hairy moments.
Plays performed in the early 50's included
Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit", "The Haxtons" by Hugh Walpole
and, in 1952, a first for the Mercators - the première of an original Pantomime
written by one of our own members, the late (and much missed) Cal
The temporary closure
of the YMCA for reconstruction in 1955 forced the club to
find alternative venues; Adam House Theatre and St. Columba's Hall. Plays
presented during that break included "Champagne for Breakfast" by Derek
Benfield and "The Hollow" by Agatha Christie. However, in the autumn
of 1957, the newly reconstructed YMCA welcomed the Mercators back to perform
Kenneth Horne's "Fools Rush In".
It was a period when we
enjoyed good coverage from the local press at a time when Edinburgh had two
evening newspapers - "The Evening News" and "The Evening
Dispatch". Although we were alarmed in those Cold War days to find
ourselves named by one crit as the "Mevatovs"!
The decade closed with performances of
"Small Hotel" by Rex Frost, "Down Came a Blackbird" by Peter
Blackmore and "The Secret Tent" by Elizabeth Addyman.
The most popular playwright of that decade? Kenneth Horne
with three productions.
The 1960's brought us the
Beatles, student unrest, Vietnam and the first man on the moon. The times were
changing and membership of the club, previously only for former pupils of the Merchant
Company Schools was open to all from 1961.
Plays produced included classics such as "Separate Tables" by Terence
Rattigan, repeat productions of favourites such as "Champagne for
Breakfast" by Derek Benfield (previously staged in 1956) and more unusual
choices like Brian Burton's Victorian melodrama "The Murder of Maria
That giant leap for the Mercators came in 1967 with a move
from the 200 seater YMCA to the new Church Hill Theatre in Morningside Road. A
former church converted by the City for the use of local amateur groups, the
Church Hill provided a 370+ capacity raked auditorium with foyer, box office,
cloakroom and coffee bar; a 26 feet (7.9m) wide stage with ample wing and
backstage space, orchestra pit, workshop beneath the stage and the luxury of
four dressing rooms. The catch? Higher rent, nearly double the number of seats
to fill and more club members required for box office, ticket collecting,
programme selling, coffee bar catering etc.
1967 also saw a return to the SCDA One Act Festival after a
gap of many years with Joe Corrie's "The Income". Since then, we
have performed in almost every festival. A year later, our
entry "Apple Pie" by Margaret Kressman took us through to the next
round of the festival for the first time.
The most playwrights of that decade? The writing partnership
of Philip King and Falkland Cary with three productions.
The 1970's were the decade of decimalisation,
the Rubik cube, Star Wars and Watergate. Throughout this decade, almost every club year followed a pattern
established near the end of the previous decade; an entry (or two) into the SCDA
One Act Festival and a full length play in November at our new venue, the Church
Hill Theatre. Our choice of full length plays varied from classics like J.B.
Priestley's "Dangerous Corner" to entertainment for a younger audience
with Nicholas Stuart Gray's "The Tinder Box" or pure farce with Derek
Benfield's "Wild Goose Chase".
Our One Act entries achieved some notable firsts. In 1973, we
premièred our first original play,
"Blowing in the Wind" by John Wilson. Another original play,
"Farewell Ploy" by Alan Richardson was chosen in 1977. That play went
on to win the award for the best original play in the National Festival.
In 1975, we won the Edinburgh round for the first time with
David Campton's "The Cage Birds", produced by Douglas Currie. We were
also runner-up twice with "The House on Sadavaya Street" and
Our November productions at the Church Hill Theatre also achieved
several firsts. On the tenth of November 1973, we proudly put up the
"house full" sign at a performance of "Quiet Weekend" on
the kind of November night that usually encourages people to stay at home in
front of the TV. We also staged the Scottish amateur premières of two plays by
renowned writers - Noel Coward's "Waiting in the Wings" and Alan
Another original presentation was "A Victorian Evening",
held in Broughton School Theatre in May 1979. Featuring a miscellany of
Victorian songs compiled by Cal Donald, it was a more informal type of show that
was to prove popular and be a prototype for similar shows repeated many times
in later years.
