The life and times of the real Katie Morag

Creating the island of Struay and its flame-haired heroine Katie Morag has been a labour of love for Mairi Hedderwick – a nomadic, animal-loving illustrator, author and accidental feminist.

I first went to the island of Coll when I was 18. It had a big influence on my writing and drawing. I lived there on and off for over 50 years. I left the island two years ago. I’m now Grandma Mainland .

I was lucky that the first Katie Morag book, published in 1984, was noticed. I think this was down to the extra details that I put into the pictures. The books were for three- to eight-year-olds, with a limited number of words, so I created visual subplots full of details. The other reason was because there was a granny who drove a tractor. Feminists of the time thought it was a wonderful statement. Of course, in rural areas women drove tractors, as I did myself, so it wasn’t intentional. Katie Morag is the wee girl I wanted to be.

I was born and brought up in Gourock and knew that the boats sailing down the Clyde were going out to the islands. I wanted to live on an island and I wanted to have red hair, like my father. I wore a tartan skirt and a Fair Isle jumper like Katie Morag’s – most wee girls did in the 1940s and ’50s. She’s also partly my daughter, especially her fringe.

I am so pleased with the BBC’s adaptation of the Katie Morag stories. I have had many approaches over the years for animation, but I know that children believe that she is a real little girl, so turning her into a cartoon character was not what I wanted. The production company Move On Up is based near here and involved me from the start in brainstorming with the scriptwriters.

I was a goodie-two-shoes at school. I was shy but I was good at art, so the teacher always asked me to do drawings. We didn’t have much in the way of fancy equipment, just some old wax crayons. It was wartime.

I’ve lived all over Scotland. They say that I move every ten years. I’ve lived in Edinburgh, Glasgow, mid-Argyll, Applecross, Lochaber, Inverness, the Borders, the Black Isle and Coll. The island of Coll is my favourite place in Scotland. It has to be, hasn’t it!

If I wasn’t an author and illustrator I would be an interior designer. I’m a bit of a DIYer. Maybe that’s why I move so often – I need a new house to do up! I love seafood. I will happily eat anything that comes from the sea, and I love to cook it too. I’m the type of person who will look at a recipe and think, ‘I know something else that would work well in there.’ It doesn’t always turn out, but it’s good to experiment.

I’ve had many pets over the years. I have two ginger toms called Hector and Archie at the moment. I travel a lot and when my last dog died I didn’t get another. Cats are great – you can just leave them and they still welcome you when you come home.

My paternal grandmother is my heroine. She wasn’t that young when she decided to marry my grandfather, who had established a mission station in what was then Belgian Congo. She had done her nurse’s training, but needed some surgical experience. At the time, Glasgow Royal Informary was the only place in Britain that would allow women into theatre. So there she was, in theatre, preparing to dedicate her life to this mission station in deepest Congo. She was very brave.

I have a recurring theme to my dreams. I’m always travelling somewhere and the directions are lost and then I’m late. Last night I dreamt that I’d told my daughter-in-law the wrong date for giving me a lift to Inverness. It was one of those panicky dreams. I’m quite punctual in life, so maybe that’s why. I have a terrible habit of always thinking the worst of myself. It’s a bad way to be, but I have a really negative approach to myself.

I believe there are spirits that guide you in life – not ghosts in the white wavy sense, but sometimes you just feel a presence. Then again, perhaps it’s my imagination. I am a children’s story writer, after all!

(This feature was originally published in 2015)