Lightly Poached by Lillian Beckwith was published in 1973 and it’s the fifth book in the author’s Hebridean series. This series came about when Beckwith moved to Skye in the 1960s from the north of England – for the sake of her mental health and she started to write about her experiences in what was a very different society from what she had been used to.
The ‘poached’ of the title doesn’t refer to eggs, but to the poaching of salmon which was far more prolific than it is nowadays – probably because of all that poaching in the past, apparently even the local minister wasn’t averse to serving poached salmon!
But it’s not all about poaching, there are ceilidhs (a get together, possibly involving dancing if there’s space) which go on all night, not to be confused with a ‘strupach’ which is just a cup of tea with a scone or something similar, and a trip to the mainland to a ‘roup’ (an auction of household goods at a house clearance).
Things are very different nowadays on Skye, in fact I’m not sure how authentic these books are, Beckwith ended up leaving the island after the locals took umbrage at her portrayal of them, but they’re quite entertaining anyway.
The Loud Halo by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1964 and it’s the third book in her Hebridean series. These books are comic novels set in the village of Bruach where ‘Miss Peckwit’ has gone to recover from an illness, she had been a teacher in the north of England. Life on a remote and primitive Scottish island is very different from what she has been used to. There’s no indoor plumbing, actually no plumbing at all, no running water just a well and the toilet is a shed with a big bucket – if you have a man strong enough to lug it out. Lillian makes do with two earth sheds which she takes turns at using and seems to think that’s hygienic enough.
By this time Lillian has been well and truly accepted by the locals and is even speaking some Gaelic. The books are stories of her encounters with her neighbours who all seem to be eccentric. There’s Kirsty who treats her poor brother like a slave and she steals her neighbour’s crops with no conscience involved, her neighbour ends up having to move.
More and more tourists are arriving, despite the midges and they are turning out to be good business opportunities for the locals. Quite a lot of this book deals with the things that the islanders get up to in order to get money, including the government assistance which they all seem to be on, there’s also an awful lot of boozing going on. I had a feeling that life on the island was beginning to lose its charm for Beckwith and indeed at the end of the book she has packed up and the villagers are seeing her off at the station. She did write some more Hebridean books in later years though.
It was a wee bit of a Miss Buncle situation – if you’re familiar with that D.E. Stevenson book you’ll know that Miss Buncle wrote a book about life in her own village which became very successful. The trouble was that all of the characters were far too recognisable and none of them was happy at being put in her book!
This book is a good light read, a glimpse back to the days before everyone on the islands had all mod cons. By the time I went to Skye for the first time in 1970 the locals even had freezers which I was very impressed with as we only had a small fridge with ice box at home. Our old friends who had gone back to live on Skye again after a five year sojourn in Glasgow had a freezer in their living room, it was one of those sliding lid ones and thinking about it I think it actually said ‘Wall’s ice cream’ on it! Anyway, I still have a few of these Beckwith books to read so I’ll continue with the series at some point in the future.
The second bookshop in Aberdeen that we visited is a charity one right in the Merkat Square and as the books are all donated they sell them very cheaply. I bought:
1. The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker
2. The Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier
3. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
4. Beautiful Just! by Lillian Beckwith
5. Green Hand by Lillian Beckwith
6. Bruach Blend by Lillian Beckwith
7. The Spuddy by Lillian Beckwith
8. The Road Home by Rose Tremain
9. A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean
10. Young Bess by Margaret Irwin
11. The Cockle Ebb by Isabel Cameron
12. The Herries Chronicle by Hugh Walpole This is an omnibus consisting of four books which are set in the Lake District/Cumbria area, and first published in 1939 although mine is a 1955 reprint.
Visiting St Andrews just after Christmas I bought a lovely edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. You can see some of the illustrations here. – also from St Andrews – Young Bess by Margaret Irwin, and the postman brought me –
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse.
That lot should keep me going for a while. Have you read any of them?
A Rope In Case by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1968. The setting is Bruach, a village in the Scottish Hebrides. The author who was an English woman who moved to the Hebrides and then started writing about the community and many of her neighbours which is always a bit dangerous. ‘Miss Peckwitt’ – as the locals called her – was told. ‘Always carry a rope – in case’. And whether it was for repairing a fence, tying up a boat or securing the roof of the local taxi, there was no denying the wisdom of it. And Miss Peckwitt soon discovers that her rope is indeed an invaluable piece of kit.
