In the northwest corner of central Dumfries, tucked into the bend of the Nith, lies Moat Brae, a Grade B-listed building described as a ‘five-bay, four-storey Greek revival town house’.
It was designed by Scottish architect Walter Newall, who came from nearby New Abbey and was the area’s leading architect from the 1820s until his retirement. Newall also designed the Assembly Rooms on George Street (more or less opposite Moat Brae) and remodelled the observatory, which is now the museum and camera obscura. The house’s slightly strange name comes from the medieval Maxwell Castle or ‘Motte’, which was built in 1300, just around the corner on the site of the present Greyfriars Kirk.
Originally built in 1823 for a local (merchant) solicitor and Postmaster General and bought by the Gordon family in 1865, it operated as a nursing home from 1914 up until 1997, after which it was left empty and fell into a state of disrepair. Although designated for demolition, the building was eventually acquired by the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust in 2009 and, after a ten year, multi-million-pound fundraising project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Creative Scotland (among others), Moat Brae opened on 1 June 2019 as Scotland’s National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.
It didn’t take long for this new, innovative attraction to be noticed and by the end of the year Moat Brae had been voted one of Time magazine’s Top 50 Coolest Places in the World for Kids 2019. Visitors can expect a visceral connection with the 1870s world of a teenage J M Barrie and an inspiring voyage through the birthplace of Peter Pan.
The idyllic Neverland garden flanks the River Nith and an array of unusual trees and plants charts a route around its foreboding pirate ship, enchanting mermaid’s lagoon and adorable Wendy house. There are hidden trails of stone-carved crocodiles to be found and you can try and spot artist Aliisa Hyslop’s ghostly floating sculptures that depict the dancing and playing Lost Boys.
The building itself, far from being a museum, is a place of inspiration, with full audio-visual interpretation that takes you through Barrie’s time in Dumfries (1873–77) via talking portraits, interactive games and storytelling chairs. The gracious ground-floor rooms have been restored to an 1870s style (the entrance hall’s cupola is particularly impressive) and the house is frequently redecorated to suit the season (Christmas is wonderful!).
Seasonal touring exhibitions are staged in the firstfloor gallery, while on the attic floor you can try and catch Peter Pan’s shadow in the Darling’s Nursery, from where you can also crawl through Nanna’s kennel to the play theatre with its costumes and scripts. Numerous reading rooms with listening stations, book burrows and snugs are dotted around the house, and there are hidden gems everywhere, from secret books with torch-revealed characters to key holes through which you can spy on an entire fairy house. In the basement, true to the Peter Pan story, is the Home Under the Ground, with cinema screen, sound system and campfire log cushions.
Families can easily spend all day at Moat Brae because when the children have burnt out, they can curl up with a good book while the parents chill out in the café.
The centre is no stranger to celebrity and has a star-studded audiobook of Peter Pan containing the voices of its patron Joanna Lumley, along with Jennifer Saunders, David Walliams, Kit Harington and Michael Morpurgo among others.
However, behind the glitz and glamour, there is a mission afoot. As Simon Davidson explains: ‘We have a simple but important vision, which is to create a world where reading and storytelling are an integral part of growing up’.