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A tribute to J M Barrie
By Miller H Caldwell
Last edited: Friday, September 24, 2004
Posted: Friday, September 24, 2004

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Peter Pan, Wendy House, the ticking crockodile. My connection with JM Barrie.


Born 9/5/1860 - Died 19/6/1937

67 years ago, on 24 June 1937, pressmen from all over the world and people from all walks of life, streamed through the streets of my native Kirriemuir, in Angus.

Like some sombre river, they flowed in the wake of the hearse which bore to his last resting place on Kirrie Hill, James Matthew Barrie.

Born 78 years previously, in the relative obscurity of the Brechin Road tenements, he had died, whether he willed it so or not, world renowned, as an author and playwright. Such was his fame that some time prior to his death, he had been offered a burial place in the Poet's corner of Westminster Abbey. This he had gracefully acknowledged but graciously declined, stating clearly his desire to be buried where his heart lay, beside his family on the Hill of Kirriemuir.

And so it was that London came to Kirrie. "London" took the form of Barrie's long-time friend, now ex-Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald; his personal secretary and confidante Lady Cynthia Asquith and her husband the Hon. Herbert: General Bernard Freyburg VC, much wounded and exceptionally brave First World War hero.

From a' the airts of town and country they came: the one and only Sir Harry Lauder, Scottish entertainer extraordinaire; Sir David Percival Wilkie, fellow Kirriemarian as we call ourselves, by then, eminent Professor of Surgery at Edinburgh University. Yet as the Free Press of 1 July 1937 commented: Sir James loved simple things. His funeral, removed from garish pomp and pageantry, was marked by its simplicity.

However an appreciation of the life of JM Barrie must begin much earlier.

Six of the 8 children she had already borne were still alive when Margaret Ogilvie with the help of a midwife whose surname was Matthew, gave birth to James Matthew Barrie on May 9th 1860.

That very same day, she took delivery of six hair-bottomed chairs, intended to have pride of place in the parlour she was soon to have - for the first time in her life- once her handloom weaver husband David Barrie, moved his loom out of the downstairs room into adjacent wash-house sheds at Lilybank. Perhaps some of you have seen what I am describing at this house which is a Museum in Kirriemuir ?

Putting on plays in the wash-house with his friend Jamie Robb and charging their chums the famous " preens, bools or a peerie" (pins, marbles or a top) for admission took place before he was ten .

His education was entrusted , once he was six to the Misses Adam who had what was called a "hanky" school . The nickname derived from the fact that pupils were required to bring a handkerchief upon which they would have to kneel when prayers were said.

Big brother Alexander became the classics Master at Glasgow Academy and offered to supervise his younger brother's further education. The thought of going to live in the rapidly expanding and industrial city must have been a little awe-inspiring for an eight year old country lad.

I can wholeheartedly agree because most curiously, at the age of 8, I too left Kirriemuir to move to Glasgow and within three years also attended Glasgow Academy sharing classes with your minister, Gordon Savage.

After the Education Act became law in Scotland in 1873, Alexander became one of the new educational species called "Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. His post? Dumfries District and before long Jamie was dispatched here to resume his education at Dumfries Academy.

From all accounts, the next 5 years in Dumfries were his happiest. There was hard work, but also lots of cricket at Nunholm, football, fishing on the Nith and writing and a growing interest in the theatre.

It was during his last 2 years in Dumfries, he penned his first articles. "Bandelero the Bandit" was written for the Dumfries Amateur Dramatic Club in 1877 while Barrie was a Dumfries Academy pupil. He acted in the Royal Theatre and produced plays in the Assembly rooms at the Crichton. With his friends Stuart and Hal Gordon, Barrie was to recall in later years " When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians changed their skins, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was afterwards to become the play 'PETER PAN' " .

The tragic death of James's brother David on the eve of his 14th birthday affected the family deeply. None more so than the children's mother, whose devastation was to remain with Jamie all his life. To her, David was the little boy who never grew up - an image of no mean significance in Jamie's literary mind.

