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Issue 82 - Escapades in a Dumfries Garden

Scotland Magazine Issue 82
August 2015

 

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Escapades in a Dumfries Garden

Charles Douglas discovers Moat Brae House, the birthplace of Peter Pan

When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates on a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”

These were the words of the Victorian playwright J. M. Barrie on being awarded the Freedom of Dumfries on 11 October 1924.

He was referring, of course, to his stage play and novel
Peter Pan and in so doing, I wonder if he realised what a generous gift he was making to Moat Brae House, the small red stone Georgian mansion that was once occupied by his school friends, the Gordon brothers?

While the weaver's cottage in the village of Kirriemuir in Angus will always be revered as Barrie's birthplace, it was in Dumfries that he first conjured up the mythical inhabitants of the stage play and novel that would propel him to lasting fame – his hero Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Mr Smee, the Darling family, Nana and Tinker Bell. On a visit to the woodland garden on the banks of the River Nith below Moat Brae House, the sounds of childhood adventure and laughter echo through time.

“I'll call you Sixteen String Jack,” announced Stewart Gordon, son of the Clerk to the Dumfries Sheriff.

“I asked his name,” recalled the 13 years old Barrie. “He said it was Dare Devil Dick.”

And thus was Barrie's introduction to the brothers Stewart and Hal Gordon and their family home, Moat Brae House.

Built in 1823 for Thomas Threshie, a Dumfries solicitor, to a design by the Dumfries architect Walter Newall, Moat Brae House comprises two stories and an attic over a sunk basement, with five bays and a Greek Doric portico to the street frontage. Nearly square on plan, there is a fine central 'saloon' with a circular gallery and cupola above. The original joinery and plasterwork are considered to be particularly fine.

The five acres of ground that the site occupies was acquired from the Clerk-Maxwell of Middlebie family who insisted that all properties to be built on George Street should conform with one another. Newall's other works in Dumfries included the Observatory, converted from an old watermill; the Old Bank Building and, in1830, the Assembly Rooms, also on George Street.

However, it was not until 1873 that the parents of James Barrie decided to send the ninth of their ten children away to school. Traumatised by the death of their 14 year old son David in a skating accident, their older son Alexander, an inspector of schools and by then living in Dumfries, recommended that his younger brother attend Dumfries Academy.

James was therefore sent to live with Alexander, accompanied by their sister Mary Ann, first in Irvine Street, a building demolished in 1897, then Victoria Terrace, where a plaque on an outside wall commemorates his presence.

They were happy times, and James' recollections of Dumfries in later life were humorous, tender and memorable. However, it was at weekends in the garden at Moat Brae House that the teenage pirate entered his world of make believe. ‘We had a sufficiently mysterious cave that had not been a cave until we named it... Here too, we had a fire, lit as Jack contrived to light his, by rubbing two sticks together. So we said (even in the Log-Book, I daresay); but, of course, this fire came by more plebeian means, and never in our hearts did we believe in the efficacy of sticks. No boy, so far as I know, ever did.’

After five years at Dumfries Academy, Barrie enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with an MA in 1882. After a year and a half working as a journalist with the
Nottingham Journal, he returned to Kirriemuir and wrote prolifically for newspapers, journals and the theatre. His first novels Auld Lichat Idyllis; A Window of Thrums, and The Little Minister were published between 1888 and 1891.

Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie's novel
The Little White Bird (1902), re-emerging in his play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up in 1904.

In 1906, Moat Brae House passed from the Gordons to James McGeorge, a knitwear manufacturer, who died in 1914. Thereafter, the property was purchased by The Royal Scottish Nursing Home Institution, but later acquired by Miss Isobel H. R. Cochrane of Edinburgh and remaining a Nursing Home. In 1974, it was bought by Dumfries & Galloway Council, run from 1981 as the Moat Brae Nursing Home Trust. 1n 1997, it became a private facility for surgery, medicine and respite care.

When this finally closed, the Catagory B Listed property was purchased by a Paisley businessman who sold it on to the Loreburn Housing Association for redevelopment. In 2009, a group of concerned and dedicated members of the Dumfries community, initially led by founding chairman Roger Windsor and conservation architect Luke Moloney, came to the rescue and formed the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust.

Headed up by Dame Barbara Kelly, Chair of the Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival and convenor of the Crichton Foundation, the Trust's target has been to raise £5.5 million by the end of this year to ‘conserve, celebrate, promote and make accessible the unique mix of heritage at Moat Brae, the house and the garden, with its literary associations.’ Included in the project is a National Centre for Children's Literature and the reinvention of the garden as JM Barrie's Neverland.

The PPMB Trust's patron is the actress Joanna Lumley, who has a home nearby, and both fund raising and the restoration work are well in hand with the interiors now stripped to be replicated as they were in the Victorian era. The project has been adopted for support by the Prince's Regeneration Trust and readers interested in becoming a Moat Brae House Crystal Sponsor should contact: windowsappeal@peterpanmoatbrae.org.

Completion is scheduled for 2017. “It’s such a joy to be associated with such a worthwhile enterprise,” said the Project Development Director Cathy Agnew when I visited in June. “This is a story that runs through the generations.”

Also tapping into Barrie's ‘enchanted land’ are two recently published and genuinely delightful books, each benefiting the fund raising campaign:

Thirteen String Jack and the Garden of Adventure By Tom Pow Illustrated by Ian Andrew. £9.99 Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-78027 – 226-9

JM Barrie's Peter Pan the Graphic Novel By Steven White (aka Stref) Colouring by Fin Cramb . £12.99. Birlinn: ISBN 978-1-78027-290-0

A Limited Centenary Bronze Edition of Sir George Frampton's statuette of Peter Pan in Kensington gardens, London can be purchased through the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust.

Visitor Information
Moat Brae House
Dumfries DG1 1EA.