EJO had close connections with Scotland. Her mother was Scottish and the family spent many holidays there. EJO and her sister called the house that they shared in Worthing Inverkip, a small village on the west coast of Scotland, where Mrs. Dunkerley, their mother, had relations.
When we went to Scotland in the late summer of 2001, we explored most of the area that EJO used in her Scottish books and where Vairy Castle, the Scottish home of the Earls of Kentisbury, was sited. This area lies north of Glasgow and stretches from Loch Lomond in the east to Loch Fyne in the west. We stayed in Dunoon, sailing across the Clyde by ferry from near Gourock to Hunter’s Quay and then driving the short distance to Dunoon. OS maps (scale 1: 25000) are helpful.
If you want to visit Loch Lomond, the site of Loch Avie, where Goblin Island is situated, you probably need to stay somewhere else as well, either on your way to or on your way back from Dunoon. The identification of Loch Lomond with Loch Avie is quite clear. In Schoolgirls and Scouts Jill Colquhoun says, ‘My Loch Avie is a lake’ as opposed to the other nearby lochs that are ‘bits of the sea running up amongst the hills’. Loch Lomond has several islands, most of which begin with ‘In’, one of which, lying off the village of is large enough to be Innis Beg, which lies near EJO’s fictional Lios. Fictional names that EJO uses in Goblin Island are echoed in real names, such as Innis Beg in Inverbeg, Balmona in Balmaha, Ben Aan in Benn Eich, all of which are in the right place in relation to Luss.
This is a much smaller sea loch to the west of Loch Lomond and is undoubtedly the loch where Patch Paterson who first appears in Patch and a Pawn lives. It is, as Patch says, much prettier than the lochs further west, with gardens running down to the edge of the loch and boathouses. In the first chapter of The Secrets of Vairy, Patch’s cousin Roger and their friend Bill Kane arrive near the head of the loch to be rowed across to Craigard by Patch and her friend Christina Rosalin. Here the loch is described as ‘an arm of the great estuary they had crossed in the steamer’ from Glasgow, and there is mention of the ‘smoke of towns’ and shipbuilding yards, undoubtedly a reference to Helensburgh, which lies near the mouth of Gare Loch. There are references to ‘large estates’ and ‘mansions surrounded by trees’ on the western side of Gare Loch and one of these estates must be the site of Glenleny to which Elspeth Buchanan and her brothers travel to join their small sister and their cousin Janie, who is to be their new guardian, in Schoolgirls and Scouts.
The road down the western side of Gare Loch continues round the Rosneath peninsula and turns north along the eastern side of Loch Long.
One first passes through the village of Cove, one of the few real place-names that EJO uses in Holiday Queen although she moves it to the other side of the loch. Shortly one arrives at Knockderry Castle and, beyond there is a once grand Edwardian hotel, still operating as a hotel. Knockderry Castle seems to have had a mixed career in recent years but when we were there in 2001 it was a real fairy tale castle where Sleeping Beauty might have been sleeping, waiting for the Prince to arrive. The gate was closed and barred and it was difficult to see much of the castle because of the trees and undergrowth that surround it. It probably looked just as romantic a century ago when EJO first saw it and was inspired to create Morven, where Lexa, living with her grandfather while her parents are abroad, makes herself a ‘Queen’ and forms a club for other young people who normally live in Glasgow but spend the summer amongst the hills and lochs. It was also the inspiration for the site of Vairy Castle. Descriptions in both Holiday Queen and The Secrets of Vairy confirm this, although one must allow for a certain amount of poetic licence. Poetic licence might also account for the fact that Miss Sparrow and Lexa apparently drive all the way to Dunoon in a pony trap – it would have been an easy journey by the steamers that used to provide a regular service in the earlier part of the twentieth century but it is about 50 miles by road! EJO and her family probably made very good use of the steamer service, as do the characters in Holiday Queen and Schoolgirls and Scouts.
Dunoon lies on the Firth of Clyde near the entrance to Holy Loch, which is comparatively small and seems to have been ignored by EJO (it is, however DFB’s Loch Shee), apart from numerous mentions of Dunoon, where her grandmother had a summer house. Dunoon was chosen as the name of her Worthing house by Doranne’s aunt (Daring Doranne) and there is a reference to the lochan on the road over the hills between Dunoon and Sandbank. Doranne admires a picture painted by her aunt who explains, ‘That’s the lochan – the little loch, near Dunoon, just across the water from Inverkip. The water-lily loch, some people call it’. This charming spot can be found quite easily on the A815 between Dunoon and Sandbank.
The head of Loch Striven is passed on the B826 from Sandbank to Loch Riddon. This, even today, is served only by minor roads but Eilidh Munroe says to Elspeth, ‘...don’t you think Loch Striven, up there, is very beautiful?’ as they pass the mouth of it on the day that Eilidh brings her yacht to carry Elspeth, Jock and the Shilfie away to her home on Loch Ruel.
Loch Ruel is based on Loch Riddon, its fictional name chosen because the river Ruel runs into the loch. Eilidh Munroe, the heroine of A Princess in Tatters, lives with the Maclachan family on a farm near the head of the loch and the action takes place all round the loch. We drove down the western side to Tighnabruaich (almost certainly the fictional Innistraive) on the Kyles of Bute. EJO uses a little poetic licence in her descriptions of the sailing trips to Bute and to Arran and beyond – they seem to cover an enormous amount of water in the time allowed.
We then turned west to the eastern shore of Loch Long to visit Otter Ferry where EJO’s family is known to have spent holidays. From St. Catherine’s nearer the head of the loch it is possible to look across to Inveraray Castle, the home of the Dukes ofArgyll, which has been suggested as the model for Vairy, albeit in the wrong place – it is square with pepperpot towers and there are the ‘white turrets’ of Vairy. Having requisitioned Arundel for Kentisbury, it seems more than likely that she appropriated Inveraray for Vairy and set it down on the site of Knockderry. We didn’t have time to drive round to look at it closely but it is open to the public during the summer and looks as if it would be well worth a visit.
This section is based on Island to Abbey (Girls Gone By Publishers, 2006) by Stella Waring and Sheila Ray and on ‘Lots of Lochs: EJO’s Scotland’, AC 40 (2002).