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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

The Peter Pan Man

7th May 2020

It was 160 years ago this month, on 9 May 1860, that James Matthew Barrie was born at Kirriemuir in Angus.  Remembered today as the ‘Peter Pan man’, a story which has delighted children and adults alike since it first appeared in 1902, Barrie also produced writing in the Scots language which has since become less well known.

The son of David Barrie, weaver, and Margaret Ogilvy, JM Barrie was one of 10 children raised in Kirriemuir. He was luckier than many of his social class in that he received an education variously at the academies of Glasgow, Forfar and Dumfries, thanks in part to his elder siblings. He graduated MA from Edinburgh University in 1882 and was already drawn towards writing as a possible career. Having spent a stint at the Nottingham Journal he eventually found a ready market for his short stories and plays among the London publishing houses of the day, so much so, that he had become an established author by the time he published The Admirable Crichton and Peter Pan in 1902. The advent of Peter Pan as a stage play in 1904 transformed him into a world famous celebrity.

Though his celebrity lifestyle in London society was a far cry from the world in which he was raised in Kirriemuir he maintained his connections with Scotland. He served as rector of the University of St Andrews (1919-1922), Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh (1930-1937) and was awarded the Freedom of Kirriemuir in 1930. Barrie died from pneumonia in 1937 in London and was brought home to Kirriemuir where he was buried next to his parents and other relatives. His birthplace at 9 Brechin Street was later taken on by the National Trust for Scotland as a visitor centre and is still visited by the public today.

During the 1880’s and 1890’s Barrie wrote a series of stories either in English peppered with Scots words and expressions, or in English narrative with dialogue in Scots. At the time they were well received but some academic and literary commentators today have characterised them as sentimental and typical of a genre labelled ‘kailyaird’ – a Scots language term equivalent to English ‘kitchen garden’. Used in this sense, kailyaird refers to a body of writing which emerged in the 1880’s characterised by the sentimentalising of rural life as pure, simple and rose-tinted with all the nastiness of reality airbrushed out.

There is much sentimentality in Barrie’s work, certainly, as he looked back to what he perceived was a simpler life in Kirriemuir, and so modelled his characters and places on the parish of his upbringing. Nonetheless, Barrie’s work does capture the Scots language as it was spoken in the second half of the 19th century in north eastern Scotland. And in that respect, affords a valuable window on that society and speech community. Barrie’s various writings in Scots were published in three principal collections called Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890) and The Little Minister (1891).