Gary Carpenter

Gary Carpenter was the Associate Musical Director on The Wicker Man (1973).

He now works as a freelance composer and teaches composition at the RNCM in Manchester and the Royal Academy of Music in London. His orchestral piece Dadaville was premiered at the First Night of The Proms this year.


November 17, 2015

Bio image ©Daniel Kida

6.00 AM. October, 1972. Scotland. 

Somewhere in the middle of a bleak nowhere, a small group of bleary-eyed London East-enders in their early twenties disembark the Caledonian Sleeper and are whisked off in black Mercedes limousines to heaven knows where.

As it happened, ‘heaven knows where’ turned out to be Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway, and it was our introduction to the exotic world of movie making.

Dumfries and Galloway is a hidden treasure; tucked away in the ‘chin’ of Scotland, you’d usually only pass through it if you were on the way to the Stranraer-Larne ferry. It does not have the cachet of the Highlands, the politesse of an Edinburgh, the grit of Glasgow or the watery splendour of Loch Ness, but has a unique and often wild character, a way with the light and a stark beauty resulting from an almost infinite variety of surprising vistas that open up around every corner. Towns and villages are stark and eccentric, built often of a forbidding stone. I hear Plockton is white-washed and gentler, but I never visited there.

As well as possessing a resplendent singing voice, Edward Woodward could do an uncannily accurate trumpet imitation replete with mutes!

One of the unusual things about the film The Wicker Man is that all of the musicians you see in the film actually did provide the music you hear, incidental and on-screen. Formerly a folk-rock group called Hocket (but renamed Magnet for the film) were required on location for most of the six week shoot, and were billeted at the Galloway Arms Hotel with other crew and a clutch of character actors. Those above the titles – the director, composer, producer and actors – stayed at the rather posher Kirroughtree Hotel, and some including the mime artist, Lindsay Kemp, and the much missed Aubrey Morris were lodged in a neighbouring village at a temperance hotel of all things. Little did the owners know…

Lord Summerisle’s lair – Culzean Castle (Andy Muir)

Film days started very early – 5am would not be unusual and this would often be after a late and convivial night in the hotel bar where the musicians would play with local fiddlers and accompany our actors; as well as possessing a resplendent singing voice, Edward Woodward could do an uncannily accurate trumpet imitation replete with mutes! The weather for October was unseasonally good and we were lucky enough to frequently see the sun rise over the hills and forests and on the return journeys, the atmospheric sunsets along loch-side roads or over the wetlands.

The film suggests that we spent some considerable time in pubs, mainly the Ellangowan Hotel in Creetown, although we mostly sat around abstemiously playing cards or chess. As far as I know, the bar area of the Ellangowan is pretty well preserved to this day.

At least Nuada – the mighty God of the sun – played ball and did a passing imitation of a summer’s day

Just the once, in 1977, I returned to Anwoth where the Maypole, Miss Rose’s girls’ class and the graveyard sequences were filmed.

Not all sequences were shot, as this was, in the same locale though. For example, the scene where Howie and Rowan reappear out of St Ninian’s Cave after the chase was, in fact, filmed in Somerset’s Wookey Hole, whilst the title sequence’s verdant aerial shots were shot in South Africa! The famous Willow’s Song, seemingly in The Green Man (Ellangowan Hotel), was actually filmed in a minute cottage elsewhere, while Lord Summerisle recites Walt Whitman (in the extended version only!) somewhere else again, and the front exterior is in Gatehouse of Fleet. Castle Kennedy near Stranraer is the Earl of Stair’s ancestral home and was a versatile location, providing the henge (polystyrene rather than stone), the processional lake and Lord Summerisle’s interiors  – the exterior was the imposing Culzean Castle. It also hosted occasional parties, including one where dinner was cooked and served by our three leading ladies.

St. Ninian’s Cave outside and in (Jonathan Hollander)

The justly famous final sequence was shot at the Hoseasons Caravan Site in nearby Burrow Head; an unpromising location for such an iconic moment in cinematic history – cold and uncompromisingly bleak. At least Nuada, the mighty God of the sun, played ball that day and did a passing imitation of a summer’s day, even returning a day or two later with just enough time to get the whole crew back down from Newton Stewart to film the burning Wicker Man’s head against the setting sun for the closing credits.

 I remember one particular car journey to Stranraer, as the sun was just past setting and the gloam prevailed. There were indeed at least fifty shades of grey.

The experience influenced a piece I later wrote for brass band called Chi, where I was having to confront my (erroneous as it happens!) perception that the component instruments sounded too similar to each other. Since those days, I have not returned; I have often visited the Highlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow and indeed Loch Ness, but that area of Dumfries and Galloway, the little bits of Ayrshire and Kircudbrightshire were my first experience of Scotland, and they retain a really special place in my affection.

Now having written this, I think I’ll just have to go back…

The Isle of Skye provided the setting for the film’s opening sequence (John McSporran)


Featured Image: Watching the wicker man burn (Jim Champion)


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