From Sark to Shetland - 'Mr Pye' (and booking a summer escape to the North) has set me to reading some of the unread island books I have around the place. This is a treat, I'm very fond of small islands and if I can't be on one I can at least look at pictures and read about them. Mairi Hedderwick is best known for her 'Katie Morag' books (about a little girl on Coll) and a quick look at her wikipedia entry makes it clear she's been well and truly bitten by the island bug - by my count she's tried to leave Coll only to return a few years later about 4 times. Islands are like that, they get a grip on you so that nowhere else will feel like home.
Initially I wanted this book for the pictures - it's a sort of travelogue wherein Hedderwick spends a summer travelling around Shetland following in the footsteps of the Victorian artist John T. Reid attempting to paint what he painted on his original trip in the 1860's. It sounds like a dream project really and the sets of illustrations (Reid's engravings, Hedderwick's watercolours) would be enough to sell the book, but there's also a surprising amount of text. I only know Hedderwick from her children's books so hadn't imagined she would have so much to say. (I don't know why I was only expecting pictures but there you are - with hindsight I'm quite ashamed of that).
She's an interesting companion, must be quite redoubtable as she's in her 70's and chose to spend an northern summer sleeping in the back of an ancient Landrover (the Countess), and is a woman of decided opinions. It's fascinating to see a place I know well through somebody else's eyes and prejudices. It annoys her that the hotels and guest houses are all full (in the middle of the season) when she turns up without reservations, indeed other tourists are always in the way, and there's plenty of space to dwell on the wrong doings of the landed classes. It seems incredible to her that Reid could have enjoyed the hospitality of these people rather than denigrating them - which seems to miss the point of Victorian society (people with no money can't afford much in the way of art either).
She also has a terrific empathy with the Islanders she meets, and a great deal of clear sightedness about the problems which face fragile island communities. Hedderwick fell in love with Coll in the 60's when mainland life hadn't quite invaded and she's clearly looking for somewhere that's still relatively untouched, for better or worse though you can't stop progress and so there's a definite sense of sadness and nostalgia running through the book. Balancing that though are plenty of great stories - old scandals, legends, ghost stories, and pen portraits of the people she meets. There is also the satisfying climax of finding some rare Reid originals in Buness house in Unst - the very northernmost tip of the U.K.