Sometimes referred to as the father of modern fantasy, George MacDonald was a prolific author who published fairytales, novels, poetry, works of theology and literary criticism. His friends included Lewis Carrol, John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice, Lady Byron, William Cowper-Temple, and several others, including those made during his US tour (1872-3), such as Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Dudley Warner, and others. His literary influence extends even further to authors such as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, W.H. Auden, Charles William, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
Considering his enormous impact on literature, it’s amazing how little attention MacDonald has received in the past century. This was one of the topics scholars came to the University of Aberdeen (MacDonald’s alma mater) to discuss at the latest George MacDonald Conference. From July 17th – 21st, attendees from all over the world—the UK, the USA, Canada, Taiwan, Australia, Sweden, Russia—came together to celebrate and promote further scholarship on MacDonald and his works.
The conference was themed ‘MacDonald’s Scotland’, and the speakers discussed his writings in relation to his native roots. (See Sharin Schroeder’s and Caroline LePlue’s excellent conference reports for more information on the paper topics.) So, it seemed especially appropriate that, on our last day, we travel north to visit MacDonald’s birthplace, the town of Huntly, the setting for many of MacDonald’s novels.
Our tour guide, Patrick Scott (local historian and author of The History of Strathbogie and Huntly Parish Church 1805-2005), greeted us in the Square, the heart of the town. Our tour began on the steps of Brander Library, where a bagpipe player welcomed us with local tunes from North-East Scotland. Afterwards, Patrick showed us around the Square and introduced us to the grand eighteenth-century buildings with which MacDonald would have been familiar. The Stannin Steens, remnants of a Neolithic stone circle mentioned in MacDonald’s Robert Falconer, are still located in the Square behind the statue of the Duke. Other buildings of interests include Aberdeen Savings Bank (now Lloyd’s TSB), which was brought to Huntly by Charles MacDonald, and the Gordon Arms Hotel, featured in Robert Falconer as the ‘Boar’s Head’.
From the Square, Patrick led us along Castle Street past the Gordon Schools, home to the manuscript of Sir Gibbie, another of MacDonald’s characteristically Scottish novels. We walked along McVeagh Street where the old linen factory (owned by the MacDonald’s father) once stood. Then, along Old Road, we viewed the old Congregational Church or ‘Missionar Kirk’, as it is called in Alec Forbes, where George MacDonald attended as a child and where he returned as an adult to preach. Walking to Duke Street through a passage from Old Road, we came face to face with the house in which George MacDonald was born in 1824. His grandmother’s house (also mentioned in Robert Falconer) is next door.
Behind the house lies the path Robert Falconer took to the abandoned factory to secretly play his fiddle. The present owner of number 6 Church Street owns the land containing Robert’s path. He graciously hosted us in his garden, and we followed in Robert’s footsteps down to Provost Street. Provost Street led us to the park along River Bogie (called the ‘Glamer’ in Alec Forbes) and to ‘Howglen’. This house was the home of Rev. Robert Troup that he built for his father and sister. Troup was the minister for the Congregational Church, where he met and fell in love with George MacDonald’s sister Margaret. George presided over the wedding. We stopped at Howglen for tea and a stroll through its elegant, Victorian-style gardens.
After refreshments, we made our way to Huntly Castle via the Square. The castle is located on the outskirts of Huntly at the convergence of the Rivers Bogie and Deveron. It was previously known as the ‘Peel of Strathbogie’ and was the ancestral home of the Earl of Huntly, Chief of Clan Gordon. The title of the lands had been granted by King Robert to the Gordon Clan in the year 1314, and the stronghold had once safeguarded Robert the Bruce in the 14th century.
We returned to the town by way of the main Avenue to conclude at the Brander Library where our tour began. Here, we perused some of the MacDonald treasures held by the library, such as the manuscripts of Within and Without. After lunch, we bid farewell to our generous hosts and returned to the University of Aberdeen for our final talks. Our final session gathered the keynote speakers in a round-table discussion to talk about plans for promoting further MacDonald scholarship.
For more on MacDonald studies, keep checking in with the George MacDonald blog or join the discussion in our George MacDonald Society Facebook page!
And keep an eye out for the special volume on George MacDonald from the Journal of Scottish Studies!