A head of the tides

15th August 1997 at 01:00
The crime rate of Eriskay makes Hamish MacBeth look like Miami Vice. Is life so easy for the head of its small school? Seonag MacKinnon reports

On a small island at the southern tip of the Western Isles a curious practice survives: teachers just teaching. Neil MacDonald, headteacher on Eriskay, spent years working in two of the many mainland schools where staff find themselves having to pick up the pieces of a fractured society. "Here I don't have to be a social worker, policeman or childminder. I walk in and teach until I decide to stop. A lot of my former colleagues would envy me that," he says.

Beyond the school gate, the crime rate makes the BBC series Hamish MacBeth look like Miami Vice. In fact, there is no policeman on this one-and-a-half by two-and-a-half mile island of 160 people.

Were there ever to be a major criminal incident, the police from the neighbouring island of South Uist might have some difficulty reaching the scene the same day. The island is cut off for five hours at a time by the tide.

Neil MacDonald, who grew up on Eriskay, was well aware of the island's remoteness when he applied for the headship nine years ago. As children board at a school on the island of Benbecula from the age of 14, his teaching duties were confined to six pupils in S1 and S2.

He installed himself at the helm of the then 33-pupil 5-14 school, a post once occupied by his father. Sue MacDonald left her job as principal of special needs in a Carlisle comprehensive where they both worked to join her husband's staff.

The MacDonalds feel that the island is a privileged place to bring up their family of three young sons. Their sitting room window overlooks the impossibly white beach of Rudha Ban and the glittering sea across to Barra. It is like a cinema screen with constant change in light and shade on sky, sea and land. Asking Neil MacDonald why he returned to Eriskay seems a stupid question when the answer is surely in the window he sits beside.

Their children walk on blankets of wild flowers and play on the beaches where no visiting hoards have picked clean the rich variety of shells. They watch dolphins follow island boats. In a few years, when they have a healthy awareness of the potential dangers of seashores and peat bogs, the boys will have almost the entire island as their playground. Visiting children from the mainland are intoxicated by the heady freedom possible in an enclosed crime-free environment. House and car doors are never locked.

Deirdre Carney, who grew up in Birmingham and now teaches P1-7 in Eriskay, enjoys watching her children grow up here. "I don't wish to idolise the place but it is so beautiful and it is less stressful for parents. The children are out for hours on end and you don't worry about them."

But she advises other teachers tempted to quit the rat race not to make hasty decisions about renouncing easy access to friends, theatres, cinemas, delis and bookshops. "I am very happy here but you have to think seriously about what kind of person you are. I think someone who was single would find it more difficult to settle."

Mrs Carney, who lived in Italy for 10 years, has become a good correspondent to compensate for lack of direct contact with old friends. Packages from book clubs and learning to play the piano at the age of 40 have also kept her occupied on long winter nights.

Sue MacDonald says the many friends and relatives who visit them give the island a mixed reception. "They all say how beautiful it is and in the next breath ask how I can possibly live here." She misses sports facilities, curry houses and nights out with masses of friends and colleagues. Islanders are friendly but tend to socialise within their own families.

Her husband says he is not as isolated socially as his father was. A generation ago, the priest and headteacher were the only members of the residential community who had gone on to further education. "The pedestal isn't as high as it was," says Mr MacDonald. "There isn't as far to fall. " New residents soon become aware that everything they do is highly visible. But nothing quite prepares you for the reality of life in remote parts of Scotland where the binoculars are not always trained on events at sea. When he lived in Newcastle, Neil MacDonald never saw pupils from his school in a mining district 12 miles away. But in Eriskay schoolgirls may appear at his front door to take his children out for a walk. And were he to have one dram too many at the island's pub, The Politician, or paint his garden shed purple, no bookie would offer odds on his pupils failing to discover it.

The pub takes its name from the ship which went aground off Eriskay with 24,000 cases of whisky on board in 1941 - it must have been difficult for an already strongly Catholic community to doubt the existence of a benevolent deity. But whisky was not the only cargo. Normally barefooted children strutted around the school playground in left-footed sandals - the right feet were in a less accessible hold. As they strutted they sucked on clay pipes which they filled with blades of grass.

Mrs Carney was surprised by the degree of deprivation she uncovered when she instigated a project on Eriskay school of old. Until the Sixties the bathroom was the byre and drinking water had to be fetched from a hole in the ground in the hill.

In this subsistence environment, children stayed away from school at certain times of year to lift potatoes or collect seaweed for fertiliser. They also had to bring in a piece of peat to school each day. The man who lived next to the school house stood guard over his peat stack each morning, ready to ward off children who had forgotten.

Community support for the school is manifested in the turnout of almost everybody, not just parents, to the Christmas play - or if pupils are learning about money or weights or measures they can be sent down to the shop and post office where staff give them practical experience.

Neil MacDonald says advice and information is only a fax or phone call away. He stresses, too, that Eriskay is like any mainland school in terms of paperwork, performance targets, auditing and curriculum development. It's made different by its small roll and the strong motivation of pupils - in fact, they are so keen, he would welcome speedy introduction of level F in the 5-14 curriculum.

The pupils' desire to work is strongly stimulated by parents who, in the main, see no future for their children on the island. Since the demise of herring fishing the economy has gone into a decline exacerbated by the transport problems which prevent islanders holding down jobs on larger neighbouring islands and impede investment in the island itself. In July, two more families with seven children between them - a fifth of the population under 18 - left.

Most islanders see a multi-million pound causeway to Uist as the only hope of regenerating an island where the school roll, once as high as 100, was 23 at the last count. But plans have lingered on the drawing board of the Western Isles Council for some time.

The low numbers have long threatened the school's secondary department. But it could also close if the causeway comes and the population increases - all secondary children could then travel to Benbecula. Mr MacDonald looks out of the window of his Eriskay home and contemplates closure. "I hope the day never comes."

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