Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957) was an English writer probably now best known for her series of detective novels featuring amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. In 1931 Dorothy L Sayers published her novel ‘The Five Red Herrings’, the seventh in the series, a mystery set amongst the artists’ colony of Kirkcudbright and in the surrounding landscape of Galloway. Sayers is thought to have modelled a number of the characters in the book on members of the real-life artists’ colony and her descriptions of many of the places in the book are very precise, allowing the keen reader to follow the same paths and locations of the novel. As such the book provides a fun way to explore the area through the activities of the book’s characters and their exploits. It also provides an authentic description of Kirkcudbright and the artists’ community in the 1920s and 30s when it was very much at its height. This guide will help you follow the course of the book around the streets of Kirkcudbright and the wider area.
Sayers was a frequent visitor to Galloway and would stay in the Anwoth Hotel (now The Ship Inn) in Gatehouse of Fleet.
In the book, Lord Peter Wimsey arrives in Kirkcudbright on a fishing holiday, accompanied by his manservant Bunter. No sooner has he arrived than the body of Sandy Campbell one of the local painters is found dead in a stream. On the slope above the body is a half-finished painting and it is assumed that he accidentally fell backwards down the slope and into the river. Lord Peter however suspects murder when he realises that something is missing from the scene which makes it impossible for Campbell to have produced the painting on the easel. But whoever killed Campbell had the skill to create the painting in Campbell’s distinctive style, and to stage the ‘accident’. Six artists in the area have the necessary skill to do this and coincidentally had all had occasion to fall out with Campbell. One of the six is the culprit – five are ‘red herrings’.
Five Red Herrings is in print and Sayers works are still popular. Copies of the book are kept at The Mill and can be bought through bookshops and online.
Follow the Trail
The two trails we suggest will help you to explore the artists’ town of Kirkcudbright and the wider area of Galloway which gives the book its locations and character.
In Kirkcudbright, experience the charm of this small town with its picturesque harbour, a favourite subject for the Kirkcudbright artists. The harbour is backed by the ruins of MacLellans Castle – which can be visited. The route takes you around the streets of the old town with its pretty coloured buildings and its many closes leading back from the street. Be aware that the closes are private and not open to the public. Some can be visited during the annual Kirkcudbright Art Trail and otherwise can be visited on one of the bookable tours run by Fiona Lee (www.kirkcudbrightarttours.co.uk). Also not to be missed is the Kirkcudbright Galleries – a recent addition to the town in the refurbished former town hall. This wonderful new gallery provides a permanent home for many works by the Kirkcudbright artists as well as a programme of temporary exhibitions. Broughton House was the home of the very successful Kirkcudbright painter E A Hornel, and is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, showing a fine collection of his paintings in the grand salon he constructed for them. His studio can be visited along with the beautiful garden he laid out behind the house.
The Galloway Tour takes you around the wider area to give a sense of the landscape the story takes place in and to include some story locations and also particular places popular with both the fictional and real artists of the Kirkcudbright colony.
The Book’s first line is: If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.
She goes on to say: The artistic centre of Galloway is Kirkcudbright, where the painters form a scattered constellation, whose nucleus is in the High Street, and whose outer stars twinkle in remote hillside cottages, radiating brightness as far as Gatehouse-of-Fleet.
A good start to a tour of artist’s Kirkcudbright is in the recently opened Kirkcudbright Galleries where the work of the real artists’ colony can be seen along with much background to the development of the colony. This is useful as Sayers models the fictional artists to a great extent on the real artists in a toungue-in-cheek way and indeed their houses are not greatly disguised either:
It amused Lord Peter to lead the simple life at Kirkcudbright. Greatly to the regret of the hotel-keepers, he had this year chosen to rent a small studio at the end of a narrow cobbled close, whose brilliant blue gate proclaimed it to the High Street as an abode of the artistically-minded.
This Bluegate Close is a thinly disguised Greengate Close – home to the real life painters E A Taylor and Jessie M King, and the cottages they owned within their close were indeed rented out to other artists in the colony.
Leaving the Kirkcudbright Galleries, turn left and continue along the street passing The Stewartry Musem – well worth a visit itself – and take the next right into the High Street. One of the first buildings on the right is The Selkirk Arms, the model for The McClellan Arms in the book. It is here that Lord Peter is party to a forceful argument between the drunken artist Campbell (the ensuing murder victim) and Waters, an Englishman and another of the local artists.
Continuing along the street we pass two houses on the right which now operate as studios for current artists through. the WASPS organisation – these studios occassionally run open days. Passing the top of Castle Street we have the High Street Gallery on the left which shows work by current and past local artists. Shortly after that there is Ochre Gallery, the studio of a current local painter, Richard Brinley. The former County Buildings opposite appear in many paintings by colony artists. At the corner of the High Street as it turns sharply right we have the historic Tolbooth which runs a regular programme of art exhibitions. Turning the corner, the famous Greengate Close is on your left. Many of the houses on the High Street have long closes running back from the street. It should be emphasised that nowadays these are private closes and not open to the public. In the old days though many smaller cottages provided simple dwellings and studio spaces for the many artists of the town.
Further down, on the left-hand side, is Broughton House. This was the home of Kirkcudbright’s most successful artist A E Hornel. It is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and well worth visiting. It is a very well-appointed residence with a fine salon/gallery which he added to show his paintings. His fine studio is on show and behind the house he laid out a fabulous large town garden – one of the jewels of the region.
Continuing we pass medieval McClellans Castle on the right – in the care of Historic Scotland – and on the slope down to the harbour is The Harbour Cottage Gallery with its annual programme of art exhibitions. The harbour and the view back from the harbour to the cluster of buildings at its edge is one of the most iconic views in Kirkcudbright – painted by artists of both past and present.
D L Sayers as mentioned was very precise in her descriptions. In one scene at night, Lord Peter emerging from his close sees something curious taking place outside the fictional “Broughton House” further down the street and hurrys to see what he can learn. He trips over some steps and falls. These steps that he trips over are there.
Taking a walk in the vening in the direction of one of the fictional artist’s studios, the route can be traced today:
Wimsey made his way past the Castle, up the little flight of steps and over the green by the harbour. The tide was dropping, and the long mud-flats of the estuary glimmered faintly in the pale midsummer night. The yacht that had come in that morning still lay close against the harbour wall, her spars and rigging making a bold foreground of interlaced verticals and horizontals against the galumphing curves of the ugly concrete bridge. Wimsey crossed the open space where the ‘buses congregate by day, plunged down the little alley by the gasworks and came out past the station on to the Tongland Road.
Crossing the street, he turned off again to the right and found himself in a happy backwater, with an ancient overshot water-mill, a few cottages and a wide open space, grassy and forlorn, surrounded by sheds and derelict out-buildings.
The main car park is where ‘the buses congregate by day’ and you can walk along Gas Lane coming out opposite where the station used to be. Some of the station buildings are still recognisable as such up by the main road, and crossing the Tongland Road and following through the other side, a former Mill is still standing.
This map suggests a couple of longer drives through the Galloway countryside, taking in some of the locations featured in the book as wella sproviding a feel for the beautiful landscape which Lord Peter was so fond of.