An Appointment with The Wicker Man, by Charles E McGarry
I sometimes wonder if Robin Hardy’s cult movie The Wicker Man holds a magical allure for me because I was born at the same time as it was being filmed. This is probably vanity, as the film, the granddaddy of all cult flicks, has a strange magnetism which has drawn in many acolytes.
I first saw The Wicker Man in the late 1980s, introduced by cinema buff Alex Cox on BBC2’s ‘Moviedrome’ series, and I was immediately smitten by the weirdness of the work’s tone and aesthetic – surely quintessential to late 1960s/early 1970s Britain, its sheer uniqueness and its bleakness. The film (spoiler alert) is set on Summerisle, a fictional Hebridean island whose inhabitants are in the thrall of ancient pagan religion. In reality, the filming largely took place in Galloway, in pretty settings such as Kirkcudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet, Creetown, Anwoth, Castle Kennedy and in and around Isle of Whithorn. The film had a big effect on my second crime novel, The Shadow of the Black Earl – a country house murder mystery with a dose of the occult – not least because it influenced its location.
My first crime book in a series starring Leo Moran – connoisseur, private investigator and seer of visions – The Ghost of Helen Addison, was released by Polygon last year. It was set in a relatively northern clime (upper Argyll) during the grip of an icy winter. I wanted its follow-up to provide a contrast by being set in the softer countryside of southern Scotland and during a hot, dry summer (such a Scottish summer seems less fanciful after the sultry one we have just enjoyed). The trouble was, I was shamefully unfamiliar with the lower reaches of my own country. The Borders, and even more so Dumfries and Galloway, are generally circumvented at high speed by travellers heading south to England or north to the glories of the Highlands. You might ask why I had to set the novel in a real place at all. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to create my own setting as the fact that I wanted to confirm that the types of scenery I had in mind for The Shadow of the Black Earl approximately existed in southern Scotland, for the sake of authenticity. My love for The Wicker Man persuaded me to first scope out Galloway, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. I found the perfect location in the countryside around the village of Laurieston, and I barely had to alter anything for the purposes of the narrative, although I did change the place names. There was even a stately home (now a commune) which fitted the bill perfectly. My story also takes place in the wider Kirkcudbrightshire area, including some of the locations where The Wicker Man was filmed. I’m not sure if it was chance or destiny, but a key scene in my novel takes place in exactly the same Kirkcudbright street as several iconic shots from the movie.
The Wicker Man contains elements of paganism and the occult, and so does The Shadow of the Black Earl. In my book, the reader wonders if the pagan imagery that Leo Moran comes across is innocent, or related to the disappearance of a teenage girl, which has chilling echoes of a similar disappearance thirty years previously. The disapproval Leo expresses towards local pagans is redolent of that of police Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, in the movie (both men are searching for missing girls). I rechristened Laurieston’s only pub (sadly now defunct) as the Green Man Inn, in homage to the establishment in the film in which Howie is dismayed by bawdy community singing, almost seduced by Britt Ekland’s ‘landlord’s daughter’ Willow, and offended when (in the director’s cut) Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) offers a fresh-faced local boy for deflowering by Miss Ekland. In the Green Man, in The Shadow of the Black Earl, Leo is faced with less jovial regulars – surly fellows so distant as to make the detective wonder if they are part of a conspiracy behind the kidnapping of the missing girl.
On my research trips from Glasgow to Galloway, I came to fall in love with the region, and I’ve been back several times on holiday. Just recently, I visited with two dear friends, Stuart and Jason, who are fellow Wicker Man devotees. We stayed at the Ellangowan Hotel in Creetown, the bar of which was used for the interior shots of the Green Man. Aided by several good internet sites (http://www.british-film-locations.com is the best), we motored around visiting various locations, and discovered that the film has deep roots in the area. We met one man whose lasting regret was that his father had insisted that he work while his friends took up roles as extras. We also chatted with a local artist whose dad had a supporting role in the movie; she now creates artworks based on the film.
The highlight of our trip was probably Burrowhead, where the movie’s climax – the burning of the giant wicker effigy – takes place. We regarded the waves crashing upon the cliffs beneath a perfect sky, and found the actual stumps of the prop, ‘1972’ marked on the concrete base. Rumours that my friends and I set fire to a Blue Peter-style mini wicker man are strenuously denied!
Charles E McGarry
The Shadow of the Black Earl by Charles E McGarry is out on September 6, published by Polygon
Photos to be added
The church at Anwoth was where Sergeant Howie finds the grave of the missing girl in The Wicker Man
This detail from the graveyard at Anwoth appears in The Wicker Man
The old schoolhouse at Anwoth features in the movie
The view from St Ninian’s Cave. The beach is where Lord Summerisle sacrifices ale to the god of the sea in the movie
The base of the effigy is still at Burrowhead. It is a place of pilgrimage for Wicker Man fans
The lovely gardens at Castle Kennedy featured in the film
This Kirkcudbright alleyway was in the movie
Charles and his friend Jason ponder St Ninian’s Cave, which featured in the climactic stages of The Wicker Man