How does historical deafness look through our modern eyes? In this book review of “My Island” by Maggie Gordon and Hamish Rosie, Lesley Dargie examines this extraordinary tale of coauthor Hamish, a deaf artist from the tiny island of South Ronaldsay. Lesley’s personal experience of hearing loss gives a unique perspective on this immense journey within our small nation.
Hamish Rosie’s remarkable life-story is expertly written by his good friend, Maggie Gordon and is beautifully illustrated by Hamish himself. The unique format of this biography is explained by his lifelong deafness and the resultant difficulties he had with written communication.
Reading this from a modern perspective is quite inspiring for those of us who have had personal experience of hearing loss. Nowadays, even on the most remote islands of Scotland, a child who is born deaf or who acquires deafness will have access to a wide range of coping mechanisms to facilitate social interaction and effectively transition into education. Modern technology and surgical advances mean that the majority of children with hearing impairment can experience mainstream schooling and can learn very quickly how to communicate effectively with both their hearing and non-hearing peers. This was not the case in 1940 when Hamish Rosie was born. The speech therapist in Aberdeen who helped him to develop and understand a vocal language used only a balloon, a feather, a ruler and a spoon. The extent of his progress is made even more incredible by the fact that he had to rely almost entirely on his own hard work, determination and the support of only a few enlightened (1) educationalists.
At first glance, it seems that the island in the title refers to South Ronaldsay, Hamish’s birthplace, but it soon becomes apparent that it is also a reference to his metaphorical island of deafness, where he found himself rather suddenly and painfully marooned from the hearing world at the age of ten months following a bout of meningitis. The confusion and fear of isolation permeate every episode of his growing years because the only way he can cross the bridge into a successful and fulfilling future is to leave behind everything that makes him feel secure and safe. As Hamish himself says, his achievement was about “attitude of mind and believing in yourself” and he well remembers the “isolation of his young years and how far he had traveled from where he used to bang his head in frustration.”
His journey into the outer world began when he was only four years old, due to his mother’s selflessness and her incredible foresight. Seeking to pursue the best outcome for her son, she allowed Hamish to be sent away to a special school for the deaf in Aberdeen, across the sea and far away from home. He could not understand why his mother abandoned him, especially when only a few months earlier his father had left home. How could she explain to a deaf toddler, who understood no language, that his father had been called up (2) and gone away to war? His sense of desolation in seeing his mother disappear must have been immense, as she left him behind in a strange boarding school with unfamiliar smells and harsh Dickensian rituals. But, this was only to be the first of many tough challenges and obstacles that would face Hamish as he navigated his way through the dense oceans of silence, searching for a way to communicate.
For Hamish, his first salvation to a normal life was his parents, from whom he learned essential lessons. His father’s hard work, dedication and ingenuity coupled with his mother’s intelligence, teaching skills and willingness to override her maternal needs in favour of her son’s progress, gave him the best chance possible. Their decision to sacrifice their own livelihoods, and their ability to “take the long view”, launched Hamish into a frighteningly scary world, but would furnish him with the necessary resilience to cope and make his own way.
His second salvation was to have been born with the talent and skills of an artist, capable of conjuring and recreating his vast array of visual memories into landscapes of communication. This skill won him a prize in a painting competition and his mother was able to persuade the local authority that Hamish deserved extra tuition. To that end, Hamish was allowed to attend Aberdeen Grammar School for two days a week, where he joined the art class. Mixing with hearing pupils for the first time was incredibly challenging but, with the help of the teaching staff, he learned to steer himself through the tortuous events of school.
At the age of fifteen, he passed the entrance exam for a new and innovative school for deaf boys in Surrey, which was even further away from home. This was to be a momentous and courageous step and was extremely significant for advancing his future career, but initially he had to learn a new ‘language’: lip reading English speaking patterns after having painstakingly learned Scottish.
Due to incredibly hard work and day release classes, Hamish was then offered a place at Kingston School of Art and was the first deaf student to graduate from the department with a National Diploma in Design. His parents were immensely proud.
One of the governors from his school arranged a meeting with an advertising agency in London and they were so impressed with Hamish’s portfolio that they offered him a job in their graphic design team. This led to a successful and rewarding career in England where Hamish has lived for most of his adult life, along with his Scottish wife, Morag, who is also deaf.
Yet, a part of Hamish would always remain on Orkney. The author tells us how much he loved to go back home during the school holidays and how seeing the spire of St Magnus’ cathedral rise out of the mist, as he stood on the ferry, would make his heart leap (3). These fond memories of island life, illustrated with Hamish’s empowering drawings, shine a light into the forgotten past where people survived on the islands against the harsh elements, often without running water or electricity. This love of the people and his heritage continues to inspire his artwork and the unique spiritual attachment of those “exiled islanders who preserve the dream” is eloquently expressed in the foreword by Rory Macdonald of the Gaelic band, Runrig, who well understands that for Hamish, the island of South Ronaldsay was “a symphony in the sound of silence.”
Hamish and Morag worked tirelessly to promote understanding between the deaf and hearing communities, especially after one of their two hearing daughters acquired deafness as the result of measles. Morag went on to receive an MBE for her innovative and ground-breaking work with young people.
This is a truly inspiring story of one boy’s journey, swimming against the tide of adversity at a time when the country was engulfed by the ravages of war. Yet, due to the committed support of forward looking individuals and educational establishments, Hamish found himself on the cusp of a future where society was opening up to the needs of both deaf children and adults. The advancements of today are enhanced and underpinned by the personal and professional achievements of people like Hamish. The backdrop of his early life on the remote islands of Orkney gives a colourful and historical perspective to a life lived in silence, set against a unique landscape that inspired artistic success. The sense of hope emanating from this book is overwhelming and it puts a realistic perspective on a disability which is hopefully much less challenging in today’s world. Hamish’s life-story offers a positive and encouraging outlook to anyone who is struggling to overcome life’s difficulties. It also inspires a visit to his birthplace.
See some of Hamish Rosie’s work and learn more on his website: www.hamish-art.com
- Definition: showing a rational, modern or well-informed outlook.
- Example: “[…] the support of only a few enlightened educationalists.” (“el apoyo de los pocos educadores progresistas“).
- Translation: liberal, progresista, iluminado.
- Definition: an order to report for active military service.
- Example: “[…]his father had been called up and gone away to war?”. (“su padre había sido reclutado y marchado a la guerra“).
- Translation: reclutar.
- Definition: the feeling of ones heart beating so rapidly it appears to jump upwards.
- Example: “[…] would make his heart leap”. “[…] le haría dar un salto a su corazón“.
- Translation: salto al corazón.
Contributors to this article:
Author: Lesley Dargie.
Editor: Alex Owen-Hill.
Proof-reader: Alex Owen-Hill.
Use of English for Spanish-speakers: Jordi Albacete.