Robert Kirk was born in 1644, the seventh son of a seventh son who also happened to be minister of Aberfoyle. Robert went to Edinburgh and St Andrew’s universities and was minister of Balquidder for twenty one years, where he translated the metrical psalms into his native Gaelic, before returning to Aberfoyle after his father’s death. But Robert increasingly spent time wandering the countryside, listening to the sounds which he swore emerged from fairy mounds, Aberfoyle’s Doon Hill in particular . And at a time when witchcraft was a capital offence in Scotland, he wrote The Secret Commonwealth, a supposedly factual account of the fairyland of the Celts, in all its strange, savage and fascinating detail. In 1692, he went out in his nightshirt and was supposed to have died of a heart attack on the Doon Hill. Not long after his funeral, he appeared to a cousin and said that he was not dead, but ‘stolen’. He could only be reclaimed from the Faery Realm if – at his baby son’s christening– a dagger was thrown over his head, when he appeared. He duly materialized, but the cousin was so disturbed by the vision that he forgot to throw the knife. After Kirk’s death, his eldest son, Colin, an Edinburgh lawyer, observed that ‘father has gone to his own kind’ and as late as 1978 local people were said to be aware of his presence at certain places around Aberfoyle.
The Secret Commonwealth is a play with music, based around the story of Kirk himself, but it is also a meditation on the conflict between new and old beliefs in seventeenth century Scotland. It is a play about the appeal of the natural world and the pull of tradition when set against the dictates of a more austere belief system. It is, essentially, a play about a man torn between two cultures.