The town of Kirriemuir in Angus has an ancient history and a charming, if in places a little careworn, heart. In the popular imagination, it is best known as the birthplace of J.M. Barrie, the novelist and dramatist who made his fame and fortune by creating the character of Peter Pan. Barrie and his creation feature large in the life of modern Kirriemuir. 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.
Meanwhile, on the Hill of Kirriemuir on the north side of the town, is the Kirriemuir Camera Obscura, built into a cricket pavilion gifted to Kirriemuir by J.M. Barrie in 1930. In return he was granted the Freedom of Kirriemuir, the first and only person to have been awarded that honour. 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, overlooking the town.
But the main focus for pilgrimage for lovers of Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie is a terraced house on Brechin Road, the main road leading east away from the town centre. J.M. Barrie was born in 9 Brechin Road, and today the house in which he was born, along with its neighbour at 11 Brechin Road, is preserved as a museum in his memory. To the rear of the house is a wash house where Barrie, then aged 7, performed his first play, and which formed the inspiration for the Wendy House in Peter Pan. A nearby garden is home to another statue of Peter Pan, standing on top of a tree stump which has been intricately, if rather spookily, carved to give the impression that there are beings living within it. The Birthplace Museum is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.
Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM, to give him his full range of titles, was born on 9 May 1860 as the ninth of ten children to a weaving family. When James was six, his 13 year old brother David died in a skating accident on the eve of his 14th birthday. David had been their mother's favourite and she never recovered from the loss, repeatedly confusing James with David and effectively denying him a separate identity. Meanwhile, the father refused to have any dealings with the children at all. As a result of what would today be considered psychological abuse, James suffered from psychogenic (or stress related) dwarfism.
It is worth remembering this story of an obviously unhappy childhood when visiting J.M. Barrie's Birthplace. It is also worth remembering that this house was home to up to twelve people, and that in Barrie's childhood it would have seemed much smaller than it does today. Modern visitors enter via the reception and shop in the neighbouring house, 11 Brechin Road. From here you can move through to 9 Brechin Road and explore the two ground floor rooms.
One is given over to an exhibition of images relating to Barrie's life in Kirriemuir. The second, the Exhibition Room, is made up as a rather comfortable study, complete with J.M. Barrie's writing desk and a number of bookcases. Here you can view an original script of Peter Pan. It should be remembered that during J.M. Barrie's childhood the downstairs rooms formed the working area of a weaver's cottage. One room would have been used as a yarn store, while the other housed the loom that gave the family an income.
So the family "home", such as it was, comprised the two upstairs rooms of the cottage. Here you get what is probably a much more realistic impression of what must have been a fairly crowded and chaotic existence. One of the rooms is now presented as the family kitchen, in effect the main living room in the house. Here food was prepared and eaten, and here some of the ten children slept in a small box bed and probably in a pull-out bed beneath it.
The second room is the bedroom in which Barrie's parents (and, presumably, some of the children) would have slept. The most important items of furniture in the room are two (of an original set of six) horsehair-bottomed chairs purchased by Barrie's mother and delivered (apparently by coincidence) on the day Barrie was born. When J.M. Barrie was a child, that would have been it. Two rooms downstairs in which his father earned a living as a weaver, and two rooms upstairs in which everyone lived. Plus the wash house, shared between a number of houses, in the yard behind, plus a toilet attached to the wash house, also shared.
Today the available space has been expanded by the annexation of 11 Brechin Road. As already noted, at ground floor level this is home to the visitor reception. At first floor level it is home to an exhibition, "The Genius of J.M. Barrie". This offers an interpretation of Barrie's literary and theatrical works including, of course, Peter Pan. Items on display include a number originally belonging to Barrie, as well as memorabilia from stage productions of Peter Pan.
A visit to J.M. Barrie's Birthplace is a must for all fans of the man himself or of his most famous creation, Peter Pan. The conversion of the ground floor rooms into exhibition spaces and the annexation of the next door house give a slightly misleading impression of the space available for the family, but if you spend a little time in the kitchen and bedroom trying to imagine what life must have been like for a family of 12, you do begin to gain a sense of the reality of life not just for the Barrie family, but for very many others in similar circumstances at the time, across Scotland and beyond.
And J.M. Barrie's later story suggests the family were better placed than many at the time. He went to school in Kirriemuir and Forfar, before moving to Glasgow and then Dumfries with his elder brother Alexander. He went on to study at Edinburgh University. From an early age Barrie had a keen interest in writing, producing material for school magazines and drama groups, and while in Edinburgh he had articles published in local newspapers. He also met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1894 and living in London, Barrie married an actress, Mary Ansell. It would seem that the most successful product of their marriage was the St Bernard puppy they bought while on honeymoon in Switzerland. It was through walking the dog near his home in London in 1897 or 1898, that Barrie came to meet and know the Llewelyn-Davies family, Arthur and Sylvia and their five sons.
Over time, Barrie grew closer to the family, and more distant from his wife. Out of the stories he invented to entertain the Llewelyn-Davies boys emerged the character of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Peter Pan first appeared in print in 1901 in The Little White Bird. This was followed by the stage play Peter Pan, which had its first performance on 27 December 1904, and which itself was later produced in novel form.
Barrie's fame expanded as his fortune grew. He was knighted in 1913, the year in which he also became Rector of St Andrews University. He received the Order of Merit in 1922; in 1928 he succeeded Thomas Hardy as President of the Society of Authors; and he was Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh from 1930 to 1937, the year in which he died.
But his private life was less successful. Barrie's marriage was dissolved in 1910, the same year in which Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies died (her husband had died three years earlier). Barrie adopted their five sons, the "lost boys", but one was killed during the First World War and another drowned in 1921.