The banker who led Scotland to disaster

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

image captionPaul Higgins in Caledonia, a tale of "greed, euphoria and mass delusion"

It is a story of "greed, euphoria and mass delusion" in which a banker led Scotland towards financial ruin.

It may have modern echoes but the events told in Caledonia, which is to be premiered as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, happened more than 300 years ago.

The new play, written by Scottish satirist Alistair Beaton and directed by Anthony Neilson, brings the Darien project to the stage.

Inspired by banker William Paterson, Scotland invested a large proportion of its wealth in setting up a colony in Central America in 1698.

It is widely believed that the ensuing fiasco led to union with England less than a decade later.

Paul Higgins, best known for his role as Malcolm Tucker's psychotic spin doctor sidekick Jamie in political satire The Thick of It, plays Paterson.

He had returned to Scotland in the late 1690s, fresh from founding the Bank of England.

Against the odds Paterson managed to convince large swathes of Scottish society to invest in a scheme to set up a colony in what is modern-day Panama.

He saw the location as being able to link trade between the far east and Europe.

However, disease, poor planning, a trade embargo from England and attacks by the Spanish saw to it that the project ended in failure with the loss of 2,000 lives and half of Scotland's fortune.

Despite this Higgins thinks of Paterson as "rather heroic".

"He had incredibly ambitious plans for himself and for Scotland," the actor said.

image captionThe play looks at Scotland's ill-fated attempt to set up a colony

"He had great ideas and he was thwarted by, among other people, the English."

Higgins added: "He was possibly naive. But he had founded the Bank of England. He'd had success.

"It may have gone to his head. He did raise an enormous amount of money from the people of Scotland.

"It all went wrong. I still admire him but it did all go wrong."

Higgins, who is from Lanarkshire, said he had enjoyed learning about the fiasco.

"I did not know anything about Darien," he said.

"I was never taught it at school. Researching it has been wonderful."

The play is a co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Scotland.

It is the centrepiece of the festival's programme and the writer and director are two major figures from Scottish theatre.

Beaton is perhaps best-known for his political satires on TV - A Very Social Secretary and the Trial of Tony Blair.

Neilson's work includes the National Theatre of Scotland's Realism and The Wonderful World of Dissocia.

The director said people would inevitably draw parallels with the recent banking crisis, particularly the spectacular failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland under Sir Fred Goodwin.

Using comedy

However, he said his main concern was to make the work accessible and entertaining.

Neilson, whose work is often more contemporary and challenging, said the play was in the Scottish tradition of using songs and comedy yet still addressing very serious issues.

He said: "A project of this size and scope is never going to be easy to put on stage."

Neilson, originally from Edinburgh, admitted to "disagreements" with Glaswegian writer Beaton but said such "creative discussions" were "standard" during a production.

"We are both from very different backgrounds," he said.

"My job is to bring together a group of talented people and choose from the ideas they present to me.

"But you end up with something which is not really any one person's piece of work- which I always think translates to much more energy on stage."

He added: "If the audience are entertained then it is job done."

Caledonia is on at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh from 21 to 26 August.