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Issue 15 - In search of Peter Pan

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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In search of Peter Pan

As Peter Pan reaches his centenary, Nicola Lisle traces his Scottish roots

At the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, on 27th December 1904, a capacity audience crammed in to enjoy the first performance of a play by the celebrated novelist J.M. Barrie – the enchantingly whimsical Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

“…an artfully artless, go-as-you-please play which has all the pretty inconsequence of an imaginative child’s improvisation, all the wild extravagance of a youngster’s dream…” enthused the Illustrated London News.

Peter Pan has since become one of the most recognised characters in children’s literature, making his appearance on radio and television, in puppet theatres and pantomime, on ice and in a number of films. But few who witnessed the birth of this phenomenon in 1904 realised that its seeds had been sown many years before, deep in the heart of the Scottish countryside.

It was here, at 9 Brechin Road, Kirriemuir, that James Matthew Barrie was born on 9th May 1860, the ninth child of weaver David Barrie and his wife, Margaret Ogilvy.

His mother was his earliest influence, sparking his fertile imagination with tales of her childhood in the weaving community of Kirriemuir.

These became the inspiration for a series of articles in the London-based St James’s Gazette, later published collectively as Auld Licht Idylls. But it was Margaret Ogilvy’s loss of her mother, at the age of eight, that planted the germ of an idea in her young son’s mind:

“…her mother’s death made her mistress of the house and mother to her little brother,” he later wrote. “…from that time she scrubbed and mended and baked and sewed…then [rushed] out in a fit of childishness to play…with others of her age.”

This image of a young, childish but maternal little girl undoubtedly inspired the character of Wendy, who became temporary mother to the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.

The death of Barrie’s 13-year-old brother, David, in a skating accident, etched itself indelibly on his young mind. Although only six at the time, Barrie could later vividly recall his mother’s desolation, and his own attempts to take his brother’s place. Escaping into a fantasy world was his way of coping, and the idea of a child who would never grow up took hold.

In 1872, the Barrie family moved to Strath View, on the other side of Kirriemuir, but 9 Brechin Road has been preserved, and is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. There are many rare items of memorabilia on display, including a portrait of Barrie by Sir John Lavery, currently on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, as well as original manuscripts of Peter Pan and one of the original advertising posters for the play.

The rooms have been laid out as they would have looked during Barrie’s childhood. Some items are replicas, but much of the furniture is original – such as Margaret Ogilvy’s nursing chair, and Barrie’s desk and wooden settle from his flat at Adelphi Terrace in London, where he lived for the last three decades of his life.

Among the highlights in the Exhibition Room are two Peter Pan costumes. One was worn by Pauline Chase, who played one of the Lost Boys in the original production, but later took over the title role and played it for nine seasons. The other belonged to Jean Forbes Robertson, one of the many famous actresses to appear as Peter.

The communal washhouse was later referred to by Barrie as his first theatre, where he and a childhood friend, James Robb, put on plays for their families. The house was also the model for Wendy’s house in Never Never Land.

Barrie once famously asserted: “nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much” – and yet he described his years at Dumfries Academy, which he attended for five years from the age of 13, as some of the happiest of his life.

One of the lasting mementoes of this period is the school magazine, The Clown, launched by Barrie’s friend, Wellwood Anderson, in 1875. Barrie’s contribution was Rekolections of a Schoolmaster, and his original manuscripts – full of similar, deliberate misspellings – are now on display in Dumfries Museum.

During this time he lived with his eldest brother, Alexander, and a plaque on 6 Victoria Terrace, Dumfries, celebrates the famous association between house and writer. If Barrie’s Dumfries years were some of his happiest, the next four years at Edinburgh University were some of his loneliest. He went reluctantly, at his parents’ wishes, and duly gained an MA in 1882. But his heart lay in writing, and in 1885 he packed his bags and headed for London, determined to make his mark as a Fleet Street journalist.

Within two years he was a well-known and prolific article writer, and Auld Licht Idylls in 1888 established him as a novelist of distinction. His next two novels, A Window on Thrums and The Little Minister, were again based on his mother’s childhood memories, “Thrums” being his pseudonym for Kirriemuir.

By 1902, Barrie was living at 100 Bayswater Road, overlooking Kensington Gardens, and it was here that he first met the sons of his close neighbours, Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.

Barrie became friendly with the Davies boys, joining in their games, and enchanting them with magical tales.

It was to George, Jack and Peter Llewelyn Davies that Barrie first told the story of a little boy called Peter Pan, who “escaped from being a human when he was seven days old…and flew back to Kensington Gardens” to live with the birds and fairies. This tale was published as The Little White Bird, and its success was such that Barrie decided to give Peter Pan another outing, this time in a play.

He now began to develop the idea that had implanted itself in his young mind all those years before in Kirriemuir. Peter Pan became “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”, and his character was an amalgam of the Llewelyn Davies boys.

After initial rejection by theatre manager Beerbohm Tree, Peter Pan was accepted by Charles Frohman for presentation at the Duke of York’s Theatre. The premiere featured a star-studded cast, including Nina Boucicault as Peter, Hilda Trevelyan as Wendy, and Gerald du Maurier – father of novelist Daphne du Maurier – as Mr Darling and Captain Hook.

Other plays by Barrie – including The Admirable Crichton, Quality Street, Dear Brutus and Mary Rose – enjoyed reasonable success, but it is undoubtedly to Peter Pan that he owes his reputation and his greatest success.

He died in 1937, at the age of 77, and was buried in the family grave at Kirriemuir. But he lives on through the enduring popularity of his most famous creation which, 100 years on, remains undiminished. There is little chance of Peter Pan disappearing on a one-way ticket to Never Never Land just yet.

What to see

J.M. Barrie’s Birthplace
9 Brechin Road, Kirriemuir, Angus D8 4BX
Tel: +44 (0)1575 572 646

Dumfries Museum
Rotchell Road, Dumfries DG2 7SW
Tel: +44 (0)1387 253 374

Further information

Kirriemuir Tourist Information Centre
Cumberland Close, Kirriemuir
Tel: +44 (0)1575 574 097

Dumfries & Galloway Tourist Board
64 Whitesands, Dumfries DG1 2RS
Tel: +44 (0)1387 253 862

Both can help with accommodation, travel directions and where to eat.