There’s a lot of Colin Gubbins in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1945 film “I Know Where I’m Going”.

Why should this be?

Colin Gubbins, 
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston


                                              couple in the next sleeping compartment


I know where I’m going

And I know who’s going with me

I know who I lo-ove

But the de’il knows who I’ll marry…


I Know Where I’m Going is a perfect little film,

squeezed between Powell & Pressburger’s two masterpieces

A Canterbury Tale and A Matter of Life and Death.

It was a vehicle for Wendy Hiller, and for Powell’s beloved Pamela Brown, it showed a darker side to Powell’s benign choirmaster Finlay Currie (which David Lean drew on for Magwitch in Great Expectations a year later),  it featured Powell’s unlikely Kentish friend CWR Knight the eagle-tamer, and it gave enormous scope for invention in music, voices, titles, camerawork, and clever intercutting. 


“One is starved for Technicolor down here”

The film was produced in a hurry while Powell and Pressburger (The Archers) waited for the Technicolor and cameras they needed for Life and Death to be released by the military.  Much more was done in the studio than many people realise.  Official support for IKWIG was being provided by The Scottish Office in London and Edinburgh.  Young Scots art student Raymond Townsend was keen to work on IKWIG and presented himself to civil servants at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.  Too late to help with the location shooting for the Scottish film, they sent him south to help set up the design for AMOLAD.  The closing eye sequence as David Niven goes under the anaesthetic was his idea, he proudly told me.


But whose idea was I Know Where I’m Going?


The techniques of cinema (film, animation, storytelling, location shots, elaborate scale models) were widely used for training in wartime, and sometimes for much bigger tasks in strategy, propaganda and morale-building.  Powell was a protégé of Pressburger’s fellow-Hungarian Alexander Korda and London Films. Their émigré-rich team of talent was much involved in the moviemaking circus, pulling in eccentric mandarins like Korda’s Foreign Office friend Robert Vansittart, writer of “I want to be a bandit, can’t you understand it” for The Thief of Baghdad, actors on the intelligence payroll like David Niven, Leslie Howard and Conrad Veidt and powerful partnerships like actor Raymond Massey and his Canadian High Commissioner brother Vincent.  Wyndham Portal of the banknote paper firm provided the funding for Powell’s films and had been Civil Defence Commissioner for Wales and Churchill’s Minister of Works and Planning.  Charismatic radical Tom Johnston was Civil Defence Commissioner for Scotland, and as Churchill’s Secretary of State became Scotland’s benign dictator throughout the war. Each had their own logistics experts and HQ Maps Rooms. Tom Johnston, who had brought in a film team under Cavalcanti to promote balloon defence around Edinburgh at the outset of war, ran a chain of emergency hospitals in country areas where the frontiers of neurosurgery and plastic surgery were being advanced. 


Across the Atlantic, through operatives like Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl, the anglophile Warner Brothers, and Hungarian director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mission to Moscow) the propaganda war was also being pursued in ways which might seem more than a little odd to us today.


Colin Gubbins, head of the Special Operations Executive in 1945, knew Mull more than intimately. It was in his blood.  The Mull of Powell & Pressburger’s film is the Mull of his childhood.  When Rebecca Crozier talks with feeling of the Oban Balls held before the War, it is the Oban Balls before the Great War she refers to, the ones that all Colin GubbinsMcVean relatives sailed excitedly from Mull to attend when he was just a child.


Gubbins himself was a mixture descended from English and Scottish Japan hands: from Gubbins (Navy, Languages, Diplomacy) and McVean (Engineering, Surveying). The Scots side were all ardent Scots.  They included the McVeans who had been Free Church Ministers on Iona and Colonsay (Kiloran), the Penicuik Cowan papermakers with their Mull-loving castle-leasing relatives at Sorn, Achnacroish and elsewhere, and on Colin’s great-grandmother’s side the Macleans of Moy Castle.  It was this ardently patriotic Scots clan that raised and nurtured the young Colin Gubbins and his siblings on Mull after their return from Japan when Colin was about 4 years old.


“Highly operational type”

Intensely practical, Colin Gubbins was an expert in civil defence and guerrilla warfare. As the Second World War years began to draw to a close, he could look back to their outset when in the summer of 1939 he’d been in liaison with Polish forces in Warsaw as Hitler’s Blitzkreig invasion began. After Poland fell, Gubbins continued his liaison work  in France with the Czech and Polish forces under French command. In May 1940 he began to train “irregular companies” –forerunners of the commandos-  then led them in the defence of Norway.  As the war situation grew desperate, he drew up the 1940 plans for last ditch British homeland defence, and for accommodating large numbers of émigré forces in requisitioned country houses and hotels.  By the end of 1940 he was seconded to the Special Operations Executive which encouraged and supplied irregular forces behind enemy lines.  It was his vision and his authority that eventually became the driving spirit of SOE.  By 1943 he was its leader.


As a child among his Scots family on Mull, Colin’s Gubbins surname must have seemed incongruous, like the name Potts on the doorplate at Erraig.  He could play off  his more romantic McVean and Maclean side just as Catriona Potts was made to do in the film


 “That’s the question, Torquil m’boy, Potts or Maclean!”



There are a few vague links between Colin Gubbins and The Archers. The McVean grandfather who brought him up lived in the kilt and was always referred to as “Himself” (just like Ruairidh Mhór in the film). McVean was a member of The Royal Company of Archers, the King’s Bodyguard in Scotland.  Gubbins right-hand cryptography expert in SOE at this time, Leo Marks, was to write the screenplay of Powell’s Peeping Tom and the codebreaker story for Sebastian which Powell later produced.


Leo Marks: “The only indecipherable code in the world is a woman

Torquil: “Taming a woman must be worse than taming an eagle”

Colonel Barnstaple: “Can’t be done old boy, can’t be done”


Colin Gubbins spent most of his later years in the Chilterns house of Rumer Godden, author of The Archer’s next film project after A Matter of Life and Death: -Black Narcissus.



In the family albums of Colin Gubbins childhood in 1904 can be found some of the names and places that the IKWIG story was built around.


Here is Colin Gubbins cousin Torquil MacNeal of Losset Park Campbelltown and his old nurse

Torquil: “I had a nannie

Torquil MacNeal
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston Torquil MacNeal
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston

 Torquil MacNeal
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston Torquil MacNeal's old nurse
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston Torquil MacNeal at Losset Park, Campbelltown.
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston


In the film Jean Cadell plays the postmistress and the voice of Torquil’s old nurse

-one is never starved for Scottish Colourists up here…


Colin Gubbins knew Carsaig and Port Erraid well, it was the home of Maclean cousins and the ferryboat quay for exploring grandfather McVean Himself’s childhood home on Colonsay (Kiloran).  It was also the nearest landing on Mull to Corryvreckan.  One of Himself’s earliest tasks as a surveyor was the Admiralty survey of these very waters.



A.J.Maclean at Pennycross
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston  

Pennycross House, Carsaig
McVean and Gubbins family Mull Scotland
image copyright Colin Houston


“Now Torquil…On to your perch...Sit!”

Torquil! You greedy swine!”


Finlay Currie: “Big strong man!...



Childhood photographs of Sir COLIN MCVEAN GUBBINS


Colin Gubbins’ grandparents: MARY WOOD COWAN & COLIN MCVEAN


Colin Gubbins and Polish Forces In Scotland in the Second World War


Colin Gubbins and Milestones in the Story of the Great Polish Map of Scotland


“Somebody’s got to do it”


“We won”