In the first part of a new series Mavis Gulliver, Islay-based poet, writer of fiction for children and regular contributor to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine, reflects on what brought her to the island and introduces us to her semi-wild garden.
I sit in the cabin on the shore of my south-facing garden. Here, I can concentrate on my writing. Or can I? When writing fiction, the story grabs me and I can sit for hours without an upward glance; but if I am writing poetry, searching for the right word to fit the right place, I look up and am captivated by all that lies before me.
In the narrow stretch between the cabin and the sea the first signs of spring appear in clumps of Scurvy Grass. Yellow Iris and Marsh Marigold follow while high summer brings Meadowsweet and Purple Loosestrife. The autumn equinox marks a change. Undulating lines of seaweed creep closer to the cabin and after winter storms the grass is peppered with shingle and the unwelcome blight of plastic flotsam.
To the south-west, thirty miles of sea separate Scotland from Ireland. Rathlin Island lies even closer. Evening sunlight accentuates its coastal cliffs and at night, the East and West lighthouses warn of treacherous seas. Farther west, car headlights define the roads along the Antrim coast.
To the south-east lies the peninsula of Kintyre. Attached to mainland Scotland at Tarbert it was claimed as an island in 1089 when Magnus Barefoot’s boat was dragged across the isthmus from the West Loch to the East Loch. From my home on the edge of Port Ellen Bay it is a dark, rugged outline. The only visible light is the flash of The Mull of Kintyre lighthouse.
I am not an Ileach. I am not even a Scot, but loving a place does not always relate to the location of one’s birth. To live on an island was my goal from the age of four when Robert Louis Stevenson’s words caught my imagination - ‘where below another sky, parrot islands anchored lie.’ I had already seen the sea, but had no concept of anything lying beyond it. I was intrigued, not by parrots, but by places surrounded by sea and open to different skies.
In my teens I read about the islands that lay around the coasts of the British Isles. At fifteen I walked the coast of the Isle of Man, but seeking greater wilderness I headed to Scotland’s Isle of Skye. From the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak of the Cuillins, I saw a sea dotted with islands and I resolved to visit them all.
Holidays took me to Orkney, to the Western Isles from the Butt of Lewis to Vatersay, to the Small Isles, the Clyde islands and most of the islands of the Inner Hebrides. For many years, my husband and I dreamed of living and working on an island. It seemed impossible, but on arriving on Colonsay we found that the school needed a headteacher. Here was our chance. I applied, was interviewed and offered the post.
Colleagues in England wondered why I was leaving the picturesque village of Robin Hood’s Bay. There was much scepticism – talk of long, dark winters, bad weather, poor facilities, the senselessness of leaving the headship of a large school in Scarborough for a tiny island school. Most of my acquaintances shuddered at the thought, but a few hardy friends wished they had the confidence to follow suit. Just in time for Christmas we moved into the schoolhouse and our island life began.
For seven years most of my time was spent in the company of children ranging in age from four to twelve. It was one of the most rewarding periods of my life, but eventually retirement loomed and we had to vacate the schoolhouse. Return to the mainland was unthinkable. Because of family ties in England we sought an island with convenient links to the mainland. Islay with daily flights and two or three ferries each day seemed ideal.
On our first search we found a neglected house in 1.2 acres of unkempt land. As a holiday home it had been on the market for some time. Seduced by the magnificent view and the secluded shore we gave no thought to the work that lay ahead.
Fast forward several years and the bracken is conquered. Brambles are reduced to slopes where birds feed and nest. Our mowing regime allows plants to set seed and 209 different species grace our semi-wild garden. Bird species seen in or from the garden total 83, and seals, otters and occasional dolphins appear to delight us. Most of my writing focuses on landscape and wildlife so it would be hard to find a more favourable location.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.