As a children’s author, I’ve been visiting schools for over ten years now, and it’s one of the most surprising things to learn, when you first start doing the rounds, that each school is different. No two are alike, but after ten years, it’s rare that you come across a school that really makes you think about the process of education in the most fundamental way — a school whose very existence depends on a great deal of hard work.
Last fall I made a week-long book tour of the Western Isles of Scotland. Also known as the Outer Hebrides, these islands form a chain that runs for around 130 miles from one end to the other, lying about forty miles off Scotland’s northwest mainland.
The tour was organized by Scottish Book Trust, and sponsored by a bank, the Scottish Friendly. These author tours are an ongoing thing; the Trust runs six a year, and over the course of three years the tours cover every part of the country. The intention is to bring children face to face with a “real live author,” as the cliché has it (I’ve never met any fake dead ones…).
I was lucky enough to be chosen as the writer for this trip to what are some of the most remote parts of the United Kingdom, and I’ve come away feeling just that bit happier about life, with greater belief not only in the goodness of people but in the power of reading, too. The confirmation of these new feelings happened somewhere on the island of Barra, in the far south of the Western Isles, but it was something that had been brewing all week. We (Team Scottish Book Trust and I) started in the north, on the twin isles of Lewis and Harris, the largest landmass in the archipelago, basing ourselves in the main town, Stornoway. I spoke to two groups of students a day, generally one Primary and one Secondary. These were groups of the size I’d normally speak to in a school — a couple of hundred or so, and so far, things weren’t so different from usual, apart from the extra-friendly welcome we got everywhere we went.
Stornoway has a population of around nine thousand and is large enough to have an airport. It’s not the largest airport in the world, that must be said; here’s me waiting for a taxi outside.
(Though even this was vast compared with the airport we saw later in the week — Barra’s airport is the only scheduled air service in the world where the planes land on a beach.)
Immediately upon landing, we felt very far from the rest of the UK. Scottish Gaelic is in the process of being reinvigorated on the islands; street signs are in Gaelic first and English second, and in every school we visited we saw posters explaining the benefits of teaching in both English and Gaelic. In a week, we barely began to get our heads around the spellings of things, even such basic things as people’s names, which caused the occasional giggle in the signing queue. The name Kirsty, for example, is written like this in Gaelic: Ciorstaidh.
We were lucky enough to have time to visit some of the hundreds of historic sites on the island, such as the Callanish Standing Stones — a place every bit as spectacular as Stonehenge in my book, made all the more special because, unlike Stonehenge, you can still walk in and around the stones and touch them if you wish.
History is all around you in the islands — from the prehistoric; to the remains of Old Norse in the language thanks to the Vikings; to the time of the Crofters in the late nineteenth century; to ownership by wealthy English such as Lord Leverhulme (founder of the company that eventually became Unilever), who owned the island of Lewis for a short while in the early twentieth century. His great plans for the island came to nothing, and he left behind some curios, such as the “Bridge to Nowhere” — the Garry Bridge, whose road stops abruptly on the far side.
There’s something about islands. I’ve lived on one myself, briefly, the island of Brännö, off the coast of Sweden, which was both the inspiration for and the place in which I wrote Midwinterblood. Life is different on an island, I think. Time seems to move in a different way, and people treat you differently. Usually for the better, because there are no strangers on an island — you’re all in it together. A couple of times I asked the teenagers we met what it was like to grow up on an island. A few said it’s boring; there’s so little to do. But others had a twinkle in their eyes as they told me they knew how special it is.
As the week continued, we made our way steadily south, and as we did, the communities we visited got smaller, and so, of course, did their schools. Passing through Harris, original home of Harris Tweed manufacture, we took a ferry and made landfall on North Uist and South Uist, via the wonderfully named island in between, Benbecula. There were some great moments along the way, from speaking to a large group of teenagers, every one of whom concentrated perfectly for an hour, to the eight-year-old boy in another school who asked me during the Q&A, “Mr. Sedgwick, have you ever met any real authors?” The innocent questions of children can always be relied upon to stop an author getting too big for his or her boots.
Then we came to the end of the week, catching another ferry to the southernmost islands of any size at all — Barra and Vatersay — and here we visited two schools, the smaller of which, Eoligarry Primary School, has just twenty-three children. I spoke to the whole of their years 4, 5, 6, and 7 — a total of just eight students. Here they are:
I told them a little about writing and books. I read them a story or two, and we discussed what we’d be wearing for Halloween, and how we might carve our pumpkins. As with all the other events, the hour flew past, and then the Scottish Book Trust team offered books to sell. We sold ten books to just eight children, such is the importance that their parents place upon reading: they’d sent their kids to school clutching five-pound notes with which to bring home a signed book. This school has been threatened with closure. At the time of our visit they had won a reprieve for three years, something I was very pleased to hear. For the local people, the closure of the school would mean so much more than just giving the children a long journey twice a day, and even that is no mere consideration when the weather can regularly produce gales of up to 120 mph. Eoligarry Primary School was such a special place that it stopped us mainlanders in our tracks. We were overwhelmed by the welcome we received; by the beautiful, open friendship of the children; by the earnest work of the tiny teaching staff and by their determination to keep their school alive. From the way the children welcomed us to the way they interacted with one another, it was clear the school was not only giving them a good education but it was doing the best thing a school can ever do: help to create good people.
As we drove away, the children ran along the fence beside us, waving and cheering, and one young girl whom we’d all greatly enjoyed chatting to laughed and shouted: “You’re getting a fine send-off!” Something with which we all agreed, heartily. We laughed back, and drove away, wiping happy tears from our faces, and I was left with one very strong impression. I wished I could go back in time, take my early school years again, and spend them at Eoligarry School.
From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.