As I’m working through the life of John McLaren, and trying to understand him, little intriguing alleyways open up. I do my best not to wander down them because they lead away from the main thoroughfare of getting words on the page. And books only exist once words are on a page.
But it’s always a little frustrating to simply make a mental note to come back to the alleyway and keep walking. This week, the alleyway was a detail that has kept popping into my head: Bannock burn and Bannock brig. And, thanks to a lovely woman on the other side of the world, I not only got to wander down it without losing too much time but I had an expert guide.
Bannockburn is a small town just south of Stirling in Scotland, most famous for the being the site of Scotland’s greatest military victory: The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Every Scot knows the battle for two main reasons: 1. Robert the Bruce won it, and The Bruce is one of Scotland’s greatest heroes, largely because of reason 2. Reason 2 is that the English – under King Edward II – lost. And lost badly.
There were a few other Scottish victories against the English in the long series of clashes over hundreds of years between the two neighbours but the Battle of Bannockburn was the biggest. The truth is that England won the vast majority of the others, so it’s remembered even more fondly.
Back to McLaren
Anyway, John McLaren was born in Bannockburn and spend his childhood there and even though he got on a boat to America at 25 and only very occasionally returned, he remained intensely fond of Bannockburn, especially the woods and paths and streams that he would walk on and through as a youngster. It was the connection to nature that thrilled him in his early years that made him decide to become a gardener rather than a dairy man like his parents.
Long after McLaren had become a hero to San Franciscans for literally creating Golden Gate Park out of nothing – as well as numerous other incredible things that I will go into another time – he lived in a park lodge which is still there at the entrance to the park. And in the lodge he had several paintings of Scotland hanging up. He spoke about them in an interview that took place when he was in his 90s. Here’s a clip from the subsequent article:
In his office was a big picture of Stirling Castle and he looked at it with long memories in his eyes. Then he jumped up and suddenly with lightness and agility younger men might envy, his face puckered in a smile.
“Come on ben wi me and I’ll show you a bonny picture,” he said, and he led the way back to his own parlor and stood before a brilliant little painting of a pastoral scene, unmistakably Scotch.
He looked at it awhile, almost reverently, before he spoke again.
“That’s the Bannock Brig,” he said quietly. “For a long time I used to keep a picture postcard of it where I could see it. Then one day John Stanton, the San Francisco artist – he died a few years ago – borrowed it. He was going to Scotland and I made him swear to bring the little postcard picture back to me. He did, and he also brought me this painting of the brig and the burn. Last time I was home I went to look at the brig. But they’d ruined it. Why they’d put another handrail on it. Why can’t folk leave beautiful things alone?”
I’ve been pondering about that picture – and his postcard – for a while, especially as I think it captures something about him. I suspect that the painting may still be hanging on the wall at McLaren Lodge (as the park lodge was renamed after his death) but I haven’t been able to get inside yet, largely due to COVID restrictions.
Anyway, I know where McLaren lived in Bannockburn and so out of interest, I started searching what was the likely crossing on the river – the “burn” – on Google Maps. I found three likely locations but none of them were visible on Street View – in large part because they’re pedestrian bridges.
And so I decide to ask the wonderful Margaret Pollock, native to Bannockburn and someone who was a huge help when I visited in 2019, if she had an idea where it might be and whether it was still similar to how it would have been in McLaren’s time. And she came up trumps.
First of all, she knew straight away what I was talking about – because it’s a spot on the river where kids, even now, go and play, especially in the summer. Which is exactly what McLaren did with his sister and brothers. She told me: “When I was growing up, the older boys used to dam the stream to make it deeper and we would swim there. The bridge is pretty basic literally just a narrow platform crossing the water. Just before the bridge, the calm, slow moving water narrows, picks up speed and begins to flow very fast underneath as the river bed begins to fall into the gorge. Even with the handrail it could be quite scary as a child having to cross the bridge when the river was ‘in spate’ I.e. very full and fast flowing with snow melt or after heavy rain.”
Murder at the Mill
What’s more the little footbridge is actually of real historical interest: not only was it the main footpath between Stirling and Edinburgh, as defined by a Roman road and then used for centuries later before tarmac and expansion created a ring road, but it was also the site of another piece of Scottish history – the murder of King James II.
James was thrown off his horse at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488 and, injured, took refuge at a nearby stone mill called Beaton’s Mill. Someone sent for a priest to help him (priests being effectively doctors at the time). The “priest” turned up and… stabbed him to death. And so another sad, bloody piece of Scottish history was born, right on the land where John McLaren played.
Margaret not only knew the spot but the next day went for a walk there and sent me some pics, which I have saved and will use for occasional inspiration, especially when writing about McLaren’s early life. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that, against all likelihood, Margaret found what was almost certainly the actual postcard that John McLaren kept with him in America and was so attached to that he was wary about lending it to anyone.
The postcard was printed in 1907 – around the exact right time – and McLaren probably bought it at the Borestone Hut, close to the spot, on one of his trips back home. There were postcards because Bannockburn has had tourists since the 1700s due to the importance of Robert the Bruce’s win to Scottish history.
The postcard also fits exactly the description that McLaren gave back in the 1940s – the single handrail and the small bridge (“brig”) over the Bannock burn. Here it is:
And here is what the scene looks like today, courtesy of Margaret Pollock, head gardener at Bannockburn House.
Which is amazingly similar. And, thanks to Margaret sending me a bunch of pictures around the bridge, I can now easily visualise a place that the subject of my book – and a man who spent his life recreating beautiful scenes and vistas through his gardening genius – held extremely close to his heart.
In other words, an alleyway I’m extremely glad I wandered down.