It’s been a while since I’ve posted, in large part because it’s been a busy month and completing a thought has been an achievement, let alone managing to write with anything resembling creativity or coherence. But, as always, reading has provided me with a respite.
Living in the Hebrides, reading is a no brainer for me. It’s often like living on a full time book retreat, even with the franticness of everyday life; the work life balance allows an extraordinary amount of time to read in comfort. Hygge existed here long before they starting charging extortionate fees for books telling you to buy blankets and more books.
For those of you that don’t know, the Outer Hebrides is a group of islands off the North West coast of Scotland with a population of around 27,000. It’s a windswept stunning place that on a nice day could stand in for the Caribbean and on gloomy days could reasonably host an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Full of winding roads leading to hidden nooks and crannies, it’s an area that, despite living here my whole life, I’m still finding places where I’ve never been before and which surprise me.
But growing up here was, and still is, difficult in a very unique way. It’s a close-knit place where everyone knows your business, or if they don’t they assume they do and judge accordingly. It’s a restrained stoic community, which a lot of national media likes to hype as being a Sabbath obsessed oddity and is a completely unfair and unbalanced portrayal. At times it can be unbearably claustrophobic, particularly if you stand out in any way. However the people are fiercely loyal and protective of their communities. Being a historically sea-faring community, it is possible to find someone with Lewis, Harris, Uist or Barra connections in every corner of the world, and if you find them you’ve found an ally. It can be a difficult community to break your way into (the term “incomers” is used often enough to be an ongoing bone of contention) but once you do, you have a home for life, and a family of 27,000 along with it.
So it was, that growing up as an introvert in this environment I dived into books very early on and unearthed new worlds to explore. I found solace through a difficult teen period in the school library which was a much better option than the town streets given the temperamental Scottish weather. Wherever I went I had my nose in a book and a spare book in my bag. Through bullying and bad break ups, leaving home and growing up, reading has not only been my constant but has often shaped my direction of travel and who I’ve become.
As I grew up there were no grand bookshops on the islands, but charity shop finds fuelled my tastes and the library, tucked away in a souped-up porta cabin for years before finally getting a dedicated building, supported my growth. Briefly a book order service was available at a local shop where I had a regular account, and I poured over Scholastic book catalogues from the school. (I still do whenever the children, very occasionally, bring them home).
We still don’t have a dedicated bookshop, one of the newsagents has a small section, but it’s by no means extensive, or particularly affordable. Our library is excellent but is under constant threat of having its legs cut out from beneath it. And I wonder how the children who are currently suffering bullying cope with it? Where do they find their refuge from the constant bombardment of modern life, where missiles can come at you from all directions and at all times of day or night?
Finding books in the islands became my quest as a child, one which gave me a purpose, a distraction and a world education and one which I still follow with fervour as an adult. More than once being able to escape into a book has saved me. But that passion was shaped by an environment that encouraged me to read while hunkering down through storms and lying on the machair in the sunshine. Despite the hardships and the constant pressures, it is a privileged and idyllic life and I feel exceptionally lucky. But dear God, someone open a bookshop!