I collect islands. I've lived on two - Fair Isle, which I described in last month's post, and Hilbre, where we lived when we were first married. This is a tiny tidal island in the Dee estuary and we were the only residents. I still have escapist dreams of running away to a small croft, with a view of the sea, hens in the garden and the sound of sheep in the background. Tim though is very fond of his suburban existence, his friends close by and an easy walk to the pub. And I'm sure I'd miss good public transport, local food shops, the convenience. I love the idea of self-sufficiency, but I'm too lazy to make it happen. Even a small town garden is too much work for me. So islands are for holidays now.
I'd never been to the Hebrides - unless you can count ten minutes in Stornaway on a day trip from Ullapool - so when Tim suggested a trip to North Uist to visit an old birdwatching friend I was definitely up for it! Because I'd just come back from Shetland it was easy to make comparisons between the Uists and the Northern Isles, to decide which I liked best, but of course this is foolish. The two groups are very different, in size and culture and temperament.
My first impression of North Uist was that, although it was less than two hours by ferry from Uig in Skye, it seemed very remote. The landscape was different from anything I'd experienced before - very low and boggy, lots of lochs, iris beds just coming into flower and long white beaches. So wherever you looked there was water. And there was a sense too of being somewhere foreign because of the Gaelic place names and the fact that for many islanders Gaelic is the first language.
Brian and Anne were tremendous hosts. Brian took Tim birdwatching and Anne is an artist who understood perfectly that I'd like to write ever day. So in the mornings she'd draw and I'd set up my laptop on the kitchen table, and in the afternoons we'd explore the islands, meeting her friends or walking Flora the dog on one of the long stretches of sand. And gossipping. This was a great place for gossip.
Ann with Felicity Bramwell and Donald Ewen Morrison - and the mobile library
In small communities people have different roles and Anne works as a relief library assistant at the library in Benbecula (North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist are joined now by causeways). So when I was given a chance to spend an afternoon on the mobile library, I jumped at it! What better way to see more of the island and meet the people! Donald Ewen, who's in charge of the van, knows every one of his readers. He takes the mobile right to their doors, is aware of their preferred reading, knows where to leave the books if they're out. For elderly customers, he's regular contact with the outside world, a source of news (and tatties and fish). He understands his readers because he grew up on the island and like many of them, Gaelic is his first language.
While for an author, chatting to readers about books and advising on finding a publisher, might seem like a busman's holiday (almost literally in this case), I had a brilliant day and wouldn't have missed it for the world.
It was a pleasure too, to accept Felicity's invitation to visit the community library based at the school in Benbecula. Felicity is the librarian, enthusiastic and welcoming, and I enjoyed the chance to talk with a couple of the writers' group.
It had been a busy Spring and this was just the break we needed. To spend time with good friends, to walk in the sunshine - and to get a few thousand words of the new novel written too - made it a perfect holiday.