Whithorn and the Isle of Whithorn were extensively used as locations for the 1973 Celtic horror film ‘The Wicker Man’; most famously, the cliffs at Burrowhead were the scene for the burning of the wicker man at the climax of the film.
Still controversial, and now with a cult following, the film was released in 1973, starring Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie, Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, and Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor. Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian , arrives on Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a schoolgirl. He finds, beneath a conventional façade, a community with pagan and sexually liberated mores, entirely in opposition to his own. Only at the end does he realise that he himself forms an important part of their plans.
The film was substantially cut on first release, and only in the 1970’s did a revival of serious interest come about and the quest for missing footage begin. Edward Woodward has said that this film generated more correspondence than all of his other films. The spring-like scenes were shot during the Whithorn winter, and local people still remember artificially-forced blossoming fruit trees being brought in bodily to bloom in the rear yard of no. 57 George Street, where a modern garage now stands. Freezing crews and actors stood shivering beneath the Pend in the early mornings, waiting for filming to begin. A number of local people appear as extras in some of the scenes.
Devotees of the film will remember the library scene, in which Sergeant Howie goes to look into pagan beliefs, and will recognise the façade of Whithorn Library and the adjacent house from several shots. St. Ninian’s Cave on the Glasserton shore, a Christian holy site sacred to generations of pilgrims as the place of St. Ninian’s retreats, appears in the later scenes where Howie is lured to his death by the missing girl. Remnants of the wooden legs of the sacrificial Wicker Man have remained on the cliffs at Burrowhead for over 25 years, despite various bonfires at the site and the effects of wind and weather.
Other scenes were shot at Newton Stewart, Creetown’s Ellangowan Hotel, Anwoth, Lochinch Castle, Port Logan gardens, and Kirkcudbright. As proof of the revival of interest in the film and its subversion of conventional mores, a Wicker Man festival was staged near Kirkcudbright in 2002 and an academic conference on related themes in 2003.