Mairi Hedderwick,
An Eye on the Hebrides:
An Illustrated Journey

(Canongate, 1989;
Trafalgar Square, 1992)

First published in 1989, this beautifully illustrated book is a wonderful way for any reader interested in the Scottish Hebridean way of life to savour the many different flavours of these richly diverse and fascinating islands. Mairi Hedderwick brings to life her lively, conversational and often witty prose with her lovely watercolours and pen and ink drawings. The newer editions include Hedderwick's brief introduction (written in 1994), explaining her motivation for writing the book and describing a few of the changes that have taken place in the islands since 1989. However, she reassures us, "some things never change. The sunsets, the storms. And the sea that surrounds us all. 'The water in between' always has the final say in the making of our individuality."

Hedderwick is a renowned childrens' author, famous for her "Katie Morag" stories. She was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland, but spent many years living on Coll. Her fascination for the islands was awakened in her childhood when she would watch ships in the River Clyde bearing goods and mail for the exotic sounding Hebridean islands of Colonsay, Iona, Coll, Tiree, the Uists, Harris and Skye. She engagingly writes of her "shameful awareness that being born on the south side of the river meant that I was an inferior being. I was a Lowlander. I wanted to be a Highlander and Islander."

In her introduction, and freely confessing to her "island obsession," Hedderwick justifies her "selfish fantasy" of taking six months out on her own. Her sizeable objective is to explore, write about and create sketches and watercolours of the Hebrides (up to six drawings per day) in an old camper van. This all sounds rather exciting to me, I must say! The Scottish Post Office sponsored her island odyssey -- very fitting given the vital role it plays in the Islands' communications, even to the extent of providing transport on the postbus for the residents.

Beginning as she arrives at Brodick pier, Arran, on March 19, Hedderwick takes us on a captivating journey encompassing some 40 islands, 4,500 land miles, 750 sea miles and 30 boat journeys. It's a fascinating journey that ends on the Isle of Lewis on Sept. 25 that same year. Her journey isn't without its traumas. She endures logistical problems getting her van onto some islands, such as Colonsay, and is acutely aware of the intrusion she is making in doing so. She endures breakdowns, both mechanical and spiritual, huge storms, seasickness, sunstroke and "the millions of midges the size of eagles (Rum)," and, last but not least, she experiences "the far too many soul-searing sunsets."

The character of both island and islander shines through Hedderwick's prose. She displays sensitivity to the changes she sees as detrimental to the islanders; for example, the loss of livelihood for lighthouse keepers: "computers had already been installed." She describes holiday homes being created out of what were once workers' crofts, the tourist industry taking over where the indigenous local trades and crafts failed to thrive. At times Hedderwick is a little too scathing of tourists, especially to places like Iona's Abbey. It strikes me that some of the islands would not thrive without the income brought in by visitors.

There are so many intriguing little pieces of information on every page. We learn about the telephone kiosk on Kerrera, close to the port of Oban, used as a collection point for messages and parcels, "where a bottle of whisky from Willie Lows can sit all weekend, quite safe, till the owner comes to collect." We hear of Hedderwick's horrendously rough sea crossing to Barra, which one unfortunate passenger endured when she was actually meant to be on the boat to Mull! And by the time she arrives on South Uist, Hedderwick refreshingly confesses that "the longer I travelled in the islands the more I felt the need of recourse to that uisge beatha gu leor (golden liquid)!" She even describes Prince Charles' "royal potato patch" from his time on Berneray, imagining the then young princes exclaiming "Daddy's Hebridean chips for tea!" She describes the tensions between the locals and the "outsiders" on Skye, in the days before the road bridge was built.

Hedderwick portrays the Outer Isles in all their wind-battered reality -- on her way to Harris, she remarks that "I had forgotten the harsh eastern face of the Outer Isles. Another country altogether." Her violently rough crossing in a "corkscrewing little tub" to St. Kilda is horrendous, despite the privilege of an officer's cabin in the army supply ship she travelled in. By the time she reaches the end of her journey in Lewis, both Hedderwick and her van are quite ready to throw in the towel -- she is exhausted!

When considering her favourite island, Hedderwick is unable to choose. "The perfect island is an amalgam of them all, I suppose. Or where the heart is."

An Eye on the Hebrides is a fascinating and thoroughly readable book, full of ups and downs, far more evocative than any practical travel guide, and it fills me with ideas and curiosity. Hedderwick's admirable personal achievement with this book is no mean feat. I'm left brimming with a totally selfish desire to "up sticks" and do something very similar myself!

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 7 February 2004

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