Katie Morag moves from book page to small screen

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THE Katie Morag phenomenon picks up pace this week as the freckled redhead favourite of children's stories prepares for her small-screen debut.

The brainchild of Gourock-born writer Mairi Hedderwick, the much-loved literary character of Katie Morag was inspired by Hedderwick's time working and living on the Isle of Coll in the Hebrides, in her late teens. In 1984 the writer penned Katie Morag Delivers the Mail, an illustrated fictional account of the Highlands and Islands, set on the imaginary island of Struay, where 11-year-old Katie and her family reside.

Since then the writer has added 14 books to the series. The next few months will see a renewed interest in the stories with Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre featuring an exhibition of prints from the books and Mull Theatre Company showcasing the first ever stage adaptation of Katie Morag in Tobermory this August. Meanwhile, Don Coutts, the director of acclaimed Scottish film American Cousins, is in final talks to put a screen adaptation on terrestrial television next year. For Coutts it is the realisation of a long-term dream. A farmer's son from Newtonmore, he left Scotland in the 1970s to work in London on cult film The Wicker Man, then in the 1980s he worked for the BBC and Channel Four respectively. It was during this time that he fell in love with the Katie Morag books, and bought the rights for the series eight years ago, forming his production company, Fabby Doo (named after Katie's cat).

His hope, he says, was always to take the product to a wider audience. "As soon as I discovered the books I loved them and have loved them ever since. I wanted to generate as much interest as I could in them."

Two years ago, funding allowed a collaboration with Red Kite Animation in Edinburgh, which resulted in plans for an animated version of the story long before the recent developments for TV. Any fear of Katie overload is quickly expelled by Coutts, however.

"If the live action TV series comes to fruition, it will encourage more people to see the animation film as well as hopefully drawing those unaware of the books to them."

For 55-year-old Coutts, who now lives with his wife and children in Cromarty, the project is an opportunity to connect with his Scottish roots. "I love the islands," he says. "I love the idea of creating something that other people will find really incredible."

Any concerns that a live action adaptation might veer away from the original story's source are quickly rebuffed. "The agreement we have with Mairi [Hedderwick] is that Katie Morag's stories will never venture outwith the island. So there will be no Morag goes to Las Vegas!" he says.

Now living just three miles away from Hedderwick in the Highlands, Coutts and the writer are firm friends and he is adamant that any adaptation will strive to do justice to Hedderwick's work.

While casting a child in the role of Katie will not be easy, Coutts is sure they will discover some fresh young talent this Wednesday when 30 young hopefuls arrive in Inverness for auditions.

"I was ginger before I was bald. Katie Morag's really just part of my pro-ginger movement. I love the idea of making ginger cool," laughs Coutts.

While the success of television show Balamory has had mixed blessings for the small village of Tobermory on Mull, Coutts is not keen to descend on the Island of Coll. If suitable funding is given for the project, the television series will be shot on Lewis. "We've found a great bay area on which we could build a composite village," says Coutts. "Coll doesn't have the infrastructure to deal with it and we want to accommodate everyone."

Coutts is also keen that the televisual fact meets the literary fiction. "People who have read the books have a strong visual idea of what the place is going to look like; it does not all match up to the reality of Coll, so it's good for us to film somewhere else and stay as true as we can do the books."

For now, Coutts is adapting a script in consultation with Hedderwick, awaiting the green light. "It's fantastic. The Katie Morag books are like this magical world that people think doesn't exist, but in fact in Scotland you live it every day. I can't wait to develop that."

Katie Morag, Scottish Storytelling Centre (0131-556 9579), until July 10; Katie Morag, Mull Theatre, Tobermory (01688 302 828) August 25-29, then touring.

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