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Remembering a Visit From Barrie in Kirriemuir

A few months ago Christine De Poortere of GOSH sent me a copy of a letter written by Mrs. Edth Wild who, writing to Rob Sergeant, the author of Sir J.M. Barrie of Thrums, described when she saw  Barrie  at an auction in 1933 in the town hall. Mrs. Wild, an 84 year-old resident of Wester Ross, also wrote of a magical performance of Peter Pan in the theatre starring Jean Forbes-Robertson.  Christine asked Mrs. Wild if I might share her letter in my blog. Thanks Christine! Thank you, Mrs. Wild! And you too, Mr.  Sergeant. Below is her letter:

 I was born in Dundee in 1927 and my uncle, Dr. James Rattray, was then an assistant to Dr. Sillars who travelled round his patients in Kirrie and the Glens in a pony and trap.

I believe he had the first motor car in Kirriemuir.

I remember sitting in my uncle’s Morris Cowley, wrapped in a traveling rug in the dickie seat.

I have known Thrums all my life, having one uncle and aunt in the North Muir, and one aunt and uncle who had a poultry farm in South Muir (Oh! Their vegetable garden—their rambling roses over the one-story white-washed cottage with the swallows swooping into the grain store—and the cawing rooks) just down from the wee “Window in Thrums”—which wasn’t, of course.

I remember—aged about 5 or 6—going with my parents and uncle to Kirrie Town Hall when Barrie was to make public his intention to present the Camera Obscura (and cricket pitch?) on Kirrie Hill to the people of Kirriemuir. I remember watching the impressive arrival on the platform of Provost Peacock and other notability—and shuffling last across the platform the wee shilpit figure of James Matthew Barrie, the Kirrie loon who had found fame in London—and round the world—but he wouldn’t like what they have done with wonderful, boastful, brave Peter.

The way he took to give a large sum of money to Kirrie was as no-one else would have dreamed up.

J. M. Barrie

I clearly remember being hugely fascinated and hypnotized by his friend—who had come to help him and which Barrie pointed out with certainty to be sitting up in the roof rafters—his friend, the Canary!

Barrie then conducted an imaginary auction (via the canary).

Barrie kept asking the canary how things were going (and answering, of course) and the sum of money being offered went up and up until it reached (I think) a figure of thousands, then stopped.

Barrie then concluded the auction and asked the canary who the generous bidder was—showing surprise and pretend mortification, then with pretend reluctance, he capitulated and, amid great applause, signed the generous cheque.

I, for one, thought the “pictures” on the circular “screen” actually showing my very own family walking through the gorse bushes or playing on the swings, or my Uncle’s dog romping—magic!—JMB’s magic!

Later, when at 15, I played the part of David in The Boy David and of the “Tweenie” in The Admirable Crichton at the Morgan, my uncle (Dr. Rattray, who knew most people in Kirrie—and from Glamis Castle to tinkers’ howdies took me to the wee house (in Reform Street or thereabouts) where the old lady who showed folk round the birthplace of Barrie. She took his christening robe from its glass cupboard AND OUT IT IN MY HANDS!

At age 5, I was taken to the king’s theatre in Dundae and can recall it ALL—the outside of the theatre—the lights—the inside—the curving stairs—the middle of the front seats in the Grand Circle (PERFECT!)—the funny seat, red plush, that wouldn’t stay down—and the special smell of grease paint and powder—AND the appearances of the conductor who emerged from the low dark hole below the stage to great applause; the musicians—each creeping out in single file—THEN—clutching coat and programme to stand for “God Save the King”—all unforgettable.

I have since seen many Peter Pans, but this was Jean Forbes-Robertson, and that is my Peter Pan.

Jean Forbes-Robertson as Peter Pan

Nana—the steam of the bath—Michael, “I won’t be bathed”—poor Mrs. Darling who wouldn’t enjoy her evening out—the darkened stage—three small beds—three sleeping figures—poor Nana, so unhappy, locked outside and scenting—SOMETHING STRANGE—and THEN—the first one night-light at John’s bed blinks three times and goes out; then the second blinks three times and goes out; lastly Michael’s does the same thing and there is still darkness—MAGIC in the air!

Tinkerbell is only a flicker of light and a musical tinkling—so much more magical—and swoosh—curtains fly apart and Peter glides through and on to the mantelpiece…I have never—in all my long, eventful, theatre-going years felt REAL MAGIC to equal that.

In fact, I agree with poor wounded, frightened Peter—alone on the tiny island with pirate ship and clock-ticking CROCODILE—I agree with his brave words, “To die will be an awfully big ADVENTURE!”

CURTAIN!

[Kirriemuir historian, Sandra Affleck, commented: “The accuracy of Mrs. Wild’s recall is astonishing! The occasion she describes in the Town Hall must have been the 1933 Auction in aide of the Kirrie Town Band. Barrie bought the clarinet which had been donated by Miss Deuchar, whose father had played it at the inauguration of the Band in 1861. The sum raised from that item alone was 50 pounds—probably not far short of a thousand or two today.

The Camera Obscura and Cricket Pavilion had been handed over after Barrie received the Freedom of Kirriemuir in the same hall on June 7th, 1930.

Jean Forbes-Robertson (1905-1962) first played Peter Pan in the Gaiety Theatre in London in 1927. She went on to play him for eight continuous years, so pleasingly to Barrie that he made changes to the play inspired by her, which became permanent from the first published edition onwards. Her daughter is the actress, Joanna Van Gysegham.”]

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