Then on to Edinburgh University where Alexander was by now a lecturer, and where JM Barrie graduated Master of Arts in English Literature. As a passing co-incidence, my family and I have now been in Dumfries for 6 years , and indeed in years gone by, I was an Edinburgh student , although English Literature is not my degree.

So, Jamie was, by then, convinced that literature was his game, but writing it not reading it. This was a disappointment to his mother who still hankered to have a son in the ministry ,(the Little Minister in the making) but this only intensified his determination to succeed in his chosen career.

Not long after his return home, from Edinburgh, he noticed an advert in" the Scotsman" for a leader writer on the Nottingham Journal. His application, backed with a reference from the Reverend Dr Alexander Whyte , was successful. He was successful, but admitted he was not sure what a leader was, let alone how to write one!
However in a commercial re-appraisal of the Journal, it was decided in 1884 to dispense with his services.

Undaunted, and indeed doubly motivated, he began sending to a variety of publications, a variety of articles, generally unsigned. A few years later Dr W Robertson Nicoll founder of the British Weekly, a major influence on his future career, suggested he use a pen-name and so "Gavin Ogilvy" appeared author, among others, of "An Edinburgh Eleven".

Following the advice given to all aspiring authors, viz. to learn the art of stringing words and sentences together, by first writing about familiar subjects, he optimistically submitted, still anonymously, to the "St James Gazette", an article entitled "An Ault Licht Community." The publisher, Fredrick Greenwood, soon requested "more like that Scotch thing" and as 1885 dawned " An Auld Licht Funeral", "Courtship", "Scandal" and "Wedding" followed one another like the feet of a centipede scurrying to London and Barrie followed suit.

His mother was of course appalled at the whole idea, visualising him languishing in some gaunt garret or worse still on the dreaded benches of London's notorious parks. But for once, unaffected by her concern, he set off "The Scotsman on the make" in his own words.

By 1890 he had a regular income and while on Holiday in Glen Clova, he completed "The Little Minister" This was a brief happy time for Barrie. His only younger sister Maggie, became engaged to his friend Rev James Winter but shortly before their marriage, Winter was killed by being thrown from the very horse which Barrie had previously given him to help him get round his scattered parish villages at Tannadice and Kingoldrum. - The parish which co-incidentally 60 years later, was my father's parish.

The following year Barrie returned to Kirrie but caught a chill which developed, in his always vulnerable chest, into pleurisy and pneumonia. Without modern antibiotics, these were death-inviting diseases. Hardly surprising therefore, that Miss Mary Ansell, the delectable actress to whom he had been secretly engaged (pending mother's approval of course), came hot-foot to his bedside to nurse him.

Apparently the worst illness he was to suffer before his death, he made a slow recovery but he was well enough in mind and body to marry Miss Ansell in the drawing room of his mother's home in 1894. The honeymoon was spend in Switzerland chosen to aid his recovery.

The following year the Barries returned to holiday in Switzerland
but within three days they were on their way home having heard of the sudden death of his older sister Jane Ann who had always nursed her mother. Barrie arrived home, and learned that twelve hours before, his mother too had died.

His father was to live till 1902 when at the age of 87 years, he was knocked down by a horse and cart in Kirrie High Street and died.

It was from the end of the last century that Barrie's fame spread far and wide. The Little Minister alone sold 24,000 copies in 14 months. Agents in the USA realised his potential and one in particular. Renowned Impresario Charles Frohman in 1896 staged all Barrie's major theatrical successes on both sides of the Atlantic for the next 20 years. It was Frohman who transformed "Peter Pan" into a magical, theatrical extravaganza of Lloyd Webber proportions.

The Little Minister became a film starring Katherine Hepburn .
It earned him a cool 80,000 in its first 10 years.

Further success followed:
and among 40 plays in.....

