Bannen’s Land: An appreciation of Ian Bannen ‘Scotland’s Favourite Actor’ (1928-1999)

Bannen’s Land: An appreciation of Ian Bannen ‘Scotland’s Favourite Actor’ (1928-1999)

By Canon Jim Foley

There is a parcel of land in the Monkland’s District of Lanarkshire, known as Bannen’s Land. The short explanation is that the Bannen family were the proprietors of the land. In time, however, the name would come to have a much wider constituency. In 1990 the people of Scotland voted Ian Bannen their favourite actor and the whole country became Bannen’s Land.down

A National Award

On that occasion, Ian was presented with a miniature stained-glass window. The window features a portrait of himself and an image of Saint Augustine’s Church which was the family’s spiritual home, built in 1900 on what is still known as ‘Bannen’s Land’. The window features smaller images of an aeroplane in flight, and the hilt of Wallace’s famous sword. These are reminders of the many nominations and awards in the actor’s career in films, selected from more than fifty films, and refer to ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ (1965), which made him the first Scottish actor to be nominated for an Oscar, and ‘Braveheart’ (1996), respectively. Appropriately, the images are bound together by a reel of film. In a sense the BAFTA award for lifetime achievement in 1995, sums up just how much his contribution to cinema and TV was appreciated.

Had the stained-glass artist included all the highlights of Ian’s acting career, he would have produced something of the order of one of the Rose Windows in Chartres Cathedral.

Although born in nearby Airdrie in 1928, and with a street now named after him there, Ian’s family has also been long associated with Coatbridge. Both places can produce good reasons to claim him as their own. He was perfectly at home in both.

This brief appreciation is occasioned by Marilyn Bannen’s kind offer to entrust Ian’s Scottish award to St Augustine’s. He would be embarrassed to find himself standing between Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, our patron saints. In mitigation, it can be claimed that there is an ancient convention in our Catholic Church that allows certain distinguished people, like donors or benefactors, even when still alive, to feature in religious art with a square halo above their heads, as opposed to the round halos of canonised saints. I am sure Ian would be surprised to find himself wearing any kind of halo. He could certainly not be classified as a square, but then it is difficult to suggest any other shape of halo that would fill the bill. Likewise, it is more appropriate that Ian should feature in a window rather than in the conventional portrait in oils. He is seen at his best when the light shines through him to brighten the lives of many thousands of admirers, as it did during his career in acting.

All the world his stage

This Scottish accolade was only one of many such awards that punctuated his fifty-year-long career in acting. To claim that Ian was a versatile actor is to put it very mildly indeed. His talents extended from his first minor roles, at the age of nineteen, on the stage of the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1947, by way of leading Shakespearian roles in Stratford-upon-Avon. These included the role of Hamlet which was yet another first for a Scots actor. Further acclaim came Ian’s way towards the end of his acting career when he was cast as the canny intriguer, Jackie O’Shea, in ‘Waking Ned’. That was in 1998, a year before his death at the age of seventy-one.

Somewhere in the middle of all these motley characters stands Doctor Findlay, all six feet of him, not only holding his casebook in his hand but also holding the people of Scotland close to his heart.

At Home again

Ian was buried in Fort Augustus, not far from where he died. He and Marilyn were in the process of looking for a home in the part of Scotland that both loved dearly. Even at the height of his career, Ian had spoken of ‘coming home’ one day. We are indebted to Marilyn for bringing him back home to his native Bannen’s Land. Our final photograph shows Ian, with his customary smile, as he surveys the monuments in Monklands Cemetery where his forebears are buried.

P.S. I am indebted to Marilyn Bannen for the photographs published with this appreciation of her late husband Ian. The presentation of the memorial window will take place during September this year, 2015. (JF)

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