Bruach was a welcoming village and in this book there’s a new villager called Miss Parry, she’s another English woman who has taken over the house of the two spinsters nicknamed ‘the pilgrims’. Miss Parry is a keen knitter and enthusiastically begins to knit clothes for the villagers, but she doesn’t use patterns and the results are always unwearable, but that doesn’t put her off. The socks she knits are just long tubes with no heels in them, none of them match and she claims that as they are for the orphans they don’t need heels. Miss Peckwitt makes the mistake of complaining about her lack of a decent bra and the difficulty of buying one from a catalogue so Miss Parry arrives with half a dozen home made bras, made from an assortment of unsuitable materials such as tartan and Harris tweed – I can feel the itch just writing about them!
This book, like her previous three is an amusing glimpse back to a way of life that doesn’t exist now, life and death as it was in a Hebridean village in the 1960s. With plenty of quirky inhabitants, there’s never a dull moment.
Lillian Beckwith wrote seven books with Hebridean settings, but she ended up moving back to England when some of her neighbours took umbrage at being used so blatantly as copy for her books. There’s no denying though that they’re good if you’re in need of a laugh and this week I’m definitely in need of a laugh!
The Sea for Breakfast by Lilian Beckwith was first published in 1961 and it’s a sequel to her The Hills is Lonely. The setting is still Skye where ‘Miss Peckwitt’ is having to move out of her lodging in Bruach as her room is needed for some of the members of Morag her landlady’s extended family. Lilian decides to take the plunge and buys a croft which has been abandoned for some years. The house is in need of a lot of work and her neighbours are happy to help out, and we’re introduced to a few more of the eccentric locals.
Some of the animals are a bit confused and when Lilian takes her in season cow to the bull the cow is perplexed when the bull bends down and sucks at her udder, not at all what was required or expected!
The standard of morality and double standards are not at all what is expected on the mainland of Scotland at this time as can be seen by the excerpt below.
‘You’ll know him, of course?’ she asked doubtfully. ‘He lived outside the village but he goes to my own church regularly.’
‘I know that Netta had a baby by him a little while ago,’ I admitted.
‘Oh yes, indeed. But he’s done the right thing by her. He’s made sure the baby was registered under his own name.’
‘But if he admits he’s the father and wants the baby in his own name, why on earth didn’t he marry the girl?’
The teacher looked at me in shocked surprise. ‘Oh, Miss Peckwitt,’ she hissed reproachfully, ‘he’s a good-living man and he’s hoping to be a missionary some day. He could never marry a girl like that.’
Hilarious in a way but that attitude to women rings so true and of course it was always other women who were the most judgemental of other females – at the same time as revering the men.
This was another good read with laugh out loud moments.
The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1959, the year of my birth as it happens – yes I have fairly recently celebrated a BIG birthday. I remember that this book was very popular in the early 1970s when I was working in a public library. It has taken me some time to get around to it. My copy of the book is a lovely hardback reprint from 1973.
This book is quite autobiographical as after an illness Beckwith’s doctor recommended to her that she should move to a rural location for the good of her health so she and her husband moved to the Isle of Skye from the north of England. In the book though Lillian Beckwith or Miss Peckwit as the islanders with their soft consonants call her is a middle aged spinster who moves into a cottage belonging to Morag McDugan who answered her advert for accommodation on the island.
Presumably Lillian’s health problems were all of a nervous/mental health nature as her experiences of reaching Morag’s house would have just about killed anyone with physical health problems. Morag’s garden gate is under water when the winter tide comes in so the only way into her cottage is to climb a six foot stone wall which is what Lillian does – in a howling rainstorm.
This is a really funny read, just what I was needing. It reminded me a wee bit of Cold Comfort Farm with its rural location and odd locals. The island and its inhabitants are a real culture shock to Lillian, it’s a spartan lifestyle with a very limited diet it would seem and cleanliness isn’t a high priority for anyone, but the cottages didn’t have mains water and any of the things that we all take for granted.
Despite Skye being supposedly a very strict religious community, it is really only on the surface, the islanders go to church just for the entertainment value – and the gossip. In reality illegitimate children are common as are rushed weddings.
I bought this book at an antiques centre which has a secondhand book section and the woman who served me mentioned that the book title is bad grammar, which it is, but it comes about because the inhabitants of Skye at that time spoke Gaelic as their first language and they translated into English straight from the Gaelic which is very different. It’s one of those pesky languages that has genders and strangely cows are male, and if you want to say that you have a cat you say ‘ the cat has me’ which looking around at some cat owners I would say that is exactly correct!
I’ve gone on to read the next one in this trilogy – The Sea for Breakfast.