When I was young, on holiday in a French gite with my family, I remember asking my Dad if he and Mum would be writing in the visitor’s book. I must have been able to write at this time, but unauthorised writing in the visitor’s book by me was obviously unthinkable. ‘No,’ my Dad said. ‘It’s rather pretentious.’ Despite the fact that I’ve grown up to LOVE pretension, and have even been known to disagree with my Dad from time to time, this verdict on the visitor’s book has stuck. They are a guilty pleasure, a little like those round-robin Christmas letters – I relish the peep into other guests’ Pooterish prose, their documenting of every meal, every disappointment of the holiday, and marvel especially at the people moved to a spot of holiday poetry. But I wouldn’t dream of writing in one myself. Sadly I only noticed the visitors’ books for Shore Cottage on the second to last day. 4 hard-backed A4 books on the shelf, each dated with the year. I picked one up expecting to get 10 minutes cheap enjoyment out of sneering, to be honest. But though there was a bit of that (and yes, a lot of poetry to ‘enjoy’), the books were a revelation. I was hooked, and spent the remaining hours reading each entry from the start.
Perhaps it is the solitude and lack of evening entertainment that has made people holidaying on the island write in great depth. Each book was full, with a typical entry being around 5 pages long. There were, of course, lots of blow-by-blow accounts of the weather and animals spotted. And an amazing amount of people who’d come without any wet weather gear. But there was so much else besides. I was touched by stories of why people were there – a father and young son on a (post divorce, I assumed) bonding trip. A woman there to grieve the death of her husband (‘Don’t be sorry’ she started her entry). A self-confessed Dalston hipster in Aztec-print leggings styling it out for a week totally on her own in the wilds. And most striking of all, a couple making the trip from Australia to visit the home of their ancestors. They detailed how a family of 11 had left the island in 1852, to sail for 4 months from Tobermoray to Sydney to start a new life, and how they were finally here to see the homeland in person.
The books were a wonderful way to discover the history of the island too. Someone mentioned an archeological survey of the island that found it had supported over 100 crofters up until the 1900s. Others were obviously repeat visitors who offered a more recent perspective on how the island had changed over the last 30 years – debates raged between visitors over the addition of a deer fence, and details of the bush fire that swept across the island in 2013 also appear. And we also had the vicarious excitement of reading the testimony of the couple who stayed the week before us. While we basked like seals in the Scottish sun, they had slept on the sofa in front of the fire to keep warm and suffered a wind and hail-lashed boat trip culminating in a midnight trek back across the island with their shopping.
Thanks to these wonderful books I discovered so much about the island I wouldn’t have known, found out that the ‘adder’ we recoiled from was in fact a slow worm, and what to do if the water stopped running (answer, go to the stream and check for blockages). Even better, we discovered that the full set of visitors’ books from all the cottages – plus the afore-mentioned archeological survey – are available to read in the ‘Village Hall’ (pictured above and above) on the other side of the island. If I ever go again this is where I’ll spend every rainy day, reading. And as for me… I still didn’t leave a comment in the visitors’ book. I wanted to feel as invisible as I had during the rest of this magical week. But to the other writers in the books – I salute you. Even the poets.