A snapshot of Summerisle and the Wicker Man

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IT never ceases to amaze me how events in life intertwine and return when you least expect it.

And more than once a movie has been the catalyst – read my blog post There’s no exit in any direction… except the one that you can’t see with your eyes if there is any doubt!

But this tale is more straightforward…

I worked at the Galloway Gazette in Newton Stewart as deputy editor between 1992 and 1994. I returned to the paper as editor between 1998 and 1999.

During my first stint at the newspaper – a weekly broadsheet which covers the Machars, the Rhins of Galloway, parts of Kirkcudbrightshire and everything between – we would run a weekly 20 Years Ago feature which would feature news snippits from past editions.

While researching for one issue during late 1992, I came across two issues of our paper from 1972 which featured articles on the filming of the classic British horror movie The Wicker Man.

I was rather gobsmacked, as until that time I had always assumed (wrongly) that the movie had been filmed on Skye or Harris, or one of the other Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland.

I had watched The Wicker Man on release at the Odeon cinema in Worthing as a teenager, back in 1973 (on a double bill with Don’t Look Now) and it had always stayed with me.

The movie’s story, inspired by David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, centres on the visit of Police Sergeant Neil Howie to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle, in search of a missing girl.

Howie, a devout Christian, is appalled to find that the inhabitants of the island have abandoned Christianity and now practise a form of Celtic paganism.

The film’s denouement is shocking, as is the manner of Sgt Howie’s death.

Anyway, my discovery of the back issues of the Gazette also stayed with me.

So when I returned as editor in March 1998, I decided to do a bit of digging. I was curious and wanted to find out more about the making of this amazing film.

The darkroom at the paper’s offices in Newton Stewart was antiquated (this is still before digital photography) and had negatives stored in old Kodak boxes in stacks under wooden benches.

Some of the negs went back to the mid-1960s and were kept in decaying parchment envelopes.

Anyway, after one dusty Saturday morning I found a box with about 70 negatives from the filming/making of The Wicker Man movie.

The negatives looked pristine and by holding a few up to a light I could see they were crystal clear. Was that really Britt Ekland – who played the landlord’s daughter Willow in the move – I was looking at in the town’s high street!

All of these pictures had been taken by our old photographer John McEwan, a loyal servant of the paper for more than 30 years, but now retired.

Newspapers didn’t make contact prints, as they were too costly and time consuming for editors, who had to deal with scores of photos each week. Instead we simply viewed negatives on a light box on our desk then instructed the photographer on which prints we needed.

So most of the negatives had never been made into prints before and John was an amazing snapper.

Although retired, John still popped in for the odd freelance job. By the time he next came into the office, my then photographer Peter Foster, had made some brilliant black and white prints of about two dozen of his Wicker Man photos.

John was amazed that the negs still existed and sat down over a coffee and explained where each photo was taken.

He also told me that Britt Ekland caused a bit of a stir in the town when she stayed at one of the local pub/hotels and after two nights moved out, complaining about the standard of the place!

Apparently by contrast her fellow stars Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) and Edward Woodward (police Sgt Howie) were absolute charmers!

I then realised that we were sitting on the makings of a brilliant 25th anniversary feature for my newspaper.

A few evenings later I showed the prints to a good friend (whose family had farmed near Whithorn for generations) who regaled me about the making of the movie and his childhood memories of local kids being involved in some of the scenes.

He even took me to the site near the Isle of Whithorn at the southern end of the Machars and showed me the burned out rotten stumps of where the Wicker Man had once stood.

I returned to the office and tasked my young reporter Kat Dearden to put together a special feature for our paper.

I envisaged a double page spread, but by the time Kat had finished (one of her jobs was to return to the location of each scene in the movie with our photographer and do a ‘then and now’ picture) we had enough to run over six pages of broadsheet.

And so that is how we came to run a three week double pages feature on The Wicker Man. The series was published on 4th, 18th and 25th December 1998 in the Galloway Gazette and covered every aspect of the making of the film.

As part of that feature, Kat interviewed the movie’s director Robin Hardy and Britt Ekland’s agent and spoke with many local people who had been extras in the filming.

I put in a request for an interview with Edward Woodward and was gobsmacked when a few days later he suddenly returned my call.

I happened to mention at the start of the interview that he had been evacuated during World War 2 to the same primary school in Lancing in Sussex, as my mother and she remembered him well. He didn’t remember my mum, but remembered the school and his time in Lancing. It broke the ice and we chatted for more than 40 minutes about his time in Galloway, the incessant rain, and the making of the movie.

