The lost kings of Scotland

As Scotland decides its future, playwright Rona Munro explains why she felt compelled to look into the country's past with her trilogy of plays about its forgotten medieval monarchy

On Sunday, a trilogy of history plays I've written will open at the Edinburgh international festival. They go by the collective title The James Plays, and each imagines events and characters from the reigns of three medieval Scottish kings, James I, James II and James III.

We've been in rehearsal since the beginning of April; a cast of 20 and a supporting team have been living in an imaginary 15th-century Scotland for four months. We've moved this fictional world from rehearsal rooms in Glasgow to London to Birmingham and now, finally, into Edinburgh, in a vast caravan of scaffolding, puppets and exhausted actors. The plays were commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland back in 2011, and I've been working on them for three years. For the first two years they were still only real in my head, shared with a few readers. Now my characters are all grown up, running around a real stage waving swords, living and dying, loving and murdering, dancing and telling jokes.

There have been many points in this process when I've looked at the other professionals, actors, creative team, stage management, and wondered not only why they're doing this, but why they're doing it with such energy and enthusiasm. Why go through all this to tell the stories of Scottish history to a contemporary audience? What was my fascination with these stories? Why write history plays at all?

I have a rather average honours degree in history from Edinburgh University – my enthusiasm for my subject was not reflected in academic application – but what I loved then and love now is the sensation of seeing the past take solid form in the present as the reasons for contemporary actions and attitudes are uncovered by the study of forgotten events. And these are forgotten events – the kings and queens and long dead Scots I've imagined have become almost invisible.

When I started to write the plays there were two phrases I heard repeatedly. One was apologetic, as people would admit, sheepishly: "I don't know much about this period of history." But the truth is that no one knows much about it. The other reaction, when I said I was writing a play about James I of Scotland, often came with a slight air of rebuke: "Oh he's really James VI you know." "No," I'd say, "Not James I of England, not James I and VI, James I of Scotland," only to see a puzzled frown descend as they struggled to catch my meaning.

Scotland had six kings called James between 1424 and 1603, when James VI also became James I of England. (Mary Queen of Scots was between V and VI.) But their stories are not taught in schools and – apart from some tremendous novels, such as those by Nigel Tranter – have been largely neglected by popular culture. So that was the first reason for writing The James Plays, to allow a tiny piece of Scotland's past to be better known.

However it was never my intention to provide a dramatised history lesson. Instead, my desire was to tell stories about love, war, family, loyalty and the extremes of human emotion in the extreme conditions that the middle ages provided.

I think sometimes we like to patronise the characters of history. Because we can't see any vivid evidence of their humanity – the traces of their lives survive mainly in stone or in scraps of legal documents – we tend to imagine them as dull, humourless creatures. My own opinion is that intelligence and emotions would not have been substantially different in the 15th century from what they are today. In the plays, most of the characters inherited power and responsibility at an age we would consider frighteningly young. All of them demonstrate thoughts and feelings familiar to a modern audience in language as contemporary as their own would have been to them.

And for me that's another reason to write and watch history plays, for that thrill of recognising common humanity with the dead. It serves as a warning, we are no better, no more intelligent than them, if we don't understand our past then we may repeat it. It's an intimation of our mortality, they were just like us and now they're gone, but it's also a connection with our ancestors. Not that I imagine we're all descended from Scottish royals, but when a community is as small as medieval Scotland was, a lot of us will be descended from people who knew them or were, at the very least, affected by their actions and their personalities.

Then there is the significance of staging these plays now, this year, when Scotland is deciding what the next few hundred years of its history might look like. At the time I started working on them it seemed likely that a referendum on independence would be called. As it became a certainty I hoped I'd be lucky enough to put the plays in front of an audience this year. I don't claim they make a heavy contribution to the argument for one side or the other, but, if I've done my job well enough, I hope they will remain entertaining and relevant beyond this moment. However there can be few things more useful, at a point when Scotland is deciding its future, than taking a look into its past. The 15th century holds up a fascinating mirror to Scotland and to her relations with England. James I was England's prisoner and sent home with an English bride, almost as a vassal king, only to become a strong and independent ruler. James II made war on England, James III alternated between courting English favour and gold and trying to do a better deal with France. All of them lived in the shadow of their larger, richer, southern neighbour, and it was fascinating to trace some of our contemporary attitudes to that relationship back to the time of these queens and kings, when violent and epic events touched each succeeding generation.

The James Plays run from 10 to 22 August at the Festival theatre, Edinburgh. eif.co.uk

Rona Munro

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