Recalling my six-month Scottish islands' odyssey - Mairi Hedderwick

In an introduction to mark the re-issue of An Eye on the Hebrides: An Illustrated Journey, children’s illustrator and author Mairi Hedderwick – best known for the beloved Katie Morag series – recalls the inspiration for the much-loved collection of travel sketches.

Most people dream of being in a position to take six months ‘out’. Alone. And to the location of their dreams.

To be able to justify and implement this selfish fantasy is indeed an enviable situation to be in. In 1989, I set off to do just that in a doughty old camper van, gearless bicycle atop.

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Travelling alone offers total freedom of choice on timetabling and route planning. It also offers the private cop-out clause with impunity.

A scene on Staffa, as illustrated in An Eye on the Hebrides: An illustrated journey. Picture: Mairi Hedderwick

Months of planning and several days of second thoughts had gone into the project – to continuously travel and sketch throughout the length of the Hebrides.

Since childhood, the islands of the West Coast have had an extraordinarily powerful effect on me. Our house in Gourock, high on the hill, overlooked the River Clyde.

I soon learned to tell the time of day by the different boats that steamed or paddled their way southwards and westwards along the Clyde Coast, some eventually going to the distant Atlantic.

The destination names of the mailboat Lochfyne and the cargo boat Loch Carron were sweet music to my young ears; Colonsay, Iona, Coll, Tiree, The Uists, Harris and Skye.

Crossapol on the Isle of Tiree, as illustrated in An Eye on the Hebrides: An illustrated journey. Picture: Mairi Hedderwick

In those days all these islands were supplied from the waterway of the Clyde. As I got older I realised with 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.

My first island was Arran. School holidays were spent there with three aged spinster aunts, the Miss Crawfords of Chestnut Cottage in Corrie.

Here I heard Gaelic spoken for the first time. The eldest – and biggest – Aunt Jean, uprightly stiff with rheumatism and stays, told many tales of derring-do in her father’s skiff in which she regularly rowed out to meet the packetboat from Ayr.

The standing stone with Jura in the background. Picture: Mairi Hedderwick

I thought she was wonderful. As was her island, her way of talking, her girdle scones so thick and salty compared to the perjink versions of Tower Drive, Gourock.

Student jobs on the islands of Arran and Coll and ten years of family rearing, ‘60s style, on Coll was the culmination of that childhood dream. Subsequent years of mainland exile were made tolerable by recidivist return.

Hence the decision to ‘do’ the Hebrides in an attempt to come to terms with this island obsession. The Clyde islands are not truly Hebridean, but the Aunties insisted on their inclusion.

The journey was continuous and encompassed 40 islands, 750 sea miles, 4,500 land miles, 30 boats, innumerable breakdowns – mechanical and spiritual, including two overnight punctures in magnificent, but remote locations; to say nothing of the four very big storms (Cumbrae, Muck, Harris and St Kilda) and the barely contained sea sickness; the sunstroke (Mull, Barra); the millions of midges the size of eagles (Rum); the far too many soul-searing sunsets.

A van on Barra. Picture: Mairi Hedderwick

And every day for 195 days the discipline of sketching, sometimes five or six times a day. I had bargained for the midges and the sea sickness, but not for the exhaustion caused by such an intensive daily activity.

The self-imposed regime was hard; alleviated, however, by the many bemused islanders who befriended me along the way and island friends who provided me with baths and meals and beds when the going got rough.

Not only did I have an eye on the Hebrides, I was privileged to have an ear on them as well, listening and talking as much as drawing and painting.

The moods of the islands change as quickly as those of the traveller. Sun, rain, wind or midges can be the chief memory of a particular place.

On reflection one wonders what these journeys are for? To discover ourselves or our surroundings? By the end of my journey I think that I found the answer.

Like the islands themselves the answer is elusive and, at heart, private.

Visitors to Iona. Picture: Mairi Hedderwick

It is several years since the ‘momentous’ journey. A time of accelerating change, especially in communications, that still shifts and shunts the island communities ever forward.

I met a generation of old people on the islands that will have taken something with them that cannot be replaced. The new ways, unsettling though they are, will surely have their own integrity given time.

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.

Looking back through An Eye on the Hebrides 30 years after it was written reminds me of a time of change in my life. My children had grown up and I had a new freedom.

I am delighted the book still holds interest, and I like to think of people standing around the pages of this new edition and starting up their own conversations.

- An Eye on the Hebrides: An Illustrated Journey by Mairi Hedderwick is reissued this month by Birlinn (£12.99, paperback), www.birlinn.co.uk.

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