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Peter Pan revisited

Dumfries and an enchanted garden left to ruin are added to the story of J.M. Barrie by alumnus Dr George Gordon.

Peter Pan at the Window
Photo by Graeme Robertson. Used with the permission of the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust.

Inspired by the March edition of Enlightened which saw J.M.Barrie featured as our alumnus in history, Dr George Gordon, a 1959 graduate of Medicine, got in touch to tell us more about Barrie’s life including his time in Dumfries and the impact of an enchanted garden left to ruin.

The Dumfries connection

Dr Gordon’s interest in J.M. Barrie was sparked by a resident of a Dumfries nursing home. She noted that it was a pity that there was nothing to link Barrie with the five years he spent in the town. From there, Dr Gordon looked into the history of Barrie’s connection with Dumfries, and the garden there that helped inspire his works.

A patient of mine who was in what was affectionately termed the Peter Pan room, while gazing out of the window, said that it was a pity there was nothing to signify Barrie's connection with the house and garden.

Dr George Gordon

In many Barrie biographies, there is often a link made between Barrie’s original idea for Peter Pan and his association with the Llewellyn Davies ‘boys’ of Kensington Gardens. However, in 1924 Barrie’s speech of thanks on receiving the Freedom of Dumfries stated :-

….when the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and became pirates in 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, was certainly the genesis of that nefarious work-Peter Pan.

J.M Barrie

A secret garden

Little of that garden in Dumfries is mentioned when describing Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, a misrepresentation that Dr Gordon felt should be highlighted. The garden has brought a community together in Dumfries largely due its interesting history and sad decline.

After compiling a short history of Barrie’s connections with Dumfries, Dr Gordon noted that the garden belonged to, and still lies at the back of, Moat Brae House; a free standing 1823 Georgian Greek Revival style building. It is close to Dumfries Academy which Barrie attended from the age of thirteen to eighteen before entering Edinburgh University in 1878.

After school, Barrie played in the garden with the sons of the owner of the house. It had numerous occupiers for its first 91 years before becoming a nursing home from 1914 until its closure in 1997. It was in this nursing home, nestled in the grounds of Barrie’s enchanted garden, that Dr Gordon was first inspired by Barrie’s hidden history.

Saving a hidden treasure

Moat Brae
LDN Architects, Edinburgh. Used with the permission of the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust.

After twelve years of abandonment, the house and garden had become seriously vandalised. Edinburgh alumnus and local retired vet Roger Windsor (BVMS 1963) formed an action group to save the site of the house and garden. In 2009, when the site was to be demolished for development, the group worked tirelessly, and the building was miraculously saved.

The Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust was set up to raise funds to renovate the house and garden and celebrate Barrie’s connection to it. Actress Joanna Lumley, an enthusiastic Barrie admirer, is the Trust’s patron. The Trust have completed the first stage of the redevelopment of Barrie’s enchanted garden, and are continuing their fundraising campaign to complete the rest.

A hidden treasure left to ruin in Dumfries has brought a community together to preserve Barrie’s memory, and his love for a garden that inspired one the world's best loved tales.

Further information

Just over £4m has been raised towards the £5.5m target and a public appeal will be launched in June 2015. Current funders include Heritage Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland, Robertson Trust, Historic Scotland, Garfield Weston Foundation and other private Trusts, Foundations and individuals.

More information at www.peterpanmoatbrae.org or by calling the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust on 01387 255 549.

Related links

J M Barrie (1860 - 1937)