My full interview featured as part of the series.

I actually had a huge job convincing my managing director (and owner of the paper) Iain Brown to let me run a three week feature, which would take up valuable advertising space.

“No one remembers that small film,” he said. “It would bore readers”. His attitude surprised me as he was also chairman of the local community cinema!

Anyway, eventually Iain relented and let me go-ahead. Back in 1998, The Wicker Man only had a small cult following, so I guess it was a bit of  a gamble as to whether readers would be interested in something which had happened 25 years earlier.

But the reaction to our feature series was immense with scores of readers’ letters and even requests from the USA for copies of our paper. Kat went on to win Scottish Weekly Journalist of the Year, largely on the back of that feature.

There was then a piece of bizarre irony.

Within five years, for no obvious reason, The Wicker Man went from being a small cult movie into a world-wide phenomenon, even spawning the annual Wickerman music festival.

It was as if the movie suddenly gained a new life.

In 2011, a spiritual sequel entitled The Wicker Tree was released. This film was also directed by Hardy, and featured Christopher Lee in a cameo appearance. Hardy was working on his next film, The Wrath of the Gods, which would have completed The Wicker Man Trilogy, at the time of his death in July 2016.

In 2004, Total Film magazine named The Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time; and during the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony the film was included as part of a sequence that celebrated British cinema.

In 2013, a copy of the original US theatrical version was digitally restored and released.

Anyway, I left the Galloway Gazette in mid-1999 with about 16 wonderful prints of the making of The Wicker Man.

I also had copies of each edition of the paper while I was editor.

Sadly, over the years most of the prints and copies of the paper were lost or sold.

Then last year, after moving house I found a few surviving prints. These are the ones I feature here for any reader’s amusement or interest.

  • The two photographs of the Wicker Man under construction, were taken at the filming location near the Isle of Whithorn in the Machars.
  • The two photographs of Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie) and Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) were taken in the grounds of Culzean Castle in south Ayrshire and at Logan Botanical Gardens near Stranraer.
  • The photograph of Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie) in a boat was taken in Loch Ryan off the west pier, Stranraer.

One day I will return to the Machars and relive my small journey in the history of The Wicker Man.

 

 

Going down to the bottom with a fist full of lies

It has been quite a while since I have rebooted one of my newspaper investigations. So here is one exclusive I still treasure. It involves a convicted fraudster called Alex Lothian. I first met Mr Lothian – and was taken in by – while Chief Reporter at the Galloway Gazette in early 1994. I followed him while at The Scotsman and his final comeuppance came in Cupar Sheriff Court in May 1995, while I was working for The Herald. Guys like these – and I have come across far too many of them – are leeches on society.

 

A FRAUDSTER whose most recent deal was to front a £35 million heritage project was convicted yesterday in a case involving £1,700.

Alex Lothian, 44, of Newgrange Park, Pittenweem, was ordered by Sheriff Charles Smith at Cupar to do 250 hours of community service.

Afterwards, Lothian said he was a ”ruined man” and he would never work again.

He was originally indicted on two separate charges. The first alleged attempted fraud of £280,000 and obtaining £15,000 in connection with the failed Litetronics Lamps business in Anstruther during 1991 and 1992. The second charge was of fraudulently obtaining £1,716.02 from a Stranraer deer farmer, James Baxter.

His trial began on May 2 and was set to last at least three weeks. However, three days into proceedings, after only two witnesses were called, the fiscal, Alan Kempton, offered an amendment to the charges.

In return for dismissing the first charges, Lothian pled guilty to the fraud against Mr Baxter and financial consultant Douglas McIntyre and farming consultant Alastair Gray.

He admitted defrauding Mr Baxter of £1,716.02 by pretending he was acting on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry.

His QC, Edward Targowski, yesterday pled for his client to be spared a custodial sentence to allow him to care for his 82-year-old invalid mother.

However, Sheriff Smith, noting that Lothian already had a criminal record for fraud, said: ”It is obvious that you have returned to your bad ways. Your offence was deliberate and involved stealing. You seem to have ideas beyond your abilities and those who are unfortunate to become involved in your projects become the victims.

”No doubt a custodial sentence is appropriate for you,” he said, adding that it was a ”narrow decision” to impose 240 hours of community service to indicate the gravity of the offence.

