In 2002, I started a theatre company called The Backyard Bard and for nearly the last two decades, I have been committing to memory and performing Scripture. This theatrical artform is called “Biblical Storytelling”, though it isn’t limited to Bible stories. I also love performing sections from the epistles, prophetic writings, and Biblical poetry.
Narrative texts however, give me the wonderful opportunity to play lots of different characters, which is always heaps of fun. The most fun character I love to portray is an angel, and if you’ve ever seen a storytelling performance by The Backyard Bard, you’ll have noticed that our angels always have Scottish accents. See below as an example:
Once I performed at a very prestigious private boy’s college for the school chapel assembly, and even in that formal setting, there was an angel in the story, and so the Scottish accent came out. I recall being introduced to one of the teachers on campus who was actually Scottish. The school staff member introducing me told them that I had performed the angel in a Scottish accent and wanted their reaction. Without a beat, this teacher cheekily shrugged and said in his thick accent, “Aye, I’ve always thought angels were Scottish.”
Many have asked, so what’s with the Scottish angels? I often answer jokingly, “Well, if you ever meet an angel that doesn’t sound Scottish, tell me and I’ll do their accent instead!” But there actally is some thought that went behind choosing that accent for the angels, so I thought I’d explain it here.
Choosing an accent
Firstly it’s worth pointing out, I love doing accents. My Pharisees and kings often have posh British accents, my shepherds sound Aussie occa, Pilate and the Roman guards sometimes sound Italian and with the occasional character I might play with a bit of a Yiddish accent. I even once told the story of Samson from Judges, giving him the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger (check it out HERE).
Each of these accents plays into stereotypes and so I am careful when or if I use them. But sometimes those stereotypes can really help communicate some aspect of a character’s personality, like with the posh British accent reflecting affluence, status and a sense of arrogance, whereas the Aussie occa shepherds communicate their humble status and simple good nature.
The accent would of course, only be one in a smorgasbord of creative tools the actor has to create a distinct and engaging character. I’d also think about how I’d move my body, my hand gestures, my facial expressions and what simple props (either mimed or physically present) I might use. I generally would avoid costumes, because with Biblical Storytelling, you’d be switching between characters so quickly it would not be practical. In light of that, accents in particular, became a very useful device to make each character distinct and memorable.
What do angels sound like?
So when it came to a story that included an angel, I had to make a call – what should the angel sound like? Well, the most important thing I knew I wanted was for them to sound DIFFERENT. They were angels! They aren’t little cute cherubs with sweet sounding choir voices. They are awesome celestial warriors! Messengers from God that shone with the holiness and glory of God! In the bible, when people meet an angel they are either bowing down in worship, terrified for their life or wracked with guilt over their sin exposed by the presence of God’s holiness. That is why the very first words angels often say are “Do not be afraid!” Sometimes, like in Judges 6, the angel literally says â€œPeace! Do not be afraid.Â You are not going to die!â€
So I knew I needed the angels accent to not sound like any of the other accents I used for other characters. It needed to be powerful, arresting, terrifying, warrior-like and clearly “not from around here”. It needed to be… Scottish.
Why Scottish works
The first time I used the Scottish accent in a Biblical Storytelling was back in 2005 in the performance you can see in the video above (the full video can be viewed HERE). It was the Christmas story from Matthew’s gospel and the angel appears and begins bossing Joseph around.
Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.Â She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.Matthew 1:21
Then a little later in the story he does it again!
Get up! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.Matthew 2:13
Sure, you could also imagine that the angel spoke in a soft, comforting tone, but I wanted to shake people’s stereotype of what an angelic appearance was like. It was exciting! God was doing something! The brash boldness of the Scottish accent worked really well. It probably also helped that films like Braveheart and Rob Roy had culturally made the Scottish accent synonymous with being a warrior (at least in my mind) and this was the type of angel I wanted to portray.
I remember, in 2006, a year after I had introduced the Scottish angel, the movie The Nativity was released. I wasn’t overly impressed with the film, but the scene portraying the angel’s visitation was particularly disappointing.
The angel is relaxed and talks and looks just like anyone else she might meet on the street except for being dressed in white (and not as bright as lightning like in Matthew 28:3). And Mary’s reaction! So deadpan! One thing I learnt in Biblical Storytelling is that the performer is the “emotional guide” for the audience, helping them know when something is important or terrifying or news that will literally change the course of history!
Anyway, this film solidified for me that the choice of a bold and larger-than-life Scottish warrior that was one part William Wallace and one part Billy Connolly, was the right way to go.
Good news of great joy!
I mention Billy Connolly, not only because that’s the type of Scottish accent I try to go for, but also because he is a comedian. Inevitably (as you can see in the videos of my performances) the use of the Scottish accent will inevitably cause people to laugh. It’s just undeniably funny to hear a Scottish angel. Unless you’re that teacher I referred to at the start, it’s unexpected and disarming and people consistently respond to that surprise with a laugh.
Is that a bad thing? After all, the angel is a messenger from God Almighty! He should be feared, not laughed at. Isn’t inspiring laughter during a presentation of God’s Word disrespectful or ireverent or even blasphemous?
Well, as you can imagine, I don’t think so. And in my many years of portraying the Scottish angel, I haven’t found it to take away from the seriousness of the scene. That is partly because I take care to play the angel seriously. When he speaks with authority, I portray that. When he speaks tenderly, I change my tone. The Scottish accent is surprising but it is not silly. The laughs always come right at the beginning, but people quickly get used to the voice of the character and the initial comedy does not distract from the angel’s message or the point of the scene.
Also, often, bringing a smile to people’s faces is very appropriate at the arrival of the angels. Although the other characters may be terrified, we know their message is often one of hope and wonder. Or as the angel says in Luke 2:10 “Do not be afraid. I bring youÂ goodÂ newsÂ that will causeÂ greatÂ joyÂ for all the people!” I have often found, including humour and allowing laughter in a Biblical Storytelling performance lifts the mood right at the moment when the mood needs to be lifted. And when done intentionally, and not just for laughs, it can draw people into God’s Word far more than distracting them from it.
Anyway, I hope that answers your questions about why my angels are Scottish.
If you know of any angels that speak in a different accent and are feeling misrepresented, please do tell me.
I’m sure, on the day I actually meet an angel, they will speak with such a divine voice that I could not possibly try to immitate that now.
Or maybe… they’ll sound like Billy Connolly. I guess we’ll find out.
If you haven’t had enough of the Scottish angel, you can enjoy this Christmas play that I wrote and directed for my church’s carols event last year. It is a modernised adaptation of the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and the angel pops in now and then.