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.