The Sea for Breakfast

Lillian Beckwith

I came across a blog about the Hebrides Islands the other day and it made me think of a series of books I read a few years ago. The Bruach Books by Lillian Beckwith, born Lillian Comber in 1916 in England, she wrote under the name Lillian Beckwith. She wrote fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children. Her most popular books were her comic memoirs of the years spent on the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland. Ms. Beckwith arrived in the Hebrides in 1942 following doctors orders to rest and she fell in love with the place and the people and stayed for nearly 20 years. She also wrote a memoir from a child’s point of view about her childhood in her father’s grocery shop, and a cookbook, ‘Secrets from the Crofter’s Kitchen: A Hebridean Cookbook’.

I read 4 of the 7 Bruach books set in the Hebrides and thoroughly enjoyed them! They are full of wonderful quirky people and beautiful descriptions of a slow peaceful way of life. I can’t remember a lot of details after all this time to tell you but I could hear the wind and taste the salt and how I wished I could have been at one of the ceilidhs!

The first novel is titled ‘The Hills is Lonely’ and tells of her arrival to recuperate from an illness and the second ‘The Sea for Breakfast’ (doesn’t that sound wonderful!) is when she buys her own croft and sets up permanent residency.

The first paragraph from ‘The Hills is Lonely’:

 If you have never experienced a stormy winter’s night in the Hebrides, you can have no idea of the sort of weather which I encountered when I arrived, travel-worn and weary, at the deserted little jetty where I was to await the boat which would carry me across to ‘Incredible Island’. It was a terrible night. A night to make one yearn for the fierce, bright heat of an ample fire; for carpet slippers and a crossword puzzle. Yet here I stood, alone in the alien, tempestuous blackness, sodden, cold and dejected, my teeth chattering uncontrollably. On three sides of me the sea roared and plunged frenziedly, and a strong wind, which shrieked and wailed with theatrical violence, tore and buffeted at my clothes and fought desperately to throw me off balance. The swift, relentless rain stung my eyes, my face and my legs; it trickled from my ruined hat to seep in cheeky rivulets down my neck; it found the ventilation holes in my waterproof and crept exploratively under my armpits.

from ‘The Sea for Breakfast’:

One hundred and ten; one hundred and eleven, ouch! One hundred and twelve, damn! For the third torrid day in succession I was exasperatedly discovering and extracting nails of every tortured shape and unexpected size from the wooden walls of my cottage kitchen. My tool, which I had previously understood to be a claw-headed hammer, had been bestowed upon me by Ruari, the Imperiously obliging brother of my former landlady. He however had referred to it more colourfully as a ‘cloven-footed’ hammer. It was a typically Hebridean tool with a thick, rough handle and a rusty head so loose on the shaft that it was a toss-up each time whether the nail would be prised out of the wall, or whether the ‘cloven-foot’ would remain poised vacillatingly on the firmly embedded nail while I reeled back, brandishing the handle and recovering myself just in time to receive a blow of acknowledgement from the descending head. For the umpteenth lime I stopped to massage tingling elbows with grazed fingers and swore as I Jammed the head savagely back on to the shaft. For the umpteenth lime I wished, rather half-heartedly, that the little village of Bruach were not set amidst such glorious Isolation and, most whole-heartedly, that the terrain were less abundantly provided with handy-sized stones. As it Was, even this poor makeshift had necessitated some diligent seeking. Still, I comforted myself as I doggedly counted my successes (simply so as to prove just how many nails one may expect to find in an old croft kitchen), the unpredictability of proceedings did serve to enliven a task that otherwise might have been as soporific as counting sheep.
Ms. Beckwith’s books are mostly out of print and hard to find, but Alibris seems to have a nice selection of used available. Check them out if interested in reading these enjoyable books. You can also read the first chapters from each book HERE

Lillian died on the Isle of Man in 2004 at the age of 87. After her death, her book  ‘A Shine of Rainbows’ was made into a movie starring Aidan Quinn. 

Have you read any Lillian Beckwith? Which ones and what did you think?
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4 thoughts on “The Sea for Breakfast

  1. I remember Lillian Beckwith's books being very popular in the library I worked in in the 1970s, which is when I read them. I'm sure she sometimes read stories on TV's Jackanory programme too, for children.

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  2. Thanks so much for the honour of having my photo on your banner!
    I read the Bruach books years ago, and liked them a lot too. One was called 'Beautiful Just', and a friend and I always say that when we see something that is really beautiful! Ms Beckwith was not terribly popular with the islanders after her books came out. They were able to recognise themselves in her characters which didn't please them and I think they felt a bit let down that she would write about them in the way she did. The books are very amusing though, and were always very popular on the mainland.

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