Monday, 26 November 2012

Orkney Mobile Library - Dawn to Dusk

It was a day that threatened gale force winds and heavy rain. I'd lain awake most of the previous night trying to figure out a convincing excuse not to join Betty Stanger on her regular mobile library trip to Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre! I could call in sick, but Betty was leaving at 7.30 am - there would be nobody in the library to call. I could sleep in, plead sea-sickness, a flat tyre or just plain FEAR! But I gave myself a severe talking to and made my way in to Kirkwall for 7.30. Betty had the van all set, engine running. Nothing else for it but to hop aboard.


I needn't have worried. Betty was calm and reassuring as we set off for Tingwall pier. She told me there had been very few times she had been unable to make the journey. Once, though, a snowstorm came on so suddenly that she was nearly stranded. But the boat, instead of returning to Tingwall - the roads were blocked between there and the town - put in at Shapinsay, so that she could make the short hop back to Kirkwall across the bay. 

There was a beautiful sunrise. We were to sail to Rousay first, stay on the ferry for the extra five minutes to Wyre where we would see our first customers. The crossing was surprisingly easy. A bit up and down but nothing to cause seasickness even in this rookie!


Wyre is the island Edwin Muir made famous in his Autobiography, a vision of Eden that stayed with him all his life through the tragedies that beset his family when they left Orkney to find work. Industrial Glasgow where they settled was for Muir akin to hell.

I didn't see much of the island. The van was rocking in the wind, so I stayed on board. Only one islander of the nineteen who live there managed to brave the weather to borrow some books.

The men on the boat told us it was unlikely they would sail that day to Egilsay. The stretch of water between it and Rousay is rough at the best of times. On Thursday it would have sent the books flying off the shelves! So that's another Orkney island I've never set foot on. It is the island where Magnus met his death in 1117 from an axe-blow to the head, the starting point of his final journey towards sainthood. The men were right: the weather was too rough to cross to Egilsay.


By the time we got to Rousay, the wind was up. First stop was the school. All the children and their teachers came in and browsed, picked their books and headed back to the classroom. After that, every customer who made it to the van expressed their surprise to see us that day. We swayed in the wind like a boat on a heavy swell. Still, it was lightsome. Everyone who came in was glad to see Betty, glad to get in out of the wind, return the books they'd read and choose new ones. Some kindly plied us with welcome cups of tea and homemade cakes!

We had had to watch for the boat from Edith's window as we sat having a yarn with her. Unusually even for Orkney these days, Edith has lived all her days in Rousay. She is eighty eight, still getting her bag full of books every month. Her family used to run a shop and a bakery on the island. It's long gone, but Edith still bakes a mean cake!

Betty and the other drivers of the vans, Simon and John, provide more than a library service to the folk in the outlying parishes and islands. You can see it's a lifeline for people.

Back to Kirkwall

Edith spotted the boat tossing about on Eynhallow Sound on its way to the pier, so we left her and climbed back into the van for the journey to Tingwall and then Kirkwall and the main library. Betty organised and reshelved all the returned books on our way across. 

I watched the sun set from the warmth of the library van which was lashed to the deck with reassuringly strong cables! But the wind that had tossed us earlier had died down and the journey was smooth enough. 

When I finally stepped down from the van late that afternoon, I headed home with a great sense of admiration for Betty and the work she does. I look forward to joining her on a trip to Stronsay or Westray in the future - if she'll entertain such a wimp on her travels another time!  

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