Friday, 10 July 2015

The Thirty-Nine Steps to Sorbie Tower

I don't know about you, but I've always enjoyed straightforward well-plotted adventure stories with a fast pace, a hero or heroine who has an individualistic outlook but is credible and in no way extreme, and a satisfying conclusion. I don't want inconsistencies, unbelievable coincidences, nor an ending that leaves too much unexplained or unresolved. Whether it's a novel or a film, this is how I want it to be.

So once I discovered them in 1987, when I was thirty-five, I became a firm fan of John Buchan's novels, and in particular those which chronicle the progression of Scotland-born Richard Hannay, an ex-mining engineer lately out of South Africa with a good deal of money, cleanly made, to Major-General Hannay, the army officer resolute against both the trench-bound German Army of the First World War, and cunning German spies who seemed to pop up everywhere. The point about Richard Hannay is that Buchan gives him the roundedness of a real person. This makes you care about what happens to him. It also lets you sense the awfulness of the plights he gets into. You are there too.

The books that focus on Richard Hannay are four: The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915, set mostly in Scotland, about a murderous spy conspiracy on the eve of the First World War); Greenmantle (1916, about getting to the root of a mass Islamic uprising, with action in England and Turkey); Mr Standfast (1919, about counter-espionage in Scotland and on the Western Front, a sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps); and The Three Hostages (1924, about the tracing and rescue of three children taken by a criminal conspiracy, set in London, Scotland and Norway). My favourites are the first and the last mentioned.

Surely none of these books are read much nowadays. They are quite different from the modern kind of action story. Violence, language, and moral outlook are all clean and conventional, and there is no sex.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was much filmed, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, a film starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay. A later film in 1959 had Kenneth More as Richard Hannay, and featured an exciting escape from a train on the Forth Rail Bridge, a vivid and enduring scene but completely at odds with the original book, as indeed is the 1959 setting in general. It exemplifies my annoyance with most 'films of the book', in that they depart far too much from the original story.

See for imformation on the character Richard Hannay in the books.

In relation to the book The Thirty-Nine Steps itself, see

See and for information on the two film versions I mentioned.

As I said above, the Forth Rail Bridge didn't feature in the original 1915 book. It could have, having been completed in 1890. Here it is, in a recent shot of mine. It's a fine bridge.

But the fugitive Richard Hannay, heading north by train and on the run from both a ruthless gang of spies, and from the police as a murder suspect, never went near that bridge. He best knew Galloway, in south-west Scotland, and he intended to hide in the (then) unpopulated hill country east between Newton Stewart and Dumfries. This was exactly the country I traversed when towing the caravan on the modern A702 and A712 roads, a section of my journey from Fife towards Garlieston, on the coast south of Wigtown.

Although part of the 'Lowlands', this upland has a distinctly mountainous appearance! A few shots will confirm this:

Clatteringshaws Loch in the bottom shot is artificial - a dam holds in the water - but it's the hills in the background that I want you to fix on. Richard Hannay believed he could hole up for weeks somewhere in those empty hills, then at the right time make his way back to the authorities in London and tell them what he had learned about a conspiracy that threatened Britain's chances of winning the War that loomed. He was wrong in hoping that the hills would be a safe sanctuary. Aerial reconnaissance and relentless expert hill-beating by patient men turned those bare uplands into no place for a hunted man. He had to be very resourceful indeed to escape from them with his life.

Hannay is an unusual name in southern England. I often wondered where Buchan got it from, although I guessed that it must be authentically Scottish. Well, once ensconced in Garlieston, I did some local sightseeing in Fiona. One of the closest objectives was Sorbie Tower. This lies inland, a bit to the west of Garlieston, but eastward of the village of Sorbie. Coincidentally I have my hair done at Trevor Sorbie in Brighton, and the man behind the small chain of upmarket salons named after him was born in Scotland, in Paisley, which is now part of Glasgow, but vaguely 'south west Scotland'. You do wonder whether his family have some old connection with Sorbie village in Galloway. Here anyway is the tower. It was built in 1550, and occupied until 1748, then fell into disrepair:

It's a ruin, gradually being restored by the Clan Hannay Society. The Clan Hannay? Aha! So the fictional Richard Hannay had a 'real' family background!

Enlarge the above, and you can read all about the Clan Hannay. The tartan was granted by the Lord Lyon, and all is pukka. Other notice boards showed such things as pictures of Clan gatherings, and warnings about unstable tower masonry.

There was also a list of people who had contributed greatly to the restoration of the Tower, which, after all, represented Clan HQ and was a key building. But I searched in vain for 'Richard Hannay'. I was surprised that he wasn't mentioned on any of the notice boards. You'd think the connection would be claimed and exploited.

Anyone could enter the grounds around the Tower, so long as they did no more than admire the Tower and picnic. I still felt rather like a trespasser though, for just being there and taking a few shots.

Afterwards I pondered the importance of surnames. My own, Melford, was an acquired name. I was born a Dommett. To which then should I owe allegiance? The Dommetts or the Melfords? Or both? Or, putting the matter in another way, supposing I was born a Hannay, but became a Melford. Would I still be part of the Clan Hannay? Would I have any standing with the Melfords? Such questions may not matter now, but I imagine they once did, very much so. Perhaps they still do with Scottish clans, and anyone using a clan name without proper reason or justification might get into trouble. Or if the member of one clan were found on the territory of another, they too might get into trouble. I understand that there are parts of western Scotland where anyone whose surname is Campbell has to keep the fact quiet, because of old grievances.

I can report that while in Scotland, nobody reached for their sgian-dubh, dirk or claymore, on realising that my surname was Melford.


1 comment:

  1. I loved this post, Lucy, especially the comments about clans. Thanks for sharing your trip with us and including your usual beautiful pictures.



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