Saturday, 8 October 2011

Mini Book Review: A School in South Uist

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A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913
by F.G Rea
Birlinn Ltd 1997
ISBN: 1 874744 87 4

I very much enjoyed reading this book. I was slightly surprised to enjoy it so much, as I had been afraid it might be rather dull and worthy, but it was in fact warm and readable. I bought the book before going on holiday to South Uist, thinking it would be good to read something based in the area while I was there. In the event I didn't read it until I was back home again, when I was delighted to discover that the school at which the author had spent many years was in the same corner of the island as I had spent my three days. The subtitle - "Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913" is accurate. The book is made up of reminiscences, and reminded me of the sort of story told by an older relative or friend, full of awareness of the foibles of their younger self. The author was only twenty one when he took up the schoolmaster post.

The book has been edited, and it is worth reading the Foreword, Introduction and Addendum as they help to set the reminiscences in context. I found that the editorial comments added to the charm of the book, as the editor corrected the errors and tried to sort out the more deliberate obfuscations (for example, to protect identities) of the author. The book paints a vivid picture of the island and its people at the time. Overall the book brought home to me just how much times have changed, especially regarding communications - both cars and phones have utterly transformed how we live.

My excuse for including a review on this blog is that spinning and weaving are indeed mentioned in the book, as you'd expect for a book set in the islands in this period.
  • In chapter 4 the author was out on a hillside as darkness fell, "... when I heard a weird sound rising and falling with a certain queer rhythm on the night air." He goes on to describe waulking from an outsider's perspective.
  • In chapter 17 Rea describes how his neighbours produced a web of cloth from naturally dyed and hand spun yarn, after he had picked the colours " ... a soft quiet grey with just a suggestion of blue.". This chapter also includes a folklore story about a tailor and cloth.
  • And there are links to present day South Uist. In chapter 8 the walled garden at Cille Bhrìghde / Kilbride is described. The wall still stands and now encloses the Hebridean Woolshed.
Highly recommended!

Disclosure: I purchased a used copy of this book

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