In search of Tintin: or how Arran and Barra played their part in Hergé’s best known ripping yarn!

Lochranza Castle on the Isle of Arran became the eerie Craig Dhui Castle in the Black Island

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

Castlebay on Barra became the fictional Kiltoch in The Black Island

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Though the police in Buchan’s ‘shocker’ could never have been quite as incompetent as that  pompous pair, Thomson and Thompson! Despite them however, both stories share exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement in the rugged, wild and isolated Scottish countryside.

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

The tidal landing strip on Barra

And how did this villainous band manage to get on and off the island? The answer to that comes again from Barra, as Hergé used the beach landing strip at Barra Airport as the model for the landing strip on the beach of the Black Island. All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

But this is just a taster, and there’s much, much more in the February issue of iScot Magazine, available from Pocketmags or from good independent newsagents.

 

The Falls of Dochart

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It certainly knows how to rain in Scotland. It can be torrential. Bucketing. A smirr. A drizzle. A downpour. Dreich. Pelting. Horizontal. Lashing. Pouring. Raining cats and dogs (why them, I wonder?). Coming down in sheets. Weather for ducks. Spitting. Soaking. Wet. Stotting. Chucking it down (who is?!) Driving. In floods. Well-drookit. And many, many more. They say the Inuit have dozens of words for snow – but it wouldn’t surprise me if we have more words than that for rain!

On the other hand, take a trip out on a wet day and you’ll be rewarded with some astonishing sights. Today we drove up to Killin and watched the fast-flowing waters of the River Dochart as they roared down the falls. And there were plenty of others out doing just the same.

Water can be very powerful and very impressive. No doubt also very dangerous if not treated with respect. But it’s not hard to understand why writers, artists and poets have all found inspiration in its ceasless motion.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.537-c.475 BC) once said, “You can never step in the same river twice.”  For me, that conjures up a striking image, one that mirrors the idea at the heart of his doctrine. For Heraclitus believed the very essence of the universe is change. Everything changes. Nothing stands still. Everything flows. Nothing stays fixed. Everything is in a state of flux.

A Glenelg burn

That change can be the infinitesimal movement of the great tectonic plates that wrap the Earth and grind imperceptibly beneath us. Or the swift unstoppable destruction caused by a tsunami thrown up by a powerful undersea earthquake.  The slow growth of a fingernail. Or the all-too-rapid melting of an ice-cream on a hot day.

Fast or slow. Visible or not, change is happening all the time. And although it can be frightening, it can also be wonderfully freeing. You make a terrible mistake, but you can atone for it. You get a disastrous haircut, but your hair will grow again! An election brings a bleak result, but you can vote again. Yet it’s surprising how often people fear change so much that they choose to stick with the known, the familiar, no matter how bad that familiar is. We’re a strange contrary lot, the human race!

But, like the river rushing over the rocks at the Falls of Dochart. Or the burn roaring down the hillside at Glenelg. Or the breakers being driven ashore on the back of an Atlantic gale, life’s rarely static. Rather, it’s always changing and moving in new and unexpected ways.

How we deal with change has a huge bearing on how we live our lives. We can try to pretend it isn’t happening (think ostrich, head in the sand). Or try to hold back the tide of change (think Canute, though that wasn’t the point of the original tale). Or, despite the unknown and unfamiliar, we can look on change as bringing the possibility of new and better things, and embrace that. And I think that’s the one I’d like to go for.

Atlantic breakers crash ashore on Barra