Visitors flocking to the sleek new V&A in Dundee who opt to explore the city further may, depending on the childhood they had, be bemused by the statues in the city centre. A stout cowboy, striding along the Nethergate and hauling a recalcitrant bulldog, is about to be ambushed by a catapult-wielding adolescent girl. A few streets away, and therefore needing further exploration to find, a schoolboy sits on a wall near the city’s High School, an upturned bucket by his side.
Desperate Dan, figurehead of The Dandy, and Minnie the Minx of The Beano are probably better-known to the wider UK audience than Oor Wullie, the boy with the bucket. All are products of DC Thomson publishers, whose impressive red sandstone building dominates the city centre skyline as their comics once dominated the kids’ market. Home of the obstinately old-fashioned People’s Friend (your granny reads it) and Scots Magazine, Thomson also publish The Courier, one of the biggest-selling local newspapers in Britain1.
While The Dandy went digital-only a few years ago, The Beano is still published, selling just shy of 40,000 copies every week: half of what it sold in 2006, but an improvement on the early years of this decade, no doubt aided by various TV incarnations of Dennis the Menace. Oor Wullie and his stablemates The Broons, although they appear in The Sunday Post each week2, are generally associated with Christmas, when the annuals still appear under the tree of thousands of kids across Scotland and beyond.
For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Caledonian cultural artefact, Oor Wullie (“our William”) is a black & white comic strip, of roughly 20 panels across 5 rows. Wullie is a cheeky and imaginative ten-year-old boy who always wears dungarees and boots, and sports spiky blonde hair. Each strip starts with him sitting on his trademark bucket, excited at the onset of the school holidays (or conversely, miserable about their end), looking forward to snowy weather, or simply coming up with a ploy for his own amusement or financial gain3.
The final panel usually shows him either well satisfied with the day’s adventure, or else bitterly regretting it’s failure. In the 20th century, it was typical to see him sitting with cushions on his bucket to protect his backside, which had been liberally skelped by his father’s slipper for some misdemeanour. The corporal punishment, as in Dennis the Menace, has long been phased out.
His constant companions are Fat Boab, Soapy Souter and Wee Eck. Typically for kids, although the best of friends (for over 80 years), they fall out regularly. Wullie also has a mouse – Jeemy – and more recently a West Highland Terrier, Harry. His parents (Ma and Pa) and local policeman PC Murdoch are the only other longstanding figures, though recurring character Primrose Paterson (a smart girl whose romantic overtures to Wullie may well just be a calculated wind-up) has in recent years become a regular, in order to deliver some overdue gender balance. Periodically, members of The Broons may also feature (and vice-versa).
The characters speak in (a sentimental and – certainly in older strips – inauthentic version of) Scots, though middle- and upper-class characters – and, interestingly, Primrose – tend to speak with Received Pronunciation, thus placing Wullie in a traditional Scottish working class. The location of Wullie’s home town (only in recent years named Auchenshoogle) is never specified: the geography is wonderfully flexible; lochs and braes are within easy reach. As a Fifer, I always had him pegged as coming from the east coast (mindful of the strip’s Dundee origins). But nothing really ties him to any locality: he’s just universally (or generically) Scottish.
The strips have no title, only a couthy rhyming couplet at the top. Each adventure is self-contained; there are no two-parters or story arcs. Everything is reset at the first panel. The Broons follows similar rules, and that strip’s conservatism is obvious in its plots: any attempt by a family member to better themselves will end in shame and/or disaster. That’s one of the strip’s two storylines, of which there have been eight decades of variations on a theme. The other, brilliantly spoofed by Viz’s note-perfect The McBroons, is where a family member is overheard, and the entire clan rushes to prevent shame and/or disaster, only for it to transpire that they’d been misheard in the first place.