The most popular playwrights of that decade? The honour was
shared with two plays each for David Campton, J.B. Priestley and the
club's own Alan Richardson.
The 1980's gave us
Chernobyl, Live Aid, Pac-Man and the fall of the Berlin wall. For the Mercators,
it was a time to deal with constitutional matters. An expanding membership created
the need for a membership secretary and a regular newsletter. The club constitution and guidelines were extensively
revised and updated. Changes included limiting the terms of office for the
President and Vice-President, a move welcomed by previous office-bearers who
found themselves stuck in the same post for years.
1982 saw our first ever venture into the Edinburgh Festival
Fringe. Having secured the exclusive use of Mayfield Church Hall for two weeks,
we tackled a very ambitious programme; 23 performances over nine days of
three shows - a programme of romantic verse at 6pm, a new Scots comedy by Alan
Richardson at 7.30pm and a late night musical "biogrevue". It was
exhausting, lost money but was a great experience for us all.
By the mid eighties, we found
ourselves approaching our 50th anniversary... and a problem. The club was
founded in 1936, but our first production wasn't until 1937. So which year do we
celebrate? The happy compromise was to mount a Golden Jubilee season of plays
beginning with "The Imperial Nightingale" by Nicholas Stuart Gray in December
1986 and ending with an adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and
Prejudice" in May of the following year.
Another expansion was our acquisition of rehearsal and
workshop facilities at Broughton-McDonald Church. This move gave us a rehearsal
hall with dimensions matching the stage of the Church Hill Theatre and a
separate workshop which was particularly welcomed by a growing band of members
with considerable technical expertise. It was probably no coincidence that the club won
its first stage presentation trophy at the 1985 One Act Festival.
Other festival successes in that decade were
gaining third place in 1981, 1982 and 1985 and winning the Margaret Allan Quaich
(donated by the Mercators in loving memory of a club stalwart with over thirty
years service as actress, producer, Treasurer and twice President) for the best
play depicting Scottish life and character with "Liddesdale" in 1987.
But the One Act Festival highlight of the decade was winning our first trophy
(the Buchanan Salver for third place) at the Divisional Finals in 1982 with
"The Long Christmas Dinner".
We also expanded our versatility by attempting more informal
presentations such as "Love is...", a programme of romantic verse and
song which we staged at many venues and repeated over a number of years, and two
cabaret style presentations with food and wine at Trinity Academicals R.F.C.,
where many Mercators found themselves trying their hands at song and dance for
the first time.
The most popular playwright of the 1980's? Again the honour
was shared, this time with three apiece for Alan Ayckbourn and our own Alan
The decade that began with the
departure of Margaret Thatcher, brought us Dolly the sheep and the Spice Girls,
and ended with New Labour. Our decade began with a struggle to retain members,
and, as a result, a struggle to fill seats at the Church Hill Theatre. After a
succession of loss-making productions that were haemorrhaging the club finances,
we had to reluctantly bid farewell to the Church Hill in 1993. Changes in
the layout of Broughton-McDonald Church combined with a steep rise in rent meant
another goodbye - this time to our workshop and rehearsal
Our mounting problems didn't end there. Our links with the
Merchant Company Schools had provided us, over the years, with scenery storage
in various school buildings, but a combination of redevelopments and new safety
regulations left us with nowhere to store our scenery.
So there we were; a falling membership, no venue, no
rehearsal room, no scenery, no props and only as many costumes that could be
kept in club members' wardrobes at home. Did we fold? Of course not. We
rehearsed in members' houses and sought alternative venues, some (like the
Netherbow and Liberton Kirk) much better than others (such as the Bedlam and Stepping
Stones). We also participated in collaborations or joint productions with other
clubs. Nor were we afraid to try something new, like appearing regularly from
1997 onwards at the wonderful Arran Dramafest.
New opportunities were eagerly welcomed
such as when the Edinburgh Military Tattoo invited
the SCDA to provide actors to participate in historical re-enactments and a
number of Mercators jumped at the chance. The 1993 Tattoo featured the crowning
of Macbeth. A year later, we found ourselves in the thick of the Battle of
Waterloo. It was an amateur actor's dream; a guaranteed full house of 8000 every
night for three weeks and being broadcast by the BBC.
