Moat Brae, a place called Neverland


The shadow of Peter Pan lands on the mantelpiece, hands on the hips, feet wide apart. The shadow examines a glowing vase before poking it. Out shoots a bright fuss or light. Tinker Bell flies across the room leaving a sparkling tail on the wall.

Dumfries, a quiet border town in southern Scotland, is best known as the hometown of Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. There is a Robert Burns statue, Robert Burns house, Robert Burns centre, Robert Burns trail… He is well celebrated.

But I don’t want to talk about Burns. This summer another literary hero received recognition when the National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling opened its doors. The centre is better known as Moat Brae and it is in the big Georgian house in which garden Sir James Matthew Barrie spend many exciting days in his youth.

Barrie is a Scottish novelist and a playwright best known as the creator of Peter Pan. When Barrie was 14, he moved to Dumfries to attend Dumfries Academy. He did not live in Moat Brae but spent a lot of time there playing with his friends, Stewart and Hal Gordon whose father owned the house.

During the five years he lived in Dumfries, Barrie became involved in journalism and playwriting which become his passion and career. Later on, he said that the adventures he had in the gardens of Moat Brae foregrounded the play Peter Pan which he wrote years later. Even though the inspiration for the boy who wouldn’t grow up came from the children of Llewelyn family whom Barrie met in London’s Kensington Gardens, the world in which Peter Pan lives was created with the days at Moat Brae in mind.

Moat Brae is all about Barrie and Peter Pan. Memories told by Barrie’s old teachers, the stories about the adventures the boys had, and information about the history of the house keep the adults engaged. The children (or those of us who never grew up) can search for shadow figures and read or listen to stories in a story room. The house is beautiful and tells the story of young Barrie.

The long dining table is actually set for a pirate crew: the head of the table is set for Dare Devil Dick, the captain of the ship, and the seat on his left-hand side is reserved for Sixteen String Jack, who keeps a Log-Book of all the adventures.

If you climb the stairs to the top floor, you’ll find the bedroom where Tinker Bell and the shadow of Peter Pan play on the wall. Try to catch them. What will happen?

Downstairs the large windows from the salon look to the garden where playing is encouraged. By the mermaid-beach, a pirate ship awaits the crew to set sail. However, one should be wary of crocodiles…

Mot Brae is for families and there are workshops and sessions for children and youths. Yoga, writing, storytelling… During my visit, a theatre company Betwixt-and-Between is performing a play ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’. The show and the actors are only visiting for a few days, but the clever two-man play which tells the story of how Peter Pan became Peter Pan suits the place wonderfully and adds a lovely element to my visit. To be honest, it is the reason why I chose to stop by on this particular day. Hopefully the centre will host more similar events and performances in the future.

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