Film star gets back to St Andrews roots

1111042 SSHC virginia mckenna 'Virginia McKenna outside the Byre Theatre, St Andrews
1111042 SSHC virginia mckenna 'Virginia McKenna outside the Byre Theatre, St Andrews

The Byre Theatre recently played host to Virginia McKenna when the Bafta award-winning actress returned to her St Andrews roots.

An icon of the British film industry during the 1950s and 60s, she was in town to discuss her distinguished career as well as her pioneering animal welfare work based on her conviction that wildlife truly belongs in the wild.

The visit also offered her the chance to pay a visit to a well known St Andrews building that she used to visit occasionally when her career was just beginning to take off during a stint at Dundee Rep.

“I remember coming to St Andrews back in 1949 when I was acting up in Dundee,” she told the St Andrews Citizen.

“My aunt, Annie Gilroy, lived at Rufflets so I would come and see her occasionally.

‘‘I’m booked there during this visit to St Andrews so it is quite a coincidence to arrange for a hotel and end up staying in the same house I visited all those years ago.”

She looks back on her time in Dundee as the ideal preparation for a career on the stage.

And looking at the problems facing the arts at the moment, she believes it is essential that theatres facing funding cuts - such as the Byre - are able to survive the current round of government cutbacks.

She added: “I think theatres like this are absolutely essential.

‘‘When I started out the country was littered with reps and theatres where people could go and learn their craft. But there are hardly any left and we have to save the ones that are still here.

‘‘These small theatres are jewels and you can’t take them away from the communities and small towns. I know some actors in London who are saying cuts in funding is having a big impact there as well.

“There has to be a way to save them. Surely everything can’t be just about money.”

She is probably best known for her role in the 1966 film Born Free.

Alongside her late husband, Bill Travers, the film tells the true story of George and Joy Adamson in Kenya preparing to return a lion cub to the wild.

Ms McKenna recalled: “I hadn’t a clue what we were letting ourselves in for. At the time we always looked for a challenge and wanted to do something a bit different so we said yes.


“Making that film was a fantastic experience but we didn’t start the foundation until 1984.

‘‘Born Free got us thinking about some of the issues around animal welfare but it wasn’t until later that we got the foundation up and running.”

The couple started the Zoo Check campaign in 1984 after the heartbreaking experience of discovering an elephant they had spent weeks filming had died while staying at London zoo.

“Why have them in zoos in the first place?,’’ she asked

“Animals should be allowed to live in their natural environment. Wildlife isn’t always pretty and it can be lethal but that is how these animals have evolved. This idea of putting them up for display in front of the public cuts no ice with me.”