In the summer of 1992, Mr Baxter was struggling to maintain his deer farm at Leswalt, near Stranraer, and decided to investigate plans to diversify.

He was introduced to Lothian as a business consultant but Lothian falsely claimed to be a licensed credit broker and DTI adviser.

Mr Baxter was soon convinced that the Fife consultant could help him. Lothian increased his credibility when he introduced an innocent party, Alastair Gray, who he claimed was a deer farming expert.

On August 5, 1992, Mr Baxter received written proposals for his farm’s redevelopment and details of DTI assistance and Government loans.

The sting was attached to the end of the document: ”The charges for consultancy services will be on the basis of £25 per hour exclusive of VAT and do not include expenses for any travel, telephone, postage, facsimile or typing charges which will be billed at cost.” The first £1,000 had to be delivered upfront.

Mr Baxter was instructed to hand over a £500 deposit ”made payable to Alex Lothian”.

More than a week later, Lothian presented his scheme to develop the farm into a profitable deer park and visitor centre. The plans included a tree-top walkway, an activity wood, restaurant, gift shop, and exhibition area.

Two days after Mr Baxter paid his deposit and a further £500 ”to set up the consultancy contract”, a bill for £504 arrived from Lothian for the first 16 hours of Mr Gray’s consultancy time.

Further bills, varying from £3.53 for a business lunch to £212 for VAT, were soon dropping through the letter-box. However, as a request for a further £1,000 of consultancy work arrived, Mr Douglas McIntyre of St Monance — who was innocently involved in the Frances mine project as Lothian’s financial adviser — had been tipped off about Lothian’s activities and in turn warned Mr Baxter.

His warning came as Lothian — now gaining new confidence — uprated his consultancy fees to £50 per hour.

”It was only a bit of nifty footwork in stopping cheques so quickly that he only managed to get £1,001 from me,” observed Mr Baxter. ”I saved £700 and could have lost a lot more.

”He was a cracking good con-man. All sort of suckers get taken in by Alex Lothian. Thank God he has now got his come-uppance. It may stop him repeating his routine again.”

Soon after defrauding Mr Baxter, Lothian became involved in a bogus £35 million heritage project to restore the derelict house and grounds of Barnbarroch, 20 miles away near Wigtown.

The brains behind the project — Andrew McCulloch, 59, a solicitor and property developer — was jailed two months ago for defrauding the Royal Bank of Scotland out of £300,000 in a gamble to keep other business interests afloat.

Last October, Lothian was forced to resign as consultant to the project, as he faced fraud charges involving his activities in Stranraer and Anstruther.

In 1993, while attending a business course in Newton Stewart and with the help of a public grant of £2,400, McCulloch developed a scheme for a cultural theme park similar to the Landmark Centre near Aviemore.

McCulloch was introduced to Lothian, who also saw the opportunity to cash in on Scottish interest in its cultural history.

By October, Lothian had launched a £20 million development plan for Barnbarroch House and its 3,500 acres.

He claimed the scheme would create more than 200 jobs and was supported by a project consortium including merchant banks and conglomorate companies. The funding and backers did not exist.

The project, he said, would include a nature reserve, historical and cultural centre, theatre, museum, butterfly farm, forest walkway, leisure centre, shops, restaurant, and 300 holiday chalets; and would attract one million visitors a year to economically depressed Wigtownshire.

Despite the hype, nothing happened for six months and the regional council’s planning department closed its file on the development.

In May 1994, Lothian admitted he and McCulloch had parted company.

Lothian told the press: ”Too late we discovered that Mr McCulloch did not have his own funding to go ahead.”

He said a new scheme was under way involving a £23 million trust status development of Barnbarroch as a national museum and educational centre with residential accommodation provided by 200 Norwegian chalets.

Another four months passed before a second relaunch of the Barnbarroch scheme was undertaken with uprated costings of £35 million.

Lothian claimed that more than 25,000 people had already joined the trust, each subscribing £30 a year to the scheme and between £2 million and £3 million had been raised. Investigations by The Herald discovered that no such membership or level of investment existed.

Within a few days of the relaunch, Lothian appeared at Cupar Sheriff Court on charges involving fraud.

Last night, Lothian told the Herald: ”I am happy to admit I have made mistakes. But I am a ruined man because of this conviction, press reports, and the way the police have warned people against me.

”One thing’s for certain. I’ll never work again.”