Interview: Mairi Hedderwick, writer and illustrator

Huge, angry waves break across the bows of the Calmac ferry as we approach the Isle of Coll. A landing is by no means guaranteed. Some days it is too stormy to try. Tottering, relieved, on to the pier, we are reminded, viscerally, that even in our increasingly interconnected world, some places are still remote and some people still seek out remoteness.

One such person is writer and illustrator Mairi Hedderwick, best known as the creator of the Katie Morag stories, who has been an intermittent resident of Coll for the last 50 years. Now in her early seventies, she has returned to live on the island. It is her home, her inspiration, her sanctuary.

So, though she admits the Scotsman writer and photographer into her world, greeting us at the pier with a smile, it is not without reservations. “In Croatia, they grow sunflowers commercially in great fields,” she says to me, much later. “If one sunflower grows taller than the rest, it’s cut down because it will take the light away from its neighbours. That’s how it is in small communities. You’ve got to keep the same height as the rest of the sunflowers. I try to keep a low profile on the island.”

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All the same, she lets Robert take photographs of her at Arinagour, where a picturesque line of whitewashed cottages make up the closest thing Coll has to a village street. It was here, it is said, that a wee boy got off the ferry, walked up the street and promptly burst into tears because he couldn’t find Katie Morag.

Then, after a bumpy Land Rover ride, there are more pictures on the beach at Feall, where we catch the last rays of the setting sun. And then the weather changes. One moment the beach is illuminated in orange and gold, the next we’re running for shelter, soaked by an icy deluge. “We need a dram,” says Hedderwick, as we huddle, shivering, in the Land Rover. She gets no arguments on that.

We’re here because this autumn brings the publication of two new Hedderwick books for adults, joining the perennially best-selling Katie Morag and Peedie Peebles series, and the successful range of Hebridean stationery. The Last Laird of Coll tells the story of Kenneth Stewart, a personal friend of Hedderwick’s, who was the main landowner on the island from 1942 until he sold his estate in 1991. Shetland Rambles is a travel book illustrated with her own fine watercolours.

“In terms of publications, this is my best year so far,” Hedderwick says: “I’m hoping I’ll get recognised for being a grown-up. It’s an elitist thing in the literary world. If you’re an adult writer and then you turn your hand to writing for children, that’s wonderful, you’re multi-talented. But if you’re known as a children’s writer and you want to write for adults, that’s not received so kindly at all.”

In telling Kenneth Stewart’s story, she is also telling her own. She first came to Coll in 1958 as a mother’s help for the Stewart family. She grew up in Gourock, gazing towards Dunoon and the Cowal hills, feeling a connection to the Highlands although she had never been there, reading and re-reading Enid Blyton’s The Sea of Adventure, not for the story, but for the description of islands. “The first time I went further than Arran was when I went to Tiree with a friend’s family. We didn’t have the milk for our porridge until we’d milked the cow, we had to go to the well for water, there was no electricity, and that was it – I wanted to live that life. So when I saw the ad and Coll was the address, I thought ‘That’s it’, and that was me hooked.”

In 1963, she was back on Coll with her husband and young family, taking a house at Crossapol, a two-mile drive across a beach to the nearest road, no electricity, no running water. She loved it. “We were Sixties drop-outs. Everything was so material, you were getting all these things to make your house cleaner or whatever. I rejected that.”

It was there that a visitor to the island – who turned out to be an editor for Macmillan publishers – looked at Hedderwick’s watercolours of Coll and asked if she had ever considered illustrating children’s books. And it was to Coll that she retreated years later when a different editor suggested she came up with a children’s story of her own. Although Katie Morag’s fictional island of Struay is not exactly like Coll (it has more mountains for a start), it is undeniably shaped by it.

She says The Last Laird of Coll is “a kind of thank you, a kind of tribute” to the Stewarts who played an important part in her own life. Kenneth Stewart was forced to sell the estate on Coll after suffering a stroke in the early 1990s and now lives in the Borders. “I wanted to write the book because it was a big chunk of my life. But also I think it is really important. It’s a little book but it’s complete in itself, it tells the story of a man in this part of the world.”

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Unlike so many Hebridean landowners, Stewart was neither an absentee landlord nor a Lord-of-the-manor who descended only in the shooting season. He was in his early twenties when he inherited Coll, when the death of his grandfather on the island was followed swiftly by the death of his father in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. His inheritance came with crippling double death duties. Abandoning the castle which had been his grandfather’s seat, he made the former schoolhouse at Acha his home and settled down to a lifetime of work as a farmer, struggling to keep the estate out of debt and make life on the island viable. The population was in decline, bottoming out just above 100 in the 1950s.

Now, Coll is flourishing with a population of 220 and rising; a thriving school; young families; new businesses; a new village hall under construction. Hedderwick says this is in large part due to the fact that the Stewart estate was sold off in lots. “That was the beginning of many people coming in from the outside to live on the island. There was a great variety of properties, so a great variety of people came in. In a way, I felt that was the gift Kenneth Stewart gave to Coll. There are lots of lairds in Coll now.”

