From the centre of Kirriemuir the land rises to the north, a rise that culminates at the summit of the Hill of Kirriemuir. A smart building close to the highest point on the hill was built as a cricket pavilion to serve the town's cricket ground, which occupied the flat(tish) top of the hill. The pavilion was paid for, and gifted to the town, by Kirriemuir's most famous son, J.M. Barrie, the novelist and dramatist who made his fame and fortune by creating the character of Peter Pan. It was opened by Barrie on 7 June 1930, the same day that he was granted the Freedom of Kirriemuir, the first and only person to have been awarded that honour.
J.M. Barrie was born and brought up in Kirriemuir. The small weaver's house in which he lived with nine siblings and their parents is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, and open to the public as J.M. Barrie's Birthplace. J.M. Barrie is remembered in other ways around the town. There is a statue of Peter Pan in the centre of the town, while nearby is the J.M. Barrie Memorial Fountain, erected not long after Barrie's death in 1937.
The young J.M. Barrie was a keen cricket enthusiast, and during the summer months Kirriemuir was an active participant in local cricket leagues, with home games being played on the Hill of Kirriemuir. Perhaps he saw it as a means of escaping an extremely crowded home: perhaps he saw it as a way of giving himself space to imagine and to dream. Barrie himself was more a cricket watcher than a cricket player. His diminutive stature would not have been an asset. He wrote: "I remember the old matches on the Hill of Kirriemuir; as far as I can recall, Kirriemuir always won. I only played twice in these matches myself. The first time I made one; but the second time I was not so fortunate." Barrie retained an interest in cricket after leaving the town, and his gift of a cricket pavilion, which incorporated a camera obscura into its design, was a fitting one.
A camera obscura is a device that uses lenses and mirrors to project an image that enters through a hole at roof level downwards onto a circular screen housed in a darkened room in the roof space of the building. The device can be rotated, so the view projected onto the screen can take in a complete 360 degree panorama. The Hill of Kirriemuir offers magnificent views north to the Angus Glens and the southern edge of the Cairngorms, and this is a fitting location for what at the time would have been considered a great novelty.
In an age in which we all view moving colour images of reality on a daily basis it is easy to become a little "so what" about the idea of a purely mechanical contrivance which uses a lens and mirror to project an image of the surrounding area down onto a circular table. The truth is that even to modern eyes the effect this creates is startling and slightly magical, and it is hard to imagine just how remarkable this must have looked to its first visitors, in an age when films were always in black and white.
There are now only six camera obscuras left in the UK, with four of them being in Scotland. As well as the one in Kirriemuir these can be found in Edinburgh, at the top of the Royal Mile near Edinburgh Castle, at the Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura. and at Cairngorm Mountain, beside the lower funicular railway station. Since 2015 the Kirriemuir Camera Obscura has been managed and operated by Kirriemuir Regeneration Group on behalf of the community and is staffed solely by volunteers.
On 7 June 1930 some 5,000 people gathered for the opening of the new pavilion and the granting to J.M. Barrie of the Freedom of Kirriemuir. After a lunch for invited guests, a cricket match took place between a team representing Barrie and a West of Scotland team. Barrie's team, on which he was an honorary 12th man, was known as the "Allahakbarries". This was a pun on the name he had used when forming a literary cricket team in the 1890s, the "Allahakbars", in the mistaken belief it was Arabic for "Heaven help us". Barrie's team in 1930 included two highly regarded Australian international cricketers and won easily. Barrie, who at the time had recently celebrated his 70th birthday, confined his participation to tossing the coin at the start of the match.
Today the downstairs reception room at the Kirriemuir Camera Obscura is home to cafe with interpretive boards setting out background information about the town, the pavilion, the camera obscura, and about J.M. Barrie. The star attraction is, of course, the camera obscura itself, which is shown off with great enthusiasm by knowledgeable volunteer guides. To modern eyes the fascination is as much in the device itself as in the images projected onto the circular screen, but the distant views remain as magnificent as they would have been in 1930.
When you emerge from the pavilion it is fairly obvious that cricket is no longer played on the Hill of Kirriemuir. J.M. Barrie's legacy lives on in other ways, however. The Hill is also home to "Neverland", a Peter Pan themed children's play area complete with a large pirate ship, while J.M. Barrie is buried in a family grave in the cemetery on the south side of the hill. Such was his prestige when he died in 1937 that it might have been expected that he would be buried alongside other literary greats in Westminster Abbey: but he left explicit instructions that he wanted to be laid to rest overlooking the town in which he was born, Kirriemuir.