Mairi Hedderwick kicks off Treasures campaign

Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted by Mairi Hedderwick. Picture: Complimentary
Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted by Mairi Hedderwick. Picture: Complimentary
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Scottish Book Trust launches its Treasures campaign today, which aims to get Scots writing about their most treasured possessions, says David Robinson.

And to mark the launch, author Mairi Hedderwick has written an exclusive short story for The Scotsman on the teddy bear that inspired her Katie Morag books.

Mairi Hedderwick. Picture: Robert Perry

Mairi Hedderwick. Picture: Robert Perry

We’ve all got them. Something at home that we couldn’t bear to part with, something that is precious to us but wouldn’t be to anyone else, something that stirs memories we don’t want to let go. These things are as quirky and as individualistic as we are. Odd. Unexpected. Unpredictable. And each of them has a story to go along with it.

Today Scottish Book Trust launches its Treasures campaign, which aims to get people throughout Scotland writing about their favourite possession. The best of them will be published in a book which will be given away free as part of Book Week Scotland, the national celebration of books and reading. Further details about Book Week Scotland 2013 will be revealed by Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, at the launch of the Treasures campaign this morning.

Ms Hislop will be joined at the launch by three Scottish writers who have already been invited to pick and write about their own personal treasures for the book. Richard Holloway’s favourite possession is a painting done by a family friend of a garden full of birds that also contains portraits of his children. Crime writer Denise Mina has opted for a grey metal biscuit tin that used to belong to her grandmother.

For Mairi Hedderwick, whose Katie Morag stories have given generations of children a glimpse of what it must be like to grow up in the Hebrides, a teddy bear that is so worn and torn as to be almost unrecognisable occupies a special place in her affections. As she explains in the story below, it has also inspired her well-known book Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted.

Last year, the inaugural Book Week Scotland involved the staging of 350 different events and the production of the My Favourite Place book, 150,000 copies of which were given away free during the week.

This year’s campaign aims to seek out the nation’s Treasures by asking people to write about the objects that are the most meaningfulto them and to explain why they are so important. Stories should be no more than 1,000 words long and can take any form – prose, poem, letter, diary, song, etc. Entries can be submitted for inclusion in the Treasures anthology on until 31 July.

Treasured Ted by Mairi Hedderwick

THE treasure was never a treasure in the beginning; it was just an old unloved teddy bear.

The bear was given to my mother for her new and only baby before I was born. Why did my mother have to tell me that? Who gave it to her? I think it came from relatives belonging to the wealthier side of the family. He had a barred nursery window look to him. I don’t think he was a Steiff bear but he was certainly stiff. Metal swivels attached tight straw-filled limbs to a solid straw-stuffed body. Not at all cuddly by today’s foam filled standards.

He was of his time. My mother when asked my age would say without fail that I was born in May ’39 and War was declared in September. I grew up knowing it was all my fault.

Ted gave me no comfort. Vacant amber glass eyes, a black stitched snout and a little peevish mouth gave him a quizzically sad expression. I meticulously cut off his fur one day, his skin exposed and goose bumped forever.

I have one vivid memory of caring for Ted when we were both about five years old. Friends were visiting with their son and daughter. We children were left to play in the sitting room. The boy proceeded to violently bounce Ted repeatedly along the back of the couch, laughing at me all the while, ignoring my weeping remonstrations. His sister egged him on.

War gave way to peace and bananas and Dinky Toys. Ted sat isolated on a shelf in my bedroom watching over the many years I collected the tiny farm machinery and livestock. The hens were very dinky. The farmer with a smock was a bit strange. His sheepdogs and bucket-carrying wife were the dinkiest. The removable tractor driver – their son, of course – would sometimes be seated on a matchstick gate staring out over our landed estate.

The floral squared Axminster bedroom carpet totalled the hectares of my farm in winter but summer days in the garden were best. The crazy paving became in-by fields linked by weaving cement roads that edged the meadows of the sloping lawn; spent matchsticks and thread fencing further delineated areas for grass cutting and haymaking.

Next on the list of obsessions came tiny glass animals, a mantelpiece laden with them. They glistened like Ted’s ever watchful eyes. Then it was postage stamps and walking the dog up on the Heather Hill for endless hours. And then it was time to grow up.

Strange to say when I left home Ted came with me and continued to watch from the sidelines, albeit from the back of a cupboard, the rites of passage of college, marriage and parenting.

By now all my ambitions were fulfilled even unto the cows, the sheep and driving the tractor. It was Ted’s turn; his rehabilitation assured by the arrival of my children. They would love him as I never had.

They did not.

The traditional dump for our home on the south side of the island was a cleft in the north side cliffs. The sea slurped below but never could be seen. There the trailer tipped down accumulated unrecyclable junk. It was a family ritual that belonged to an era before council collections and, in my defence, before the plethora of plastic packaging.

The rebuilding of the old house was finished. The children’s rooms painted, curtained and carpeted. New toys nestled in cupboards.

Ted sat on top of the dump-run junk. He got a great cheer when he slid into the ravine.

Why was I party to this? Was I, like the little boy of long ago, enjoying bullying Ted with cruel laughter and in so doing ridding myself of a childhood trauma?

Six months later, walking along a beach near to the dump, there was Ted washed up. Intact, save one eye, his sodden being was joyously carried home and ceremoniously perched above the stove to dry out. The sea soaked straw and fabric never lost their salty dampness so he remained there ad infinitum and was the toast of many a dinner party. His remaining benign eye looked kindly on us all.

Ad infinitum is not always forever. In time a slow sadness came over the house and the family within. A crazed splinter was starting to shatter the dream. It was decided that leaving the island would seal the cracks.

The house was sold. There were many runs to the dump. No cheers when Ted, now disgustingly mouldy, sat atop the last trailer load and fell into the sea. It was my decision, the appropriate finale to all things childish.

Life on the mainland was healing but I would go back to the island and privately mourn every summer.

And the second summer? Washed up on the high winter tide line of a beach on the island’s south coast lay the remains of old Ted. His one eyed head and one solitary arm held together by a fankle of threads woven around four rusty metal joints. He lay, tinder dry, in a nest of dried marram grass.

How had he got there? By half circumnavigating the island? And why washed up just below the house that I stayed in for holidays?

Both of us are mainlanders now. The island that kept calling us back, on and off, for over 40 years – he in his shoebox tied with a blue silk ribbon and me with obsessional house moves – has finally let us go.

Ted is now a famous bear redeemed in the Katie Morag story Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted. He is her treasure of treasures. It is the least I can do for him.

He still refuses to answer any of my questions, however.