Another fine mess? Unravelling Laurel and Hardy's Scottish links
- 16 June 2013
- From the section Highlands & Islands
Comedy great Stan Laurel was born on this day in 1890. Though born in England, Laurel and his American partner in mirth Oliver Hardy were no strangers to Scotland.
Born in Ulverston, in Cumbria, Laurel's family moved north to Glasgow when he was still a boy.
On leaving school, Laurel joined his father working in the box office of the city's Metropole Theatre.
But, like his actress mother before him, he was drawn to a career on stage rather than behind it.
A month after his 16th birthday, Laurel persuaded the owner of Glasgow's Britannia Panopticon to give him a slot during the music hall's amateur night.
His song-and-gag routine got a mixed reception from the Pots and Pans' notoriously difficult audience. Still, the experience helped to put him on the road to stardom.
Hardy was born Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia, in 1892.
His father, Oliver, had been a sergeant in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. His mother was Emily Norvell.
Biographies on the internet mention Hardy's paternal ancestors being English Americans and his maternal Scottish Americans.
Janice Hawton, Grand Sheik of the Bonnie Scotland Tent of Glasgow, a branch of the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society Sons of the Desert, said fans had known of a distant family link to Great Britain.
She said: "I am aware Oliver Hardy's family on his mother's side went to America in the 18th Century, but I don't know where they hailed from."
Staff and volunteers at the Oliver Hardy Museum in Harlem have tried to uncover details about Hardy's family tree.
So far they have not been able to find a direct connection, but said they had found that his mother's surname Norvell was Scottish.
Scots from in and around Inverness, and also lowland parts of Scotland, were among Georgia's first European colonists in the 1700s. Highlanders were recruited because of their reputation as fierce warriors and were brought in to defend territory against Spanish colonists.
While Hardy's ancestral past might not be too clear, his and Laurel's affection for Scotland was evident in their visits to Britain.
Janice Hawton said: "Both Laurel and Hardy visited Glasgow and Edinburgh. They stayed at the Central Hotel in Glasgow.
"Oliver Hardy was a great golfer and he did go to Gleneagles during their tour of the UK in 1932."
They visited Scotland again in the 1940s and 50s.
Some of the duo's films also featured Scotland.
The 1927 short silent movie Putting Pants on Philip, described as the first true Laurel and Hardy film, has a strong Scottish theme.
Laurel's kilt-wearing character arrives in America from Scotland to stay with an uncle, played by Hardy. The uncle mistakenly believes his nephew's Highland dress is a lady's skirt.
Putting Pants on Philip was said to have been Laurel's favourite silent short.
The comedy duo later followed it up with the feature-length film Bonnie Scotland.
Released in 1935, it sees the duo on the trail of Laurel's Scottish inheritance. Along the way they are tricked into joining the British Army and are posted to India.
Prof David Martin-Jones, of Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow, said the Scotland portrayed in the film was constructed on Hollywood sets.
He said: "The lighting of the exterior shots gives away the presence of the warm Californian sun overhead.
"But this does not detract from the film's exploration of things Scottish. In this respect, Bonnie Scotland contains several themes that resonate today."
These themes include an interest in tracing branches in family trees.
Prof Martin-Jones said: "Stan's inheritance is a disappointment, in that it is a set of bagpipes he cannot play, and the kilts and other such trappings of Scottishness all belong to the British Army.
"Years on, things are very different."
He said the popularity of events such as 2009's Homecoming Scotland, which will be held again next year, had shown that tracing branches of family trees from North America back to Scotland was no longer seen as worthless, or divorced, from the present.
For another Laurel and Hardy fan, Willie McIntyre, Bonnie Scotland is an example of the pair's comedy greatness.
The Grand Sheik of the Glasgow-based Call of the Cuckoos Tent, the longest established UK branch of the Sons of the Desert, said: "It has some glorious moments of humour."