Rich seams of material relating to theatre in Scotland run through many of the collections at the National Library of Scotland.
From the 16th to the 21st centuries, items in a variety of formats cover every aspect of theatre and theatre-going.
Pre-20th century theatre
We hold a world-class collection of early modern and Restoration English drama, primarily in the Bute Collection, including many early editions of William Shakespeare's plays. We also have a copy of the first folio edition of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623.
Digital copies of all our pre-1642 Shakespeare quartos are available online.
We have the first, 1602, printing of the Scottish herald David Lyndsay's morality drama, 'Ane satyre of the thrie estaits', first performed in full in the 1550s.
of 'The Gentle Shepherd'
Scotland's first public theatre was not opened until 1736, though before that plays and other kinds of drama were performed at venues such as courts and schools or at local festivals. Our collections include early editions of the small number of Scottish plays printed before 1736.
We have several early editions of the 1725 drama 'The Gentle Shepherd' by Allan Ramsay (1684-1758) which was turned into a ballad opera and became a favourite of the Scottish stage.
The play 'Douglas' by the Rev John Home (1722-1808) was first performed in Edinburgh in 1756. An instant success, it also caused an outcry because it had been written by a minister of the Church of Scotland. Along with our early editions of the play, there are works relating to the controversy surrounding it.
Tiles', from the Weir Collection
We hold a good collection of playbills for the Edinburgh's Theatre Royal, advertising performances and events from 1807 to 1851, as well as a few examples dating from the 18th century.
Also in the collections are several texts of stage adaptations of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Books from the library of Edinburgh lawyer and author Sir Theodore Martin (1816-1909) relate mostly to his wife, the famous actress Helena Faucit (1817-1898).
A major resource for the later 19th century is the Weir Collection of books, posters, photographs and cuttings. View Weir Collection posters and photographs 1870-1900.
Our collections contain posters and other theatrical ephemera from a variety of places in Scotland, and periodicals and newspapers featuring advertisements and reviews of performances.
Pre-1900 British and European drama
Through legal deposit and other collections we also have an extensive range of plays published in the British Isles before 1900.
We also have plays printed in Europe, particularly French drama and translations and adaptations of works by Scottish authors such as Sir Walter Scott.
20th and 21st centuries
Our Archives and Manuscript Collections are particularly strong on theatre from the 1950s onwards.
We continue to add:
'The Cheviot, the Stag, and the
Black, Black Oil.
- Theatre company archives
- Edinburgh Festival material
- Plays and unpublished scripts
- Music hall and pantomime material
- Posters, playbills and programmes
- Photographs, including publicity and production stills
- Personal papers of playwrights and performers
- Reviews and news cuttings
- Theatre ephemera.
You can consult this type of material in person in the Special Collections Reading Room. We recommend that you contact the Archives and Manuscripts team in advance of your visit to make sure we can make the item(s) available.
At the National Library there is the largest collection of printed material relating to 20th and 21st century Scottish theatre in a public collection in the world.
The collections include playbills, posters, flyers, tickets, programmes, plays, histories and critical guides.
As a consequence of UK legal deposit, we hold copies of most plays published in the UK and Ireland, including acting editions, and an externsive — though incomplete — collection of London and provincial theatre programmes.
It is also worth noting that at the Library we have extensive newspaper collections, which have reviews, previews, listings, interviews, special editions and theatrical information in abundance
Theatre in the 20th century is also represented on film — from pantomime in the 1930s to famous names in rehearsal and television interviews with playwrights.
Read more about theatre in the Moving Image Archive.
at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
We have extensive collections on the history of theatre in Scotland.
There are publications by and about the most influential theatres and touring companies in Scotland including the Scottish National Players, Borderline Theatre Company, Traverse Theatre, and the National Theatre of Scotland, which was established in 2006.
Significant among the Archives and Manuscript Collections are the archives of a number of theatre companies, notably:
- Traverse Theatre
- Gateway Theatre
- 7:84 Scotland.
See also our page on the Edinburgh Festival.
Playwrights and performers
features in our '12 key Scottish
We have a comprehensive collection of published plays by Scottish playwrights.
They range from early 20th-century authors, such as J M Barrie (1860-1937), James Bridie (1881-1951) and Ena Lamont Stewart (1912-2006), to 21st-century playwrights, including David Greig (1969-), Gregory Burke (1968-) and Rona Munro (1959-).
Literary archives at the Library can include correspondence, photographs and unpublished play scripts. In some cases we hold the only surviving copy of a play.
Personal archives that stretch back to the early decades of the 20th century include those of playwrights James Bridie (1881-1951) and Joe Corrie (1894-1968).
Among recent acquisitions are the papers of playwright, critic and television producer W Gordon Smith (1928-1996) and playwright Andrew Dallmeyer (1945-2017).
Scottish actors are well represented — among them Alastair Sim (1900-1976), Duncan Macrae (1905-1967) and Edith MacArthur (1926-2018).
photograph by Sean Hudson
Theatre-related photographs feature across the collections, and are part of many of the theatre company and literary archives.
The archives of three photographers in particular each contain a large theatre collection, including production photographs:
- Sean Hudson (1935-1997) and Paul Shillabeer (fl. 1948-1973), who were both official Edinburgh Festival photographers
- Alan Daiches (1939-2006), the Traverse Theatre's photographer from 1963-1966.
Theatre programmes database
We have more than 12,000 playbills, posters and programmes published by over 300 different theatres from throughout Scotland.
Details are recorded in the Scottish Theatre Programmes database, which we update regularly.
To see an item mentioned in the database you have to visit our Edinburgh reading rooms. Use the shelfmark given in the database to search for the item using Library Search, which will tell you about its availability.
Theatre has been the subject of two exhibitions and a treasures display in our George IV Bridge building in recent years:
— from the 'Curtain up' exhibition.
Photo by Rhuary Grant, courtesy of
the National Theatre of Scotland
- 'Curtain up': A celebration of 40 years of Scottish theatre.
From 19 December 2009 to 3 May 2010
- 'Beyond Macbeth': A look at Shakespeare in Scottish collections.
From 9 December 2011 to 29 April 2012
- 'Playing Shakespeare': Marking 400 years of great acting since the death of William Shakespeare.
From 17 March to 12 June 2016.