The Hedderwicks left the island when their children needed to attend secondary school, but Hedderwick returned in 1990, renting, then eventually buying back the house at Crossapol. She stayed nearly a decade. Then, in 2005, she returned to the island again and built her own cottage on a slightly less remote plot with an outlook towards the Treshnish Isles.

“The best times and the worst times of my life have been on Coll,” she says. “I was counselled not to come back here. I just always felt a sense of place, a sense of home. This is the third time I’ve come back to live on this island, it’s crazy. I keep going away, and saying ‘I must get myself sorted out, I don’t need this place’. But...” She lets the word linger.

By now, Coll is beginning to work its magic on us too. As predicted, the ferry we planned to catch was cancelled, and the next not due until the evening of the following day. But island hospitality is extended. Visits are improvised. We find ourselves included in a lively gathering at Hedderwick’s house of friends who holiday on the island, which also includes two of Kenneth Stewart’s daughters.

“I love the feeling of being islanded,” says Hedderwick, gazing out to sea from the room she refuses to call a conservatory, a ginger cat curled up in her lap. “I love the days when the boat doesn’t sail. It’s the feeling of being encircled and safe. Some people come to Coll and they really panic, they can’t understand that they can’t get on a boat when they want to. For me, I feel secure on an island.” She shakes her head wryly. “Psychology would have something to say about that.”

It’s somehow appropriate that her most recent travels away from Coll have been to the even more remote Shetland Isles. She travelled in the footsteps of Victorian artist-traveller John T Reid, who produced a book about the islands in 1867. As in her earlier book, Highland Journey, she follows the routes he describes, adding her own commentary and recreating the illustrations in her own watercolours.

Tracing his footsteps she observes the changes: the coming of the oil industry, harbours filled in, ruins plundered for building materials. She waits for the haar to lift, and endures a gut-churning ferry ride back from Fair Isle. And she is an astute observer of her fellow travellers. “What is the whale equivalent of a twitcher?” she writes. “I cannot understand this obsession with sightings of whales. Will they exist if they are not seen?”

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Here, too, she seeks solitude, the more the better, often choosing to sleep in the back of the Land Rover, making tea with a kettle plugged in to the cigarette lighter. “The best days were when I would find a place to park at night. I always park the Land Rover out of sight of anywhere, and it’s so easy in Shetland, with these wild expanses. You can go up a track and get to the back of beyond. No one would ever have found me, or known I was there. I love that, that feeling of terrific isolation. To me that’s a safe place.

“It was a wonderful experience. Shetland made me think of how this part of the world was in the 1970s. There are wild, wild parts of Shetland, not a tourist in sight. Sometimes it saddens me how the West Coast, the Highlands and Islands, are so dependent on tourism because that’s very precarious.”

Which brings us uncomfortably back to Coll, where a proportion of the visitors are Katie Morag fans. Even talking about it makes Hedderwick uneasy. She knows that the very success she has found as a writer has the potential to destroy the solitude she finds so precious. Every summer brings an influx of teachers (one of the Katie Morag books is required reading on the English school syllabus). “The islanders protect me. People come and ask: ‘Is she on the island?’. Many times I’ve heard the response: ‘I’m not sure, actually, she’s on and off the island.’ I so thank them for that. I’d have to leave if the thing got out of hand.”

She is clearly proud of Katie Morag, the feisty young redhead in wellies who has become a much-loved ambassador for Scotland. A letter is pinned up in Hedderwick’s study, addressed in a child’s hand to “Katie Morag, the Post Office, Isle of Struay”. After 14 books in nearly 30 years, Hedderwick is both weary of her creation and fascinated by her. “She’s very personal. Everything I write seems to come out of the past, from looking back. She’s a kind of rerun of my children’s upbringing on the island, but she’s also the wee girl I always wanted to be – I always wanted red hair.”

She says, perhaps a little too harshly, that the books are “self-indulgent nostalgia”, celebrating the years of water-carrying and oil lamps, the happy self-sufficiency she enjoyed with her family at Crossapol. She still sounds wistful when she talks about it. But in 1993, she made a decision to break with that: Katie Morag’s island would have electricity and a new pier (by then, Coll had both).

“I started getting lots of letters about this wonderful, romantic image of the Hebrides, and I thought: I’m not going to perpetuate this myth. I’ve got to describe this island as it is, not as it was. I so enjoyed creating those stories with no electricity and all those things that had attracted me. We just loved that way of life, but the locals wanted electricity. You can’t put back the clock, people don’t want to live that way.

“My generation has got to be really careful not to harp on about the past. There’s such a young community here, they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. It’s their island and older people should learn to sit back and not get bad tempered.”

Nearly two days after we planned to leave, the big ferry once again noses up to the new pier. Standing in the little waiting room, Hedderwick suddenly fixes me with serious blue-grey eyes. “Just remember, I have to live here,” she says. The look stays with me on the journey back to Oban. I remember, Mairi. I remember the sunflowers.

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The Last Laird of Coll (£6.99) and Shetland Rambles (£14.99) are out now, both published by Birlinn.

Scotsman readers can purchase both for the special price of £18 (rrp £21.98) with free p&p in the UK by calling 0845 370 0067 (office hours) and quoting reference MH11.