1901 - QUALITY STREET - the address of the Misses Phoebe and Susan Throessel a characteristically excessive sentimental play in which love triumphs over both internal and external obstacles, yet the play raises the interesting question : How is a "Woman of Sense" to deal with the restrictions and emptiness of the social conventions which seem to prevent her finding a "Man of Sense"?..... Of course, it is only when the "woman of Sense" acts irrationally and unconventionally that the "Man of Sense" finally comes to his senses.
Marriage itself is never questioned - only the basis for choosing a partner.

In 1902 - The Admirable Crichton - in which Crichton is a butler
whose practical skills and ingenuity give him authority over his noble employer when the family is shipwrecked.

1904 - Peter Pan, partly created in play with his boyhood friends Stuart and Hal Gordon in Castle Street, Dumfries.

1908 - What Every Woman Knows - where a self-made politician comes to discover the message of the title, which is that he could have not succeeded without the love of a good woman.

Sadly, his own marriage was not to succeed. His wife confessed her love for Gilbert Cannan a man 20 years her junior and on 13 October 1909 a decree nisi was granted.

Irony lay on the very day of the divorce, when the infant Peter Scott was being baptised, in the understandable absence of his Barrie godfather! But Barrie would again compensate, in later life. Peter's famous father Captain Scott, asked Barrie in a poignant letter found with his body in 1913 in the frozen wastes of the Antarctic to be " good to my wife and child." Peter Scott certainly lived up to expectation.

Sir Peter who died in 1989 will be rememberd by many of us as a painter of birds in flight and naturalist who founded The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in 1946 at Slimbridge. Its network now extends across Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of course includes our own Carlaeverock and the new Merse Head Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Lands.

During the First world war years, Barrie lost his mentor big brother Alexander, and both of his sons killed in action in 1916,; his adopted son George Llewellan Davies and his impresario Charles Frohman both drowned when the LUSITANIA was torpedoed in 1915.

From that dark period followed a welcome full decade of the "big time", as Barrie could never have envisaged it. In 1920 he met and became infatuated with Lydia Lopokova, a member of Diaghilvev's Russian Ballet. Where the relationship may have led we can not tell but in response to her going missing, Barrie wrote "The Truth about Russian Dancers" in a revealing pre cold war article.

Then in the same year, his most enigmatic play MARY ROSE. A tense play claiming all ghosts are women looking for their lost child. Based on the old Scottish Ballad KILMENY "

For Kilmeny had been She kent not where,
and Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare."
A legend in which Fate lies in the stars and not ourselves as it did in Dear Brutus. For Barrie gave his characters no second chance.

And the flavour of these years were civic and academic too:
An Honorary LLD from St Andrews and another from Edinburgh University; Chancellor of St. Andrews University;
A Baronetcy in 1913, Order of Merit.
Freedom of St Andrews in 1922, Freedom of Dumfries in 1924, of Jedburgh in 1928, and Edinburgh in 1929.

His plays were packing huge audiences at various London and American theatres simultaneously. The Admirable Crichton, Dear Brutus, and Peter Pan were revived year after year and in 1929 the royalties from Peter Pan were made over to Great Ormand Street CHILDREN'S Hospital. Barrie's friendship with children was very sincere. He was acutely sensitive about his diminutive stature - barely 5 feet and frequently had difficulty communicating with adults - but not children.

With that altruistic gesture to suffering children in mind,
let me linger in childhood in conclusion. And leave you with two quotes from Peter Pan his most durable work. : The first is Barries explanation of the existence of Fairies.

"When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of Fairies."

And Finally: ,

"Do you believe in Fairies? Barrie asks. If You believe,...... .... clap your hands!"

Thank you very much.

Miller Caldwell
Writer in Residence
SPS Dumfries

Web Site Author, Guest Speaker and Writer in Residence at SPS Dumfries

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Reviewed by Cynthia Borris 9/19/2008

Very interesting read.


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