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Mobile library

The Library Has Landed

In the remote corners of northern Scotland, the library van brings books, videos--and an important link to the "outside."


I was early for the ferry at Sconser on the Isle of Skye. A pair of oystercatchers bickered at the water's edge, and on the horizon the distinctive flat-topped cone of Dun Caan nudged a puff of white cloud into the clear blue sky. Out of a week of poor weather, I had stumbled on a sparkling spring morning for my trip to the Isle of Raasay and a meeting with Sheila Matheson, driver of the only seagoing mobile library in the Highlands.

Sheila has been bringing the library to Raasay for more than ten years. She visits the island once every three weeks. In between, she travels a mighty number of miles through Skye and a large part of the Lochalsh mainland from Kyle to Glenelg. Hers is just one of eight High Life Highland mobiles serving the remote corners of northern Scotland, where static libraries are few and far between. Carrying books of all kinds for all ages -- fact and fiction, picture books and large-print books, even videos and talking books -- these vans and their drivers are no less than a lifeline for the region's far-flung homes and communities.

The ferry arrived. The ramp clanged down, a trickle of vehicles disembarked and the waiting queue moved forward. The Skye and Lochalsh mobile library crept on board, and I watched as Sheila manoeuvred the big yellow van into position. More than once, I would marvel at her knack for squeezing the vehicle into and out of seemingly impossible spaces. By the time we parted company, I was convinced she could make that van bend around corners.

In just under half an hour we would be on Raasay. It wasn't always so easy. Measuring about 13 miles long and three wide, the island lies in the deep channel between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross peninsula on the Scottish mainland. At one time the islanders relied on ferries passing between Portree and Kyle of Lochalsh. Only in 1976 did they get a direct ferry link to Skye with regular, several-times-a-day crossings, an improvement that was crucial to the island's survival.

Now there is a busy primary school, a community-run shop and a much-used village hall. Older children travel daily to the secondary school in Portree and residents are able to take jobs on Skye. The ferry service itself employs several local people, and in the last two years has gained new facilities at both terminals as well as a brand new Clyde-built ferry. The Hallaig is a "hybrid" boat, powered simultaneously by batteries and diesel fuel, which means she's cleaner and more economical than her predecessors. Her presence surely signals a commitment to the island's future.

Raasay is one of the mobile library's busiest ports of call. At first sight, Inverarish -- the hub of the community -- is twin telephone boxes, a post office and shop, a tiny fire station, boats drawn up on the shore, a backdrop of mature woodland and a surprising number of houses. Stopping at the telephone boxes, Sheila gave a toot on the horn. Almost instantly four customers boarded the van, eager to return their books and search the shelves for more.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2015 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Terry Williams