Edinburgh Film Festival: The story of ‘Dummy Jim’

Dummy Jim. Picture: complimentary
Dummy Jim. Picture: complimentary
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In 1951 a deaf factory worker from Aberdeenshire embarked on a solo cycling trip from his home to the Arctic Circle – 3000 miles away. Now the story of his remarkable journey has been made into a film set for its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival tomorrow.

It was a chance find in the second-hand bookshop on the island of Iona by his mother that sent Matt Hulse off on his own journey of discovery more than a dozen years ago. The Edinburgh film-maker admits the Christmas gift he received with a note saying, “do not feel obliged to do anything with this book,” perfectly suited his fondness for “mavericks and eccentrics.”

The incredible story of James Duthie, a deaf factory worker who cycled solo to the Arctic Circle. Picture: complimentary

The incredible story of James Duthie, a deaf factory worker who cycled solo to the Arctic Circle. Picture: complimentary

Inside the package was a small, self-published journal simply entitled I Cycled Into The Arctic Circle, by one James Duthie, of Aberdeenshire, a deaf factory worker.

Hulse, who had previously made a number of short films, was immediately intrigued by the quirky nature of the book and its story of how Duthie embarked on a solo cycling trip from his home in a fishing village to the Arctic Circle – 3000 miles away – half a century earlier. He was said to have left with just a handful of spare clothes, a simple map and a basic tent.

Now Hulse is set to unveil his own labour of love, a part feature/part documentary – which he says was made for just £35,000. His tribute to epic trip made by the 30-year-old from Cairnbulg is now one of the contenders for best British feature at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which will host the UK premiere of Dummy Jim tomorrow.

Named after Duthie’s nickname among the locals, the film was awarded a small amount of development funding from the Scottish Arts Council more than a decade ago, but Hulse struggled to raise enough cash to get it off the ground, scrapped his original screenplay and went back to the drawing board.

The final film – set to a quirky soundtrack by the One Ensemble and Sarah Kenchington – features deaf actor Samuel Dore portraying Duthie as he cycles around rural Aberdeenshire, interspersed with scenes of a modern-day celebration of his life in Cairnbulg, as well as animated sequences. Parts of Duthie’s original book even appear in the film, narrated by Dore or local schoolchildren.

Hulse says: “The thing about the book was that it was written in unintentionally comical English. Duthie attended Donaldson’s deaf school in Edinburgh for a couple of years, but was largely self-taught. The way he had written the book was a bit like Ivor Cutler, Spike Milligan or even William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, from Dundee. I love his turns of phrase. There was a unique use of English that was never ‘incorrect’ as such, but it was marginal – the unpretentious voice of an outsider.”

Hulse’s research took him to the community of Invercairn – made up of the two distinct villages of Cairnbulg and Inverallochy, near Fraserburgh – where Duthie’s exploits were reasonably well-known and several relatives still lived nearby. Duthie would set off on regular trips on his bike throughout Aberdeenshire, armed with his Bible, occasionally embarking on longer forays, with his tent strapped to his bike, around Europe.

But other than Duthie’s book – which gave the impression he originally set out for Morocco in 1951, but ended up in the Arctic Circle – there was scant detail available about his epic trip.

Hulse says: “I get the impression that he was always out and about and on the move. He is remembered as ‘always with his bike, Bible in hand’ and folk also recall him cycling throughout Aberdeenshire selling his journal. He was an evangelist – and an entrepreneur. But his book was very controlled and pedantic, more itinerary than narrative.

“I’ve come to a conclusion that his trips were primarily escape from the mundane austerity of his home life, a move towards places and people where he felt freer, able to ‘be deaf’, to be more himself. He would have been pretty isolated as one of very few deaf people in Invercairn and the surrounding area and he definitely endured some ribbing. Over the years he developed a network of deaf friends, loosely associated through the Presbyterian churches in Northern Europe.”

One of the most poignant scenes in the film is the making of a tombstone for Duthie, who died tragically after an accident on a motor scooter in 1965 at the age of just 44.

Although Duthie is largely unheralded these days, a report of his death in his local newspaper told how he had “achieved fame” when his book was originally published. This was partly because it was said he had spent just £12 getting to the Arctic Circle, via France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Several of Duthie’s old friends and surviving relatives helped piece together elements of his life, but it was only on the final day of filming in Invercairn that the cleaner in the local school remembered she had some film footage of Dummy Jim. In fact, more than 600ft of film was discovered, and was of good enough quality to make the final cut.

Among those who provided Hulse with background on Duthie were Joy Buchan, a cousin, who has since passed away, and her daughter, Lorraine. Ms Buchan, 61, says: “We all knew about him going to the Arctic Circle when we were growing up and I can even remember my mum reading out parts of his book to me. What everyone remembered was that he took so little with him, just the clothes on his back really.

“Everyone knew him as Dummy Jim and he was just seen as a real local character in the village. I think he’d be pretty amazed to know that a film has been about him and what he did.”

Hulse adds: “He was self-published, so he clearly wanted people to know about his travels and ideas. I think he was keen to make a name for himself.

“I suppose I see some aspects of myself in him, too, and by helping him he’s doing me a favour in return. I’d like to believe it’s not always the loudest voices that get heard. His wee journal enabled me to explore, through film, the inevitability of death, the fact that life goes on, and that everything is a cycle.”

Hulse sounds relieved to finally bring his project to a close after having to turn to crowdfunding, selling advance copies of the DVD, soundtrack CDs, books and even tea-towels to get the film made, admitting to struggling with a personal “financial crisis.” He adds: “We’ll be having a ‘homecoming’ screening in Invercairn for sure and when we secure UK distribution we’ll make sure it comes to The Belmont in Aberdeen as part of a maverick tour.”

The film festival has selected Dummy Jim on the shortlist for the Michael Powell Award for best British feature. Artistic director Chris Fujiwara describes it as “a totally unique mixture of documentary, fiction and playful visual poetry.”

• Dummy Jim screens tomorrow at Cineworld at 8.55pm.