Preview: I Am Thomas, a tale from Edinburgh’s dark past

Iain Johnstone in I Am Thomas
Iain Johnstone in I Am Thomas
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DANGLING lifeless from a gibbet half way up Leith Walk, Thomas Aitkenhead had been on the planet just two decades when he was executed at the Gallow Lee, a field on the road between Leith and Edinburgh where, 300 years later the bus garage at Shrubhill would stand.

Aitkenhead’s execution on 8 January 1697 saw the student enter the annals of the Capital’s sinister past as the last person in Britain to be hanged for blasphemy.

The indictment that sent him to meet his maker, or not, as the case may be, declared: “The prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions...”

It is a chapter of the city’s history that has long fascinated composer and actor Iain Johnstone.

“When I found out about Thomas, about 25 years ago, I was genuinely surprised that this had happened in Edinburgh, and that I didn’t know about it.

“It was as if it had been swept under the carpet, like there was a shame that this had happened to this young man.”

He adds, “I discovered it around the time of the Salman Rushdie fatwa and it struck me it was very similar story, just from a different time.

“I realised world history just keeps repeating itself. There are still some countries now very similar to what Scotland was all those centuries ago.”

At the Lyceum, from tomorrow, Aitkenhead’s story is brought to life in I Am Thomas - a brutal comedy with songs.

Edinburgh 1696, the church has spies everywhere. Here, you keep your counsel and choose your words with care... unless you’re a loud-mouthed, smart-arsed and likable student at the university. Trouble is brewing for Thomas.

Resonating across time and cultures, the drama of the piece shifts between 1696 and present times.

“Despite the darkness of the tale, there is humour in it, it’s not a gloomfest,” promises Johnstone, who appears in the production having also written the score.

He adds, “There is quite literally gallows humour, told through song as well, which heightens the drama.

“Thomas was just a young boy like any of us when we were that age, full of ourselves.

“But he lived in the 17th century, Scotland’s biggest turmoil-filled century at a time when the people who had been the persecuted in the killing years in the middle of that century, the Presbyterians, were now in power.

“The persecuted had become the persecutors and they hadn’t gone through everything they had to allow the creeping tide of atheism sweeping up from down south.”

Johnstone hopes telling Aitkenhead’s story will finally bring him some recognition.

“When I first heard this story I wrote to the District Council as it was, trying to get a statue of Aitkenhead erected. Of course, I never got a reply. So I hope I Am Thomas can fan a flame to getting some sort of memorial for him.”

I Am Thomas, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, tomorrow-9 April, £13-£29.50, 7.30pm (matinee 2.30pm), 0131-248 4848