An article by Nick Harkins about his trip to the locations featured in cult classic The Wicker Man. To support Nick’s writing, click the Bolster button on the left.
In the Shadow of the Wicker Man
by Nick Harkins
On a recent break to Dumfries and Galloway in the South West of Scotland, I was delighted to discover that a large part of The Wicker Man, one of my favourite horror movies, was filmed in the area. The setting of the final scene where the Wicker Man burns evokes such an image of raw and savage natural beauty that the opportunity to see it was too good to pass up and I resolved to visit the site. It was a trip that proved to be far stranger and more difficult than I ever anticipated.
The first stage of my trip took me to Creetown where the pub scenes involving the hapless Sergeant Howie and various drunken locals were filmed in the Ellangowan Hotel, known in the movie as The Green Man. I walked along the town’s main street, bleak and deserted on a grey, misty weekday lunchtime. I quickly understood why the town was chosen as one of the main settings for the film; there is something genuinely quite eerie, almost otherworldly about it. It was silent, but it wasn’t a peaceful silence, it was a silence that seemed ominous, filled with an indeterminable menace.
The street leading to the Ellangowan was lined with stone terraced houses, mostly with pretty net curtains and dainty little ornaments in the windows, but where were the house-proud residents? I didn’t see a soul as I walked towards the pub; neither pedestrian nor vehicle. My sense of vague disquiet grew as I saw a large bowl overflowing with juicy ripe apples in the window of one of the houses. Poor Sergeant Howie, “virgin, fool, king for a day” was sacrificed to make the local’s apples grow in the movie; had some similarly terrible succour been provided to the tree that bore these sumptuous fruits?
As most of the directions I’d found on the internet were rather vague, I stopped in a small corner shop to ask for directions and, I hoped, get some advice from locals. I found half a dozen or so people inside including staff and customers. Most of them gathered around the till when they heard me ask the two members of staff directions to the site of the Wicker Man. Some chipped in with advice and little anecdotes involving their experiences, and those of people they knew, regarding the filming of the movie, while a few looked on disapprovingly and denied all knowledge of where the film was shot.
Of the few present that were willing to speak to me, one lady informed me she was a big fan of the film and had watched it within the last month or so, but had been forbidden to watch it as a child. She was happy to direct me to Burrow Head Holiday Village; behind which, she said, the Wicker Man had stood, although she believed that there was no longer anything to see, and all traces of it had been removed. Disappointed to hear this, but grateful for the directions, I thanked her and left the shop to head for the Ellangowan Hotel before setting off for Burrow Head.
When I arrived at the Ellangowan, I felt a surge of excitement as I looked in the window; it was very clearly recognisable from the film. Despite some cosmetic changes, the layout has changed very little since 1973. The most marked difference I could see between the pub as it appeared in the movie and the modern reality was the flyer in the window advertising the Ellangowan’s Christmas Dinner offer; a festival that would have been ignored, or more probably, reviled by Lord Summerisle and his pagan followers.
Inside, I found it to be quiet and homely. The bar the leering landlord stood behind in the film looked exactly as it did then, but the customers – two elderly gentleman and their large, somewhat rotund Labradors – were rather less rowdy than the locals in the film. No rousing renditions of ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ were forthcoming, but in a small nook I found a collection of Wicker Man memorabilia featuring stills from the film, and also some much more recent photos of Edward Woodward in the Ellangowan, returning to what I hope was a more pleasant welcome for him than for the doomed Sergeant Howie.
After a drink and an awestruck look around I set off back to the car to head for Burrow Head. Having seen the interior of The Green Man, the call of the Wicker Man was louder than ever. I followed the directions I was given in the shop, but finding the site proved to be incredibly difficult. Brooding dark grey clouds filled the sky and rain lashed down as I negotiated the narrow single track roads to the tip of the Machars Peninsula; as remote and foreboding place as I have ever visited. As I grew closer to what the lady in the shop had assured me was the site, the wind raged, whipping off the sea and driving the rain almost horizontally into my windscreen. I expected signs pointing to the great site of cinema history I sought, but there were none to be seen. Deflated, and a little intimidated by my remote location and the horrendous conditions, I began to think of turning back.
Just as hope had almost completely deserted me, I saw a small turning and a sign advertising the Burrowhead Holiday Village the Creetown locals had directed me to. The campsite itself was incredibly bleak and remote. Miserable, lonely little chalets stood bravely in the face of the wild elements battering them. Again, not a soul was to be seen. Even by the standards of British campsites, it was a rather depressing place.
I parked up and wandered towards the cliff edge just beyond the campsite. Rain lashed into my face; icy and brutal, chilling me to the bone as I struggled against the wind towards the churning sea. Again, no sign was visible advertising the site of the Wicker Man to guests, and I began to despair of ever finding it. I wandered through the failing light of the afternoon, hoping to find something familiar to point me in the right direction. Eventually, I saw a man walking his dog and asked him if he knew where the site was. He was kind enough to show me where to go, and told me that although you can still see the Wicker Man’s feet, until relatively recently you could see the charred remains of his legs. Remarkably, he said, somebody had camped at the exact site the Wicker Man was burned, and pitched their tent over the legs. When this crafty camper eventually packed up his tent and left, the legs were gone; sawed away, allegedly to be sold on ebay.
Thanking this kindly gentleman, I hurried on, following the directions he gave me. I jogged through the rain and wind, desperate to see the site of the burning, drawn to it in ways I still can’t fully explain. Eventually, I found it. I headed down a steep narrow track and at last stood at the feet of the Wicker Man. The scene was primal and awe inspiring, never in my life have I felt the power of nature so strongly. The sea roared and crashed against the dark, jagged rocks as it has for untold ages, and will continue to do long after us, and our silly little ways, are gone and forgotten.
The final scene of The Wicker Man came back to me vividly; Sergeant Howie’s disbelief, horror and ultimately defiance as the smiling Lord Summerisle led the dance of the pagan locals, flames licking their way closer to the belly of The Wicker Man, bringing Howie and his fellow sacrificial beasts their agonising doom.
It was a strange and difficult journey to stand in the shadow of the Wicker Man, but perhaps that made finally being there all the more special. It seems somehow in keeping with the spirit of the film that the site of Sergeant Howie’s demise remains wild, remote, and intimidating; a place not easily found by outsiders, and filled with unknowable elemental power. Lord Summerisle wouldn’t have had it any other way.