Take the second star on the right and straight on to Kirriemuir

5th July 1996 at 01:00
J M BARRIE

A little boy gazed apprehensively up the flight of wooden stairs. "Is Captain Hook up there?" he asked his mother.

He wasn't. But it seemed an appropriate question. For this neat whitewashed cottage, in the small town of Kirriemuir in Angus, Scotland, where J M Barrie was born and spent his childhood and where he is also buried, is full of echoes.

Perhaps the most evocative can be heard in the washhouse in the garden. In his dedication to the story Peter Pan and Wendy, Barrie describes it as the original of the little house that the Lost Boys built over Wendy in Neverland.

Here, with his friend James Robb, the imaginative young boy performed his own plays - he wrote his first at seven. Full of action, they generally ended with a struggle to see which boy could tip the other into an iron boiler, which still stands in the corner.

Kirriemuir was a weaving community, and Barrie's father David was a handloom weaver. Initially the ground floor of the cottage was used to house the loom and yarn store, while the family lived upstairs. Later Mr Barrie rented premises nearby, and the family - J M was one of 10 children - moved downstairs.

As Andrew Birkin shows in his revealing book J M Barrie and the Lost Boys, the writer's mother, Margaret Ogilvy, was the dominant figure in his childhood, and the one that stirred his interest in literature. She told him stories, they read books together, and whenever his children's magazine failed to arrive on time, she encouraged him to write stories himself. Later she would listen to the results as she sat making rugs.

The National Trust for Scotland, which owns the cottage, has turned the parlour into a small museum, and created an exhibition upstairs. The first-floor kitchen has been carefully reconstructed as it would have been in Barrie's childhood, as has the small bedroom in which he was born in 1860.

Among the memorabilia in the cottage, one of the most striking is Barrie's little black trunk, in which he packed all his belongings when setting out for London, with just Pounds 12 in his pocket, to find fame and fortune.

Earlier he had used it to go to the academy, first in Glasgow and then Dumfries. In both places he lodged with his older brother Alexander, a teacher and later a schools inspector - an illuminated letter of gratitude from Forfar teachers hanging in the cottage suggests he was widely admired. Education certainly loomed large in Barrie's family: two of his sisters ran a school in Motherwell.

The museum houses two curiosities, one comic, one tragic. The first is a mock contract with the three-year-old Princess Margaret, in which Barrie agrees to pay her for her "collaboration" with a play; the second, a copy of a moving letter from Captain Scott (Barrie was his son Peter's godfather), written during his dying hours in the Antarctic.

The exhibition includes a vast writing desk from Barrie's London flat, complete with glasses, pipe and tobacco pouch; reconstructions of scenes from plays such as Mary Rose and The Admirable Crichton; and costumes from early productions of Peter Pan.

Nearby are two rather unattractive life-size models of Wendy and Peter, and a moving Tinkerbell light, all of which jar alongside the authentic material.

In the garden meanwhile, there is a statue of the ever-youthful Peter Pan, around whom, very appropriately, storytelling sessions are held as part of the trust's education service.

Details from Karen Gilmour, curator, Barrie's Birthplace, 9 Brechin Road, Kirriemuir, Angus DD8 5BX. Tel: 01575 572646. J M Barrie and the Lost Boys, by Andrew Birkin (Constable, Pounds 7.95) * Next week: Robert Louis Stevenson's Edinburgh

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