Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome

Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome is an adventure book for children set in the Outer Hebrides. It is the twelfth and final book in the beloved Swallows and Amazons series that Ransome wrote during the 1930’s and 40’s.

The book begins at what appears to be the end of a grand sailing adventure in the Outer Hebrides. Uncle Jim has pulled the boat into an inlet for the children to spend time scrubbing barnacles off its sides before the boat is returned to its owner. While the older members of the party are hard at work, some of the younger members go off exploring, only to discover what Dick thinks may be a Great Northern Diver bird nesting in a loch nearby. Great Northerns were not known to nest in the British Isles so this is a great discovery.

The children soon make the acquaintance of Mr. Jemmerling, an avid birder who is extremely eager to hear about their discovery. Through a series of events it becomes clear to Uncle Jim that Mr. Jemmerling is up to no good. Not only does he want to find and kill the Great Northern Diver and claim its eggs for his collection but he wants to be known as the person who made this unbelievable discovery. Uncle Jim will have none of this and immediately postpones their departure until Dick can get some proper photographs of the bird and nest to use as proof that the children were the original discoverers of the Great Northern Diver nesting in Britain.

Uncle Jim and the children attempt to lead Mr. Jemmerling on a wild goose chase and lose him at sea before finding a quiet inlet to hide in while Dick makes a proper hide for his camera and time is given to get the photographs. Eventually the local highlanders get involved. Unaware of what is going, on they unknowingly foil the children’s attempts to keep the birds from Mr. Jemmerling. The story ends with plenty of high adventure which involves bagpipes, guns, and a chase. Will the children be in time to save the lives of the birds and their eggs?

Travel Notes: this is delightful reading for a visit to any of the Scottish islands. The West Highland Museum in Fort William has a wonderful collection of stuffed birds on display including many of the ones mentioned in this book as well as the Great Northern Diver.

 

 

 

Call the Nurse by Mary J. MacLeod

 Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle by Mary J. MacLeod is a humorous and endearing memoir of daily life on a remote Hebridean island in the 1970’s.

Mary MacLeod moved from the south of England with her family to the 20-mile long remote island known as “Papavray” — a fictionalized name used to protect the true inhabitants. Life on Papavray is a world away from life in busy, modern England. Through her work as a nurse, MacLeod travels around the island and gets to know its inhabitants on an intimate level. She and her family learn to make do with a tiny house, a remote location, a quiet pace of life, and the intriguing traditions of the islanders.

In a similar vein to the popular Call the Midwife stories, MacLeod tells of the different medical predicaments she faces as she sees to her patients. There may be a premature baby to deliver in the midst of a raging storm with no doctor able to be present. She may be called to take a boat to a remote island to see to someone going mad or senile or arrive on the scene of a near drowning. Life on Papavray is never dull despite being so far removed from the “modern world.”

Several of MacLeod’s stories are both heartbreaking and astonishing as she tells about the depths of abuse that sometimes happen when few people are about, or the difficult ends of people who have lived their lives in bitterness and isolation. MacLeod doesn’t sugarcoat her life in the Hebrides, but neither does she focus only on the hardships. This book is full of funny anecdotes and endearing portraits of some of the islanders who became regular fixtures in the lives of the author and her family as well as descriptions of the island’s natural beauty and uniqueness of the Hebridean islands.

“It was a dreary December afternoon in 1970 as I struggled up the slippery path to the croft house on the hill above. My blue uniform and the silly hat that I had anchored with a very non-uniform scarf were no protection against the rain that was being hurled in from the sea by the blustery wind. I was cold and wet, but I knew that a cheery welcome and a warm fire awaited me, and after I had attended to my elderly patient her sister would bustle about to give me a ‘wee cuppie.’

“This morning, the smell that wafted from his open croft house door as I approached was redolent of unwashed clothes, old dogs, mice, and something else that I didn’t even try to identify. He was sitting by the fire in his wellies, staring at the blank screen of his bright new ‘teleeffission’ as though awaiting the first glimmer of the evening programs.”

“The ruin of the old church on the shore resembled something from a fairy tale as its walls were coldly cushioned by the falling flakes, and the few remaining snarling gargoyles began to look ridiculous, rather than frightening, as they acquired snowy wigs. The village was becoming amorphous, as croft boundaries, pathways, and gates disappeared.”

Travel Notes: this would be excellent reading for any travel to the Scottish islands. MacLeod has also written a sequel entitled Nurse, Come You Here!

Note: this book is published under the title The Island Nurse in the UK.