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‘A unique and spectacular story’: New book about James McBey brought Aberdeenshire community together

Alasdair Soussi's work about the dramatic life of artist James McBey has led to a new tourism project and his involvement with a screenplay writer from The Crown.
Neil Drysdale
Alasdair Soussi has written a book about James McBey's life. Image DCT Media.
Alasdair Soussi has written a book about James McBey's life. Image DCT Media.

Most art books don’t stir little communities into action and serve as the spur for the development of a new tourist trail.

But there again, most art books don’t capture the same level of international exploits as Alasdair Soussi’s Shadows and Light: The Extraordinary Life of James McBey, which vividly related how the creative genius, war artist, passionate lothario and adventurer in far-flung countries produced one of the first and most striking portraits of Lawrence of Arabia which still hangs proudly in one of London’s grandest museums.

Road signs have been constructed, and a plaque unveiled at the site of McBey’s home in Newburgh in Aberdeenshire and a tourism push is being launched on January 27, while there is even the possibility that Alasdair’s book could be the inspiration for a feature film after he joined forces with a screenwriter from the Netflix series The Crown.

And, if all the attention has taken the author by surprise, he is delighted that his efforts have been instrumental in bringing McBey back into the spotlight.

James McBey’s famous portrait of Lawrence of Arabia.

Alasdair has been a freelance journalist since graduating from Glasgow University in 2002. And, as somebody of Scots-Lebanese parentage, he has always had an interest in Scottish and Middle Eastern affairs, which explains why he has worked in a variety of Arabic-speaking cities such as Amman, Beirut and Cairo.

In that light, he fully understands McBey’s own ties to the Middle East, his role as official war artist in the region during the First World War and his life in Tangier.

The exhibition was an eye-opener

Aberdeen Art Gallery is the spiritual home of his work and Alasdair admitted he was thrilled when he discovered the venue wanted to hold an exhibition directly inspired by the book’s publication and asked him to curate the three-month-long project.

It sparked a huge amount of interest among the public in the north-east and, even as many readers perused the work and visitors enjoyed studying McBey’s works, matters developed to another level as people realised they could advance this to a bigger canvas.

And that was the catalyst for the news which will be confirmed later this month.

A new tourism project is being created around the life and times of artist James McBey. Pic: Ron Macdonald.

He told the Press & Journal: “I have been blown away by readers’ reactions to Shadows and Light, not least in the north-east where fans of McBey’s work are, as I’ve discovered personally, very proud and even protective, of him and his legacy.

“This renewed enthusiasm for McBey’s life and art prompted my involvement in a project to initiate the beginnings of a bid to make James McBey a north-east tourist draw, linking his Aberdeenshire birthplace to his spiritual home of Aberdeen Art Gallery, where I was given the opportunity to curate an exhibition based on my book, and where many of his works reside.

Many others helped with the idea

“So, a few weeks ago, and after months of work, I joined my indefatigable project colleagues – Isobel Davidson and Ron Macdonald from the Newburgh and Ythan Community Trust, Aberdeen City Council archivist Phil Astley and Aberdeenshire artist Jane Bradford – to oversee the construction of two threshold road signs in honour of McBey at either end of Newburgh (where he lived as a child) and the assembly of a plaque on McBey’s former childhood home in the village.

“We are also printing 1,000 tourist leaflets on McBey and constructing a tourist information board outside his birthplace of Newmill. All of these developments will be formally launched at Newburgh Village Public Hall where I will be delivering a talk.

“It should be said that it’s one thing to have an idea, but quite another to execute it. So, even though my book was the catalyst for all of these developments, it is the project team that have delivered the results. All of this is a real community-driven endeavour – so, speaking as an out-of-town Glaswegian, I am just thrilled to be involved.”

A spectacular story

The initiative has also raised the prospect of McBey – who entered the world as the illegitimate son of a blacksmith’s daughter just two days before Christmas in Foveran in Aberdeenshire in 1883 – becoming immortalised on the silver screen. And, once again, there seems to be momentum building for would be a genuine Boy’s Own biopic.

Alasdair said: “McBey’s story is unique and spectacular and unashamedly human, and the more I researched his life and works for my biography, the more I was convinced that it also had the potential to be a visual epic. Indeed, many of those who came to my talks in 2023 would often ask me if a film or drama was in the offing, even speculating about who could play an older or younger McBey.

We know we have something special

“But, while I’m an established writer and journalist, I knew I needed to collaborate with someone else to compose a screenplay.

“Luckily, I met Malcolm McGonigle – a seasoned and mightily respected Scottish screenwriter whose writing credits include Season 4 of The Crown – and we are now co-writing a screen adaptation of Shadows and Light together.

“We shall be putting our script before the industry very soon. But we both think that we have something very special.”

Alasdair Soussi has enjoyed success with his book “Shadows and Light” about James McBey.

McBey’s renaissance has been welcomed by VisitAberdeenshire and, on reflection, there’s no reason why an extensive art trail can’t be established across the region, featuring a number of well-regarded figures whose paintings are held in high regard.

As Alasdair said: “Why shouldn’t that happen? Artist Joan Eardley, who died very young at just 42 [in 1963], and who had a strong association with [coastal village] Catterline, is one such person whose works have gained many fans in recent years.

“So is George Paul Chalmers, who was from Montrose. McBey actually name-checks him in his Early Life autobiography and all these artists – and others throughout the north-east – are deserving of their place in history.”

Joan Eardley: Our enduring fascination with shy artist who made Catterline her home


‘A prolific and compelling diarist’

Alasdair told me: “I’m hopeful that my next book project, which I can’t say too much about right now, will be editing James McBey’s diaries into a dynamic structured book which will connect with readers.

“He was a prolific and compelling diarist, beginning his entries in 1909 Edwardian Scotland and ending them in Morocco in 1959. In between, he recorded his working adventures across Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

Alasdair Soussi has written a new book about Aberdeenshire artist James McBey.

“Having read his diaries almost cover to cover, it’s clear he was one of the most compelling diarists of the 20th century. And I feel confident that it would be a project that would more than prove its worth.”

Alasdair has already helped orchestrate a situation where a undervalued Scot is bursting back to prominence. And one senses this is only the start of the tale.

Tickets can be booked for the McBey launch events on

Five questions for Alasdair Soussi

  1. What book are you reading? The Seven Basic Plots – Why we Tell Stories [by Christopher Booker].
  2. Who’s your hero/heroine? When I was a boy, it was Scotland rugby captain Gavin Hastings. As a man, it’s my (now late) mum and dad.
  3. Do you speak any foreign languages? I have some grasp of Arabic on account of my Lebanese father. (My mother was a Scot.)
  4. What’s your favourite music/band? I have a soft spot for music from the 1980s – Orange Juice, Tears for Fears,  Level 42.
  5. What’s your most treasured possession? My wife and girls. I’d be a lesser man without them. (But probably better rested!)