Who doesn't sometimes dream of going to live on a remote Hebridean island? In 1972 the dream that Di Alexander shared with his young wife Jane wasn't unique, but it was rather less common that it seems to be today: and it was offset by the fact that many of those born and brought up in the islands felt they had little option but to leave in search of higher education and job opportunities. We first meet the young Di (Dion) Alexander in 1971 as he finds work - and, as it turns out, a wife - in a remote community on the Ross of Mull. We then follow him, with Jane and baby son - later to be leading Liberal Democrat politician Danny Alexander - to the Hebridean island of Colonsay, where he sets up a pottery.
Memoirs of people who have settled on Scottish islands have been written before, but "The Potter's Tale: A Colonsay Life" stands out for all the right reasons. This could have been a beefed-up chronological diary of the years the family spent on Colonsay. Instead, most of the book forms a wonderfully lyrical account a series of different aspects of life on Colonsay. As a result the timeline moves backwards and forwards, but this doesn't really matter. What is important is the way the reader is taken right under the skin of island life. This is only possible because Di Alexander took an approach to his new life, surroundings and neighbours that saw him quickly establish himself as part of the community.
The book begins by setting the scene and filling in the back story. As it draws to an end we read of the family's departure from Colonsay, some seven years later, after Di had successfully applied for a Community Development post on the island of South Uist. The final chapter is an account of developments on Colonsay since he left, with new housing and infrastructure and much better transport links: albeit with a population that has only increased slightly since the 1970s.
The rest of the book is an evocation of facets of the island life experienced by Di and Jane. We read of Di's efforts to learn Gaelic, not greatly helped by the fact that the variant of the language spoken on Colonsay was - and presumably still is - a dialect significantly different to the language taught in books or broadcast by the BBC. We read of his efforts to recreate a lost map tying a comprehensive list of place names on the island to specific locations on the ground. We read of his role in seeking to improve power generation on Colonsay; of his life as a potter; of his part-time job as an assistant harbourmaster and the importance of lifeline ferry services; and of his frustrations with the essentially feudal system of landholding that, however benignly, still applied on the island at the time. We also read of his love for Colonsay, and for the island's characters. And we read how their daughter Katie became the first child actually born on the island for many years after appearing without warning a month early, just as toddler Danny decided to induce the contents of the chimney to fall into the living room.
There's a sense of regret as you come to the end of this book, as there must have been as Di and Jane left Colonsay for a new life elsewhere. What happened next? If there were another book in the making that answered that question, we'd love to be able to read it.