What Katie did next is fiction

5th March 1999 at 00:00
IT SOUNDS beautiful. A remote Scottish island, a sparkling bay surrounded by black mountains, a stone jetty, a new pier and best of all, a small, friendly community just opening up to visitors.

Not only that, the Isle of Struay is a boon to primary schools - recommended by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, no less, for teaching infants about geography, transport and different lifestyles. No wonder teachers are flooding the Scottish Tourist Board with enquiries.

There's only one problem. The Isle of Struay doesn't exist.

It's the creation of author-illustrator Mairi Hedderwick and the setting for her popular, long-running Katie Morag series of books (the latest is due out next month). Struay is loosely based on the Isle of Coll in the Hebrides, where Mairi has lived on and off for 30 years.

"It's quite mad," says tourist board information officer Jill Dunlop. "We started getting all these calls from teachers back in September and they haven't stopped since."

Ah, September. That would be roughly when the QCA issued its scheme of work for Year 2 geography. Unit three, An Island Home, shows "how a story book can be used to develop children's understanding of geographical features and ideas while at the same time developing their literacy skills."

It suggests using The Two Grandmothers by Katie Morag (their first mistake - Katie's bright but she's only seven and, like the island, not real). Not only does it fail to make clear it's a work of fiction, it lists "photographs of Struay" among the resources teachers will need.

"A lot of the teachers who ring are looking for photos," says Jill. "But a lot just want to know whereabouts it is."

Some even helpfully suggest it might be near Oban - an advertisement for the Oban Times is pictured on the side of the post office in the book and Coll is three hours by ferry from the port.

They're in good company. Mairi, who moved to Coll as a 17-year-old mother's help and whose daughter and grandchild still live there, says the post office regularly gets letters addressed to "Katie Morag, Struay". These are, however, usually from children.

"Struay is very like Coll but it's also like any small community, especially in the Hebrides, where children can just walk out of the door and visit their grandmother two miles away," she says.

"There are none of the fears parents have in towns or even in the country on the mainland."

Struay's main street closely mirrors Coll's, but other islands inspired the geography. (Coll is flat and sandy - Mairi thought mountains might be good for adventures).

In 30 years, Coll's population has boomed from 129 to 170. Electricity arrived long ago, ferries now come daily in summer (sometimes bringing children looking for "Katie Morag's house") and the Internet is spreading fast.

The books reflect the changes - the only thing missing for teachers is that Katie is never seen in school. "My editor keeps saying we should get her into school," admits Mairi. "But I always hated it ..."

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