''AT the south end of Coll there's a part of the island that you can
only get to by driving along a two-mile beach. We bought the ruined
house at the end of it in the late sixties. That was where we started to
make the family home.''
The two notable Hebridean dropouts Ronnie and Mairi Hedderwick sold
their island croft and moved into their restored house. He did lobster
fishing; Edinburgh art school trained, she started doing little drawings
for the tourists because there was nothing for them in the village shop
except for brown sepia photos. ''We started to produce map postcards of
Coll, and then Tiree and Mull heard about them, and they wanted some
But in those days there was no electricity on Coll. The Hedderwicks
have a manual Gestetner duplicator. Mairi sent her drawings to a stencil
maker in Glagow. ''The second summer, we hand-turned-out 65,000 on that
machine. That was the beginning of Malin Workshop, which we named after
the shipping forecast area.''
A #500 grant from the Highlands and Islands Development Board helped
to buy a generator to power an offset litho printing machine. Mairi
began touring round the islands, doing sketches which were turned into
But competition started coming from other islands. Secondary school
time for the children was another reason for moving to the mainland in
1973. The Hedderwicks had a factory with nine employees at Fort William.
''It was horrific. I couldn't handle it. We were trying to compete with
the English market.'' The end was voluntary liquidation in 1979.
Mairi had been illustrating books for other writers for years. In the
early eighties she created Kate Morag on a fortnight's holiday on Coll.
Kate Morag Delivers the Mail, appeared in 1984, and since then there
have been three more delightful books in the children's series.
Her new book, An Eye on the Hebrides (Canongate, #12.95) a superb
colour production, is based on a solo 195-day journey round the
archipelago last year. ''I've an obsession about islands and I thought,
I'll try to get them out of my system once and for all.'' She had been
working for the HIDB in Inverness, and helped to devise the Island
Passport scheme. ''The idea was to try to get people to go to the small
remote islands where there isn't much throughput in the post offices.
Every transaction helps to keep these offices open.''
Sponsored by the Scottish Post Office Board, and with help in her
route-planning by Caledonian MacBrayne Mairi, did 40 islands, 4500 land
miles, and 750 sea miles, travelling in an L registration Volkswagen
camper van that kept breaking down.
She ran into four big storms, and maelstroms of midgies. She started
in Arran in March, because that was the first island she'd gone to as a
child, to visit three aged spinster aunts. She took in Cumbrae in bad
weather (steadied by her ''Chinese pressure-point wrist bands,'') and
sketched star fish and anemones, then Bute (where his lordship's 80
farms all have ''the exact same plum coloured entrance signs''), Gigha;
Islay; Jura (where it ''rained and rained...and rained''); Seil;
Easdale; Luing; Kerrera, which yielded a sketched memory of passion
flowers at a window open on the sea.
Mairi kept a daily journal to record her impressions. Did she meet any
hostility? ''Yes, when they thought I was a journalist or a writer. I
was primarily an artist, on a sketching tour. I found out very quickly
not to say I was doing a book; they'll talk to an illustrator. There was
also the problem that I was taken as a tourist in some places. I had to
learn that I was.''
Colonsay she will ''always associate with heightened awareness.'' But
on Mull, on a sponsored climb of Ben More, her staying power was
beginning to wane. Iona was a revelation. ''On the crossing from Mull,
there was a bus-load from Glasgow, mostly ladies with white hair and
blue rinses. Every one had a pair of specs on and they all had their
handbags. They were sitting with their backs to the cathedral and the
island they were going to, talking about the prices of the food in
Tobermory.'' They ended up on her sketch pad.
In Oban in June Mairi's temperamental camper van steamed into the
tailbacks of the tourist season. One lady took a mystery cruise. ''She
was travelling with her nephew to Mull for the weekend. She'd got out of
the car in Oban and boarded the wrong boat. It was only after Tobermory
that she began to realise she couldn't find her nephew. He'd of course
gone on the Mull boat, and because of bad weather she had to go all the
way out to South Uist before being taken back to Oban.''
In July in Eigg she sketched a very special still life: an old red
Morris Minor, garlanded with brambles by the wayside. On South Uist the
sliding door of her van fell off. Apart from Mairi's sketches the appeal
of this book is her humour and candour. Barra has wrecked cars galore.
''Scalpay is one of the most densely populated and double glazed smaller
islands in the Western Isles.''
How did she set about sketching her beloved Coll? ''It was very
difficult to be objective. There's a sketch of the yachties -- that's
what they call the yachts-people. Going along the village street to get
to the pub, they walk four or six abreast, in their oilskins and welly
Nearing the end of her odyssey, Mairi reached St Kilda in early
September. Leach's Petrels come in at night, attracted by the lights of
the Army's generator shed. They get oiled in this shelter. There's a
wonderful series of sketches of Jo and Jerry, the National Trust
wardens, washing the petrels with Fairy Liquid, then blowing them with a
hairdrier. ''At night they went down to the old jetty at Hirta, and
threw the petrels up in the air. If you didn't hear a splash you knew
they'd got off. Otherwise you'd see them the next morning.''
After her sojourn on Coll 20 years ago, is she disappointed at the
changes on the island? ''One part of me is disappointed because the old
ways have gone, but I can't stand people who go bemoaning that fact.
Even though I love the Hebrides, I'm an outsider, a summer swallow.
There are 20,000 people living in Lewis. It's the third biggest land
mass after Ireland in the British Isles. There's no way they want to be
described as couthy, with heather growing out of their ears. They live
exactly the same as a multitude of people do on the mainland; as they
put it, the only difference is the water in between.''