In Oor Wullie, for me, the formal conservatism is part of the attraction. Yes, he breaks the fourth wall at least twice in each strip, but there is no attempt, ever, to change the structure. I’m reminded, oddly, of Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig’s comment on Kraftwerk, a major influence on him: “they were so stiff they were funky”. Oor Wullie is so structurally consistent it’s hypnotic. Although his asides to readers, and the meta- and inter-textual references (see below) are oh-so-postmodern, critical theory was probably not in the mind of his legendary creator, cartoonist Dudley D Watkins. We should see such traits instead as an example of parallel evolution.
Celebrities have occasionally turned up: Ewan Macgregor on a motorbike, and in a unique instance of colour (the blue of the saltire plays a role in the story), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in a 2015 strip. These imply that Wullie is known about, that his fame is implicit in his escapades, which adds a metatextual level that it would be interesting to play with5. One strip even has him hide a severe haircut under a wig which had been used as a prop in a play about his own adventures. I had visions of him eternally frozen at ten years old, with his family and friends in some kind of bubble, sealed off from time while the rest of Auchenshoogle moves on around them. Think Peter Pan meets the Truman Show, and the whole thing becomes infinitely sadder.
Though token mentions are made of phones and devices and other 21st century paraphernalia, the relationships and activities are far closer to the 1950s, yet were probably as much of a fantasy then as now: how many kids in urban Scotland spend as much time as Wullie and his pals do outside, or have that level of recognition among the locals?
As I mentioned above he was created and drawn for thirty years by Dudley D Watkins, a one-man comic factory within DC Thomson. Upon his death (at his desk) in 1969, the publishers rotated his old strips for a full seven years before engaging a new artist. Several (Ken H Harrison, Tom Morton, Peter Davidson) have had a spell in the role, and for all the consistency the different eras are recognisable. There was a particularly poor period (I forget under whose stewardship, and don’t have a representative annual to hand) in which the panel count was almost half what it was under Watkins, the scripts basic and the artwork uninspired: Wullie had a round face and huge chin, and the pencilling line was finer than normal; the strip lost its essential roughness.
In 2004 Wullie was voted “Scotland’s favourite son”, ahead of Sean Connery himshelf. What does this scamp tell us about how we see ourselves? Wullie is no hero: no Dan Dare or even Roy of the Rovers, though he’s handy with a football. Indeed he’s (to use a west coast word) gallus, in the way we once liked our footballers. He’s not a troublemaker in the mold of Dennis or Minnie. Anne Hoyer, in Cultural Specifics of a Scottish Comic, sees him as an exemplar of the “Improvising Scot”: a cultural stereotype whose resourcefulness “in direct contrast to England’s wealth” is a response to “the scarcity of Scottish resources”. For far too long, Scots’ self-perception was entirely negative: we were whatever we judged the English not to be. That attitude, thanks in part to devolution, is on the wane. Oor Wullie though, is not, and as long as he reflects back to us an idea of who we think we are, we’ll always find him on his bucket, ready for whatever the day throws at him.
1 For a company whose conservatism is practically a founding principle, perhaps recognising that Dundee was one of only four council areas in Scotland to record a majority vote for independence in 2014, The Courier tries very hard to be neutral on the issue, unlike most of the Scottish media.
2 “Couthy, conservative, and sentimental” in Iain Macwhirter’s description. Tom Nairn memorably declared that “Scotland will never be free until the last kirk minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.”
3 Wullie is neither avaricious nor aspirational: enough cash to keep him in fish suppers and sweets is all he asks.
4 It’ll never happen. I seem to recall the annual Macallan/Scotsman short story competition having a winner in the late 90s which DC Thomson took extreme offence at, and it was never published. Featured a thinly-disguised Wullie in later life having gone off the rails. Trainspotting-style. The internet is silent on this. Does anyone else remember?
- Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, Gideon Haberkorn (Editors), McFarland
- Oor Wullie (various editions), DC Thomson
All images absolutely and completely copyright DC Thomson, make no mistake.