To begin the New Year in this week’s Reading the Collections blog we take a look at the amusing children’s stories by Edgar Primrose Dickie (1897–1991); a man who had a fascinating career. Edgar Dickie served in both world wars and received the Military Cross for his service with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in 1918. He served as general superintendent of the kirk’s huts and canteens with the British expeditionary forces in 1940 and in his book Normandy to Nijmegen (1946) he accounts his experiences with the liberation army in 1944. After studying at Oxford and Edinburgh in the early 1920s, he was ordained in the Church of Scotland and ministered at Lockerbie and Edinburgh before being appointed to the Chair of Divinity at St Andrews University (1935-1967).
In Special Collections we have his personal papers which include papers relating to his work in the Church of Scotland, his sermons and items from his service in the First and Second World Wars. Also in the collection there are items relating to his literary career and that of his wife Ishbel Dickie nee Holmes Johnston (1899–1985). In addition to his academic and ecclesiastical career, Dickie wrote a number of children’s novels and contributed a series of articles to Punch. The particular item that caught my attention was the children’s novel Mister Bannock: A Nonsense Story published in 1947 (ms38624/4/2/3).
Mister Bannock is a collection of very unusual stories centred on the eponymous hero; an eccentric individual who after making his fortune in America returned to Scotland as his “heart was still among the heather and the honey of Clachan Doddle”. One contemporary review of Dickie’s novels began “This is pure nonsense” (J. D. Douglas). However the silliness of these stories is perhaps what makes them so delightful. The idiosyncratic content does require a second reading in order to fully comprehend what is going on but give it time and you can appreciate the quaintness of these tales.
These stories are complemented by the illustrations of Savile Lumley (1876-1960) who illustrated numerous magazines, children’s books and WWI posters. His pictures perfectly illustrate the originality of Dickie’s stories such as ‘The Moth-Eaten Sporran’ and ‘The Uncanny Cairngorm’.
The illustration on the dust cover of our copy of the text, pointing to the whimsical nature of the stories contained within, features some of the main characters from my favourite story or jink: ‘Hunting of the Hot-Water-Bottle-Nosed Whale’. The whale, who normally lives at Scapa Flow, on hearing that winter is coming decides to take a trip south and passes through the village of Ochyerogue. Mister Bannock, Handy Hogmanay and Dan Dee Din on surmising that:
The Hot-Water-Bottle-Nosed Whale must have climbed up the mountain and now, all hot and bothered, would be cooling his tummy on the glacier.
set about with their ice-axes to find the whale. After luring the whale with garvies on hooks (garvies are distant cousins of the Loch Ness monster about the size of sprats!), the three hunters unexpectedly bob-sleigh down the mountain on the back of the whale and into the village. The whale is welcomed into the village, invited to dinner and awarded a medal for free passage on the tram car. The whale was not to stay however as:
When Spring came round and the snows melted, he heard the call of Scapa Flow. One morning he disappeared. And only a broken bridge told the way he had gone.
Edgar Dickie’s stories attest to his whimsical humour but also to his kind nature. Although having no children of their own, the Dickies showed concern for their students and ex-servicemen. Those who studied under Dickie speak very warmly of the welcome the Dickies extended through their generous hospitality to generations of students. Murdo Ewen Macdonald of Harris, reflecting on his time at St Andrews in his autobiography, speaks of Dickie as one of the friendliest members of staff who treated students as equals and was always so patient and understanding.
During his time as Professor Dickie published 16 theological books and pamphlets and was held in high regard in the University, receiving an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh in 1946 and St Andrews in 1969. For my part though I will remember him for his bizarre tales of life in a Scottish village in Mister Bannock!
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