Perfect for readers who loved Katie Morag but have since graduated onto the outside adventurous life of Swallows and Amazons, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, written and illustrated by Rosalie K. Fry is a tale full of charm about a girl who returns to a Scottish island, determined to uncover the mystery of her missing brother. His disappearance is never spoken of and an unresolved grief hangs in the air, but young Fiona is determined to follow up on the old fishermen’s tales of possible sightings in amongst the seals after whom the island is named.
Although sadness begets this beautiful story, found right at the border between Selkie folklore and all that could be true, Fiona’s innocent and hopeful tale is full of quiet determination. Her adventures and freedom, her time spent independently exploring hidden or forgotten coves and ramshackle ruins, building fires and making camp are enormously appealing and the strongly evocative and authentic setting makes it all too easy to wish, even to believe that this entrancing tale could happen, and maybe it even did.
Touching on themes that are still relevant in the Scottish islands today – depopulation and land ownership by lairds – as well as considering grief and longing, Fry’s tale balances thoughtfulness with utter charm and a dash of the magic of Scottish mythology. Although bursting with an innocence (as viewed through a 21st century lens), Fry doesn’t patronise her readers. Instead this story will be quiet encouragement to readers to feel they can take control of their lives and create the world they want.
Peppered throughout this short novel, with just 10 chapters and 90 pages, are delightful line drawings of seals and seagulls, boats and blackhouses, also by Rosalie Fry. Some of Fry’s illustrations feature in the credits of the 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish (you can watch the entire film here), which is based on the book, but with the location moved to Ireland.
Fry herself knew something about relocations. She was born in Canada (in 1911, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia), but as a young child her family moved to Swansea, Wales. A childhood love of drawing led to her decision to illustrate children’s books, but when she had completed her course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in 1934 she found she “didn’t know a single author who might write a book for me to illustrate! So there was nothing for it but to write my own.”
I have to admit I don’t know any other books by Fry but her skill and lightness of touch, both in pictures and words, has left me wanting to read more by her (she published over thirty in the course of her career, but as far as I can tell, this is the only one currently in print).
Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry is joining my list of favourite island reads, alongside Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, An Island of our Own by Sally Nicholls, Seacrow Island by Astrid Lindgren and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Do let me know what evocative island books are your family’s favourites.
In Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, a nourishing soup with seaweed is made and this was our inspiration to make our own Ron Mor Sea Soup.
The key ingredient was (dried) seaweed:
Soon everything was bubbling in a big pot (sadly not over a small island cottage’s hearth)…
…and we sat having supper, reminiscing about our summer holiday this year on a whole host of Scottish islands (though to the north of the mainland, rather than to the west, where Ron Mor Skerry is set. We saw such beautiful seaweed whilst on holiday!
We didn’t know about the Big Seaweed Search at the time, but next time we’re by the coast we’ll definitely take part.