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Para Handy, the anglicised 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 between 1905 and 1923 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 (Paraig) son of Sandy", and he is content to describe himself as "Chust wan of Brutain's hardy sons".
The other principal characters who form the crew of the Vital Spark are:
- the subtly effete engineer Dan Macphail,
- the superstitious ship's mate Dougie (one inconsistency in the stories is that Dougie the mate has the choice of two surnames, Cameron or Campbell),
- the lazy deckhand known as The Tar (real name Colin Turner) and
- the young squeezebox-playing deck hand Sunny Jim (real name Davie Green), who is cousin to The Tar and replaces him.
Also featured is Hurricane Jack (real name John Maclachlan), Para Handy's rather more outrageous adventurer friend.
Key points of friction among the crew are transporting ministers of the church (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 fiction.
The stories are set in the Firth of Clyde, Loch Fyne and occasionally the Western Isles of Scotland. The stories are known for their humour and also for their evocation of a lost era in 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 was 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 a lot of humour in the stories is 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.
The stories give an insight into the life and attitudes of the Firth of Clyde, its sea lochs and the city of Glasgow. They were written as occasional pieces in the "Looker On" column in the "Glasgow Evening News" and 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 Loch Fyne, which were more adventurous destinations but also accessible to city dwellers by the railway steamers that Para Handy often envies. Some of the stories were written during the First World War and give insight into the home front of the time, casting it always in a humorous light.
The stories remain perennially popular and have been regularly reprinted since their first appearance. There are various miscellaneous collections, but the main ones are the three overseen by Munro himself and several more latterday ones.
- The Collected Stories from The Vital Spark (1906)
- In Highland Harbours with Para Handy (1911)
- Hurricane Jack of The Vital Spark (1923)
All three of these collections have been gathered together and reissued in single volumes:
- Neil Munro's Para Handy (Seanachaidh, 1986)
- The World of Para Handy (Seanachaidh, 1990)
The Para Handy Complete Edition (Birlinn, 1992), introduced and annotated by Brian D. Osborne and Ronald Armstrong, contains 18 previously uncollected stories in addition to those above. In 2001 another story was rediscovered and has been included in all subsequent reprints.
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/1973-74 in colour)
|The Tales of Para Handy|
|Peter 'Para Handy' Macfarlane||Duncan MacRae||Roddy McMillan||Gregor Fisher|
|Dan Macphail||Angus Lennie||John Grieve||Rikki Fulton|
|Dougie the Mate||Roddy McMillan||Walter Carr||Sean Scanlan|
|Davie 'Sunny Jim' Green||John Grieve||Alex McAvoy||Andrew Fairlie|
The earlier series updated the stories by giving them contemporary settings. The last series is set between the world wars.
- In 1995 Vital Spark Productions toured Scotland with a production of A Para Handy Wireless Show adapted by Gordon Neish and directed by Steven McNicoll.
- In 2007 the Warehouse in Lossiemouth staged 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. The tour began in September 2011 at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, and went on to HMT Aberdeen, the Glasgow Theatre Royal and the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.
The Dunoon-based freelance author Stuart Donald, also manager of the Cowal Highland Gathering, published two volumes of new stories of the Vital Spark and her crew. He faithfully recreated the style of Munro's originals in Para Handy Sails Again (1995) and Para Handy All at Sea (1996), which were collected together as the Complete New Tales of Para Handy (2001, republished 2011). Sadly, Donald died in September 2000 of cancer before completing the third of his planned trilogy. Prior to these, Donald also authored Para Handy's Scotland: In the Wake of the Vital Spark (1994, republished 2013), a non-fiction exploration of the background to the original stories.
- Paterson, Len (1996). The Light in the Glens: The Rise and Fall of the Puffer Trade. House of Lochar. p. 11. ISBN 1899863141.
- Neil Wilson Publishing: Complete New Tales of Para Handy by Stuart Donald
- "Stuart Donald's Complete New Tales of Para Handy: Publisher's Note". Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
- Neil Wilson Publishing: Para Handy's Scotland: In the Wake of the Vital Spark by Stuart Donald
- "The Vital Spark". The Neil Munro Society. Archived from the original on 8 February 2019.
- "The Vital Spark". Project Gutenberg Australia. April 2007.
- "In Highland Harbours with Para Handy". Project Gutenberg Australia. April 2007.
- "Hurricane Jack of The Vital Spark". Project Gutenberg Australia. April 2007.