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Island-hopping artist

LORN MACINTYRE meets writer and illustrator MAIRI HEDDERWICK who turns An Eye on the Hebrides in a delightful

new book

''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.

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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 done.''

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 prints.

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 boots.''

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.''

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