Book review: The Potter's Tale: A Colonsay Life, by Dion Alexander

Dion Alexander's account of living on Colonsay is rich, human and moving, finds Roger Cox
Author Alexander DionAuthor Alexander Dion
Author Alexander Dion

Considering it’s such a gem of an island, even by the standards of the Hebrides, it’s odd that Colonsay hasn’t inspired more literary endeavours. Back in 1910, Murdoch McNeill, the head gardener on the Colonsay Estate and a scholar of local history as well as botany, wrote a wonderfully evocative introduction to the island, Colonsay: One of the Hebrides - Its Plants, Climate, Geology, etc. There is also collection of Gaelic poetry by the Colonsay bard Donald “Garvard” MacNeill called Moch is Anmoch, published by Birlinn in 1998, although it is now out of print. And then, of course, there’s The Crofter and the Laird, easily the best-known Colonsay book, in which New Yorker staff writer John McPhee details a year he and his family spent living in the home of his forefathers in 1969. Beyond that, however, there’s not much Colonsay literature to speak of, apart from a few specialist works on plants, birds and clan history.

This new memoir from Dion Alexander, who lived on the island during the 1970s and worked as a potter at Scalsaig, just beside the pier where the ferry comes in, is similar to The Crofter and the Laird in the sense that it is the story of an outsider trying to come to terms with all the quirks and eccentricities of island life. However, whereas McPhee’s book reads a little like a work of anthropology at times, his style occasionally tending towards detached bemusement, Alexander spent much more time on the island, moving there as a newly-married 25-year-old, raising a family there and becoming involved in all aspects of the community, from working as assistant piermaster for the princely sum of £10 a week (“Ach, all you’ve got to do is catch the rope, potter”) to taking an active role in the Glassard and Scalsaig Tenants Electricity Association, a precarious venture which involved an ongoing battle to keep about 20 households hooked up to an ailing 15 kilowatt diesel generator before the advent of mains electricity. So, while the author may not be a Colonsay native (he grew up in the south of England and learned to make pots at Wimbledon School of Art) he is an outsider who eventually became an insider, and as such he is able to bring a depth of insight and understanding to his tale that few could match.

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This is a gentle, impressionistic book. In narrative terms it doesn’t do much more than chart the mostly unremarkable comings and goings of a small island community over the period of a little under a decade, but at times it is so vividly descriptive that you feel as if you have been transported to a simpler – and probably happier – time and place.

It’s in the character studies, however, where Alexander really excels. One of his earliest observations about Colonsay is that the locals always seem to have plenty of time to talk, and in his characterisations he takes his leisurely cue from them, conjuring up old friends from the past so skilfully, via various anecdotes and asides, that you almost feel you know them – from the Darroch Brothers, Neil and Ross, survivors of the Great Depression in North America and ardent recyclers of almost anything, to Peter MacAllister or Para Mor (Big Peter), the jack of all trades and lynchpin of the community who seems to have done most to take the author under his wing and make him feel at home.

“These leading lights of yesteryear may have quit centre stage,” Alexander writes, “but not without leaving lasting impressions.”

The great achievement of this book is to share the pleasure of their company.

The Potter’s Tale: A Colonsay Life is published by Birlinn, £9.99