One avenue of performance that remained open to us was the
SCDA One Act Festival which we entered in 1991, 1994, 1997 and 1999, but our
only success was a third place in 1997 with Harold Pinter's "Silence".
We returned to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at a new venue,
Riddles Court in the Lawnmarket. A wonderfully atmospheric 16th century building
in Edinburgh's Old Town. Its only drawback was a tendency for August indoor
temperatures to verge on the sub-tropical. Our early productions there were
always artistically rewarding, but like many fellow Fringe performers, our cast
sometimes outnumbered our audience.
With full length plays with sets now impossible, we found
multiple plays a popular alternative. We opened our Diamond Jubilee season at
Riddles Court in August 1996 with a presentation of "Pinter Plus",
which included four Pinter pieces (including "Silence") plus one each
from David Campton and John Bowen. We concluded that season at the Netherbow
Arts Centre Theatre in May 1997 with "Purely Pinter", this time with
five Pinter plays or sketches. So there are no prizes for guessing this decade's
most popular playwright.
The year 2000 saw lots of readings to keep club members
occupied, but no productions. A decade that had began with a membership of
around thirty ended with numbers down to single figures.
Our future seemed uncertain...
Even with our active
membership down to single figures, we still established an annual schedule of performances;
an entry into the One Act Festival in February and an Edinburgh Festival Fringe
production in August. But we were still seeking that elusive Fringe box office
formula. Then, for the 2002 Fringe, we came up with the idea of staging a
drama-documentary style presentation on the life of Sir Walter Scott, featuring
extracts from his novels, titled "The Wizard of the North". We
performed in period costume; the ladies' dresses designed and made by our own
May Kelly. The result was a very well received production that made our first
ever profit on the Fringe. At last we had that formula. The next year,
"Tusitala - Teller of Tales", on the life of Robert Louis Stevenson
did even better, and in 2004, the magic of Jane Austen gave us a one week
sell-out. Other writers featured in this decade were Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan
Doyle, Charles Dickens and J.M. Barrie. We
also accepted many invitations by different organisations and groups to present
these shows, often for charitable causes. Other invitations are always welcome -
see our Contact Us page.
The 2002 and 2003 Edinburgh Military Tattoos again featured
appearances by SCDA members, including several Mercators. Another unforgettable
experience that included being driven in Her Majesty the Queen's Scottish State
In the SCDA One Act Festival, despite competing against clubs
with their own premises and triple our membership, we continued to punch above
our weight. Third places in 2002 and 2006, best staging in 2005, and three
trophies including first place in 2004 with
the "The Café" by Neville Watchurst, directed by John Kelly.
"The Café" was one of those plays that seemed
absolutely right for us. We progressed to the Divisional
round to gain second place, our highest ever placing at that level, and as a
result, reached the National Finals for the first time in
the club's history to appear at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness.
One of our favourite lines from that play was Reg's "Onwards and
upwards" which we seem to have adopted as an unofficial club motto.
We continued to première original plays by our own writers;
"Two Wits to Woo" by John Kelly at the last Arran Dramafest in 2001
and "The Worst Day of My Life" by Alan Richardson at the 2006 SCDA One
In 2006, the club celebrated its 70th anniversary with a
gathering of members, ex and present, friends and supporters (see Social
Events). We have continued our tributes to famous writers into the new
decade with a tribute to W.S. Gilbert and a 200th birthday celebration for
Charles Dickens. In the autumn of 2012, we celebrated two anniversaries - the
75th anniversary of the club's first stage production and the 30th anniversary
of our first venture into the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
We are currently rehearsing our entry for the 2013 SCDA One Act Festival.
Onwards and Upwards...
The webmaster would like to
thanks all Mercators, past and present, whose memories and anecdotes
were invaluable for this history, and particularly Douglas Currie, who gathered
together a wealth
of material for our Golden Jubilee book and who continues to act as club