EVENTS Road Trip to Neverland

Anita Buttolph
tells Words & Pictures about her SCBWI road trip to 
Moat Brae in Dumfries - the house and garden that inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan

Trains, rain, and automobiles

Despite the dreich weather, the mood was exceptionally bright on this SCBWI road trip. After an early start (some Scoobies set off from as far as Cumbria and Tayside) we were all in a good need of tea and coffee when we arrived. Handily, access to the house is via a bright, airy café with stunning views out to the garden – in fact it’s almost as if you were sitting in the garden. So, from that first cuppa I think I can safely say we were all well on our way to Neverland.

Enjoying a coffee before we get started (Linda MacMillan, Cathy Johnson, Janet Boyle and Teresa Taylor). 

Ahead of the game

Moat Brae opened to the public on 1st June 2019, so hats off to SCBWI Scotland and NW England Network organisers for arranging the visit just one week into its new life.

Every member of staff I spoke to seemed genuinely proud and excited to be working there. And our guides had been involved with the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust (Patron - Joanna Lumley, no less) for a number of years. So, we were certainly in good hands.

Nearly a ‘lost house’

It’s hard to believe it but Moat Brae was almost demolished in 2009. JM Barrie’s connection with the house had gone under the radar until enthusiasts for the house looked into the history of its early private owners (it was latterly a nursing home). The house, built in 1823, had been owned by James Gordon whose sons – Stuart and Hal - were James Barrie’s playmates during the five years he spent in Dumfries. Moat Brae and its gardens offered an unrivalled setting for their pirate adventures and theatrical events.
For our escapades in a certain Dumfries Garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work, Peter Pan.
(JM Barrie)

Exploring Moat Brae

The house is a true upstairs/downstairs Georgian house and every nook and cranny has been refurbished to a high standard. We began our tour in the basement, which is now an education space, with an informative talk on the Barrie connection and how the Trust saved the house. We then moved through the house at our own pace.

Ready to explore after an informative talk (SCBWI members with guides from the trust:
Anita Buttolph, Cathy Johnson, Linda MacMillan, Elizabeth Frattaroli, Sandra Ireland, Justin Davies, Claire Watts, Sheila Adamson, Janet Boyle and Teresa Taylor)
First stop was the grand dining and drawing rooms, where we learned more about Barrie’s time in Dumfries and his shenanigans with his gang of friends. A clever dining table display used placemats to share a nice nugget or two about their games, jokes, and rules on dinner table etiquette (‘elbows must be placed on the table’).

Stunning view from the drawing room

The views from the drawing room were quite breath-taking. Again, there was a real sense of the outdoors coming inside. As I looked out of a huge bay window, down to the garden and the river, I wondered what Barrie used to see when he stood there – a pirate or two perhaps?

We all enjoyed the interactive elements of the exhibition. It was certainly never boring and as you would expect, it encouraged the child in us to step forth (as if we needed an excuse!). From torch activated fairy shadows to glitter-filled keyholes for spying through, life-size character cut-outs, games, books, toy boxes, crawl-in dog houses and more, it was certainly a fun hands-on experience. The biggest challenge, needless to say, was trying to catch Tinkerbell in the nursery. Sadly, I wasn’t fast enough.

My personal highlight, however, was sitting in a chair that sat in Barrie’s Adelphi flat in London. It’s still in pretty good nick and was comfy too. I’m still floating on a high from that one.

The Neverland Discovery Garden

The drizzle didn’t stop us from getting outside. The garden sweeps down to a river and has been carefully landscaped with much to do and see.

Claire Watts and Justin Davies find something fishy

We found a pirate ship, a Wendy house and some mermaid tails that you could try on for size. Not to mention a fairy or two, if you looked closely enough. Although it’s hard to know exactly what the garden would have looked like in Barrie’s time, there was certainly a feeling of the enchanted about it. It’s no surprise that it inspired Barrie as much as it did.

Looking to the future 

Moat Brae aims to become a Scottish centre for children’s literature and literacy and it’s great that SCBWI has wasted no time in striking up a relationship. Long may it continue. We certainly have a lot in common.

For more information check out the trust's website.

Pictures: Elizabeth Frattaroli

Anita lives in Fife and when she’s not working on renovating her cottage with her other half, or running after the kids, she writes middle-grade fantasy. Find her on Twitter or email

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