Changed days: for better or for worse, Mairi Hedderwick's latest book, Katie Morag and the New Pier, transforms the way of life on the island of Struay once and for all making it more realistic and bringing it up to date.
Loading article content
IF YOU count yourself a friend of Katie Morag, brace yourself. The enterprise culture is about to hit the island of Struay. As Scotland's island communities join the fierce debate on the impact of development in general and tourism in particular the imaginary island of Struay is also confronting the stark choice: modernise or die. And Katie Morag, daughter of the island's postmistress, is in the thick of it.
It's more than five years since the last Katie Morag book and in the interim she has become one of the biggest success stories in primary age fiction. And yet more than once, her creator Mairi Hedderwick has said she has finished with the character. Now under much pressure from her fans and publishers, Katie Morag is back but her native Struay is changing for ever the cosy world where Mrs McColl sticks shells on to table lamps and a kilted boatman collects the occasional visitor from the once-a-week ferry. By the end of her latest story (Katie Morag and the New Pier), the McColls are running a bistro and the redundant ferryman, now sporting yellow Bermudas, is offering tourists trips round the bay.
''This could be Katie Morag down the tubes because she got modernised,'' admits Hedderwick. Unlikely. The first four books were loosely based on Mairi's experience of bringing up her own family on the island of Coll in the sixties. Recently she moved back after what she terms ''a period of exile on the mainland''. And realised she wasn't facing up to the realities of what is happening on the islands. ''I didn't want to present an outdated image that was romanticised and false.''
Instead she has opted to bring Struay up to date with a bang but in such a way that presents questions about over-reliance on tourism as the lever for development. Like Grannie Island, a central character in all the books, Hedderwick feels ambivalent about the changes she is witnessing in the Hebrides and, after some nail-biting deliberation, has turned down a proposal from Argyll and Bute Enterprise Company to use Katie Morag as a marketing device to boost tourism in their area.
Her biggest fear is of jeopardising her position on Coll and feeling forced to leave. She says she feels happier and more settled now than for many years. Her daughter and two- year-old grand-daughter also live on the island. Having bought back the house she sold in 1973, she has started a small book business.
It was in the same house, festooned with her beautiful watercolours, that she once entertained a woman she had met on the beach. Her impromptu guest turned out to be an editor at MacMillan's and the encounter led to a contract to illustrate children's books, primarily those of veteran Scottish author Jane Duncan. When Jane died, Mairi decided to write her own texts, though the draft of her first book, Katie Morag Delivers the Mail, went through three publishers before Bodley Head took it up in 1984.
As Mairi says: ''We all drove tractors on Coll,'' so it hadn't occurred to her that the tractor-fixing dungaree-clad grannie in the book would be taken up by the feminist lobby as an excellent example of non-sexist children's fiction. Her depiction in the sequel of Katie Morag's other grannie (a dainty little lady who flutters her eyelids and is keen on hats and perfume) was a joke at their expense. This second book, Katie Morag and the Two Grannies, has gone into several foreign editions and currently features on the required reading list for all English primary schools (because of its depiction of an ethnic minority (sic)!).
THIS very success makes each sequel more difficult to write. ''People expect so much now.'' Add to this the need to reproduce the wealth of tiny detail and all the little witty sub-plots from previous titles and you start to understand why Hedderwick hates her work so much.
''I have to drive myself to it. When I start polishing the electric kettle, I know I'm stalling. Each Katie Morag takes about six months and I get very low when I'm working on them.''
Reading these books, you would never guess that and this latest story retains all the discreet charm and gentle humour of its predecessors. Are more in store? Just now she's working on a follow-up to her successful toddler book, Peedie Peebles' Summer or Winter Book, but other Katie Morag books are on the back burner.
Could we soon see another family moving to Struay? Will wedding bells ring for Neilly Beag and Grannie Mainland? More I can't say or Grannie Island will be after me and you know what she's like when her hackles are raised.
* Katie Morag and the New Pier, by Mairi Hedderwick, published by Bodley Head, #8.99.