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Para Handy, the anglicized Gaelic nickname of the fictional character Peter Macfarlane, is a character created by the journalist and writer Neil Munro in a series of stories published in the Glasgow Evening News under the pen name of Hugh Foulis.
Para Handy is the crafty Gaelic skipper of the Vital Spark, a Clyde puffer (steamboat) of the sort that delivered goods from Glasgow to Loch Fyne, the Hebrides, and the west coast highlands of Scotland in the early 20th century. The stories partly focus on his pride in his ship, "the smertest boat in the tred" which he considers to be of a class with the Clyde steamers, but mainly tell of the “High Jinks” the crew get up to on their travels. He had at least one crossover with Munro's other popular character, Erchie MacPherson of Erchie, My Droll Friend. The name is an anglicisation of "Para Shandaidh", which means "Peter (Padruig) son of Sandy", and he is content to describe himself as "Chust wan of Brutain's hardy sons".
The other principal characters forming the four man crew include Dan Macphail the effete (very subtly so) engineer, Dougie the superstitious ship’s mate, The Tar (real name Colin Turner) the lazy deckhand, and The Tar's replacement Sunny Jim (real name Davie Green and cousin to the Tar), as the young squeezebox-playing deck hand. Also featured is Hurricane Jack (real name John Maclachlan), Para Handy’s rather more outrageous adventurer friend. One inconsistency in the stories is that Dougie the mate has the choice of two surnames - Cameron or Campbell. Key points of friction among the crew are: transporting Ministers (bad luck), transporting gravestones (bad luck), the small boats carrying passengers across the Clyde in Glasgow called the Cluthas (in Para Handy’s view, the lowest of the low in Clyde shipping), and Macphail’s taste for bodice-ripping women’s pulp fiction.
The stories are set in the Firth of Clyde, Loch Fyne and occasionally the Western Isles of Scotland. The stories are loved, partly for their very Scottish humour and also for their evocation of a lost era of the life of these coastal communities when they depended completely on the water and not, as now, on road transport and the ferry service. This is a time when Gaelic was still spoken by some as their native language and everyone in the community was known to all, for good or ill. The church (the kirk) was much more significant in community life and there is a lot of humour derived from scriptural misquotations which contemporary readers, with their thorough knowledge of the Bible, would have understood. Reference is also made to schisms in the kirk, with the same humour, which could sting those who were over serious in defence of their splinter denomination.
To the connoisseur these stories give an insight to the life and attitude of the Firth of Clyde, its tributary sea lochs and the city of Glasgow. They were written as occasional pieces in the "Looker On" column in the "Glasgow Evening News" and, as such were designed to be recognisable to Glaswegians with Highland backgrounds and also those who were city bred but regularly escaped the smoke to go "doon the watter" to the Clyde resorts of Rothesay, Millport, Dunoon and Tighnabruaich. The Vital spark also makes it to Arran and, notably, Loch Fyne which were more adventurous destinations but also accessible to city dwellers by the railway steamers which Para Handy so often envies.
Some of the stories were written over the period of the First World War and give insights into the 'home front' of the time, casting it always in humorous light. This reveals the value of these popular pieces as sources which reflect the life of the community in the Edwardian and WW1 years in the area. Read alongside narrative history of the Western Front they reveal a poignancy. Many of these rural communities could be devastated by a single day's action in the war, yet the stories were lighthearted. Nevertheless the stories remained popular.
In addition to the written stories, there have been three television adaptations of the Para Handy tales, all for the BBC:
|Character||Para Handy - Master Mariner
(1959 in black & white)
|The Vital Spark
(1965-6 in b&w/1973-4 in colour)
|The Tales of Para Handy
|Peter 'Para Handy' Macfarlane||Duncan MacRae||Roddy McMillan||Gregor Fisher|
|Dan MacPhail||John Grieve||John Grieve||Rikki Fulton|
|Dougie the Mate||Roddy McMillan||Walter Carr||Sean Scanlan|
|Davie 'Sunny Jim' Green||Angus Lennie||Alex McAvoy||Andrew Fairlie|
The earlier series updated the stories by giving them a contemporary setting. The last series had an inter-war setting.
- In 1995 Vital Spark Productions toured Scotland with a production of "A Para Handy Wireless Show" adapted by Gordon Neish.
- The Warehouse in Lossiemouth staged in 2007 a series of three plays, The New Tales of Para Handy, which are now available on DVD.
- In 2011 Eden Court & Open Book presented a Scottish Tour of "Para Handy - A voyage round the stories of Neil Munro" http://www.parahandytour.co.uk. This tour begins in September 2011, at Eden Court followed by HMT Aberdeen, Glasgow Theatre Royal, Edinburgh Festival Theatre
Para Handy - First Complete Edition: The collected stories from The Vital Spark, In Highland Harbours with Para Handy and Hurricane Jack of The Vital Spark introduced and annotated by Brian D. Osborne & Ronald Armstrong, published by Birlinn Ltd 1992, ISBN 1-874744-02-5. This has also been released in audiobook format.
- The Vital Spark, text version of the following stories: Para Handy - Master Mariner, The Prize Canary, The Malingerer, Wee Teeny, The Mate's Wife, Para Handy - Poacher. The Sea Cook, Lodgers on a House-Boat, A Lost Man, Hurricane Jack, Para Handy's Apprentice, Queer Cargoes, In Search of a Wife, Para Handy's Piper, The Sailors and the Sale, A Night Alarm, A Desperate Character, The Tar's Wedding, A Stroke of Luck, Dougie's Family, The Baker's Little Widow, Three Dry Days, The Valentine That Missed Fire, The Disappointment of Erchie's Niece, Para Handy's Wedding.
- The Neil Munro Society - bibliography
- Gutenberg Australia has several volumes of Para Handy stories