Few people bring as much passion to the love of their home turf as Laura Kirk.
The 20 year old web designer is from Hilton, one of the three Seaboard villages on the Easter Ross peninsula- an area possibly one of Scotland’s best kept secrets.
The 14 mile peninsula runs north-east to south-west from North Sutor of Cromarty to Tarbat Ness at the very tip.
Halfway along, the settlements of Balintore, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll sit side by side and gaze out over the Moray Firth.
With its mild and dry climate, plentiful seas and rich arable land, humans weren’t slow to discover the attractions of this coast.
A skeleton unearthed in Balintore in 1945 is thought to be Bronze Age. Place names reveal Gaelic, Druidic, Pictish and Viking influences.
The layers of history have created a rich and unique identity within the villages, fertile ground for stories, legends and lore.
Laura talks of that identity with infectious enthusiasm, and even before her 21st birthday, set herself to writing and illustrating a book about the folklore of her villages.
She said: “I’ve always been intrigued by it.
“I was proud to be from a fishing village because nobody knew where it was, I was part of this hidden gem of an area, and it shaped me, the way I was brought up and lived here.
“I was out on the boat with my dad in the summer, we would have our fisherfolk festival, I was completely moulded by it, I could never escape from it and I never would want to escape from it.
“I wholeheartedly love it so much, and the people here.
“I called my next door neighbour when I grew up Granny even though she wasn’t blood related.
“Everyone was family here.
“We all belonged here, deserved to be here, a close knit community, you knew everybody.
“It’s a wonderful place to live, wonderful community, traditions, everything.”
One day when she was six or seven, Laura remembers climbing over the ivy-covered wall into her Granny’s house next door and shouting over to her to put on ‘the recording of the mermaid’.
This was a recording of a local mermaid legend by local story teller Dolly Macdonald (1918-2017).
Laura said: “I would listen to it over and over, for days and days, weeks and weeks.”
The story of the mermaid was the seed for Laura’s new book, Folklore of the Seaboard Villages.
“I wanted to know everything about this area, the fishing, the folklore, the traditions, everything but nobody seemed to know anything more than vaguely, so I was left to my own deep researches and investigation to find them.”
Enter Maureen Ross, director of the Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore, and a kindred spirit with Laura when it comes to local history.
Maureen has been mentoring and supporting Laura in her quest, advising her on potential funding sources and placing an order for the books at the hall.
Laura said: “She was the sole source for this information and bringing it back to the community, the younger kids, and continuing the line of word of mouth folklore stories.
“That was the whole key to my book, that was why I did it.
“I want exposure of the village to tourists, to younger kids to remember these stories to tell them when they’re older, for people to have these stories and pass them on like family heirlooms, be proud of it and show it off.”
Teachers have already shown an interest in bringing Laura’s book into the classroom.
Laura did all her own illustrations for the book.
She says she’s drawn since childhood, and got an opportunity to flex that skill during her visual communications degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands Inverness.
For that, she thanks lecturer Katie Pamment.
“She encouraged me to try this and try that, develop my illustrations, she was the start of how I came to my certain style.
“I’ve kept her in the loop with this whole thing and she says she’s very proud of what I’ve done.”
For the book’s style, Laura drew inspiration from Kilkenny-based animation company Cartoon Saloon.
“They did an animation on selkies, and one recently on what they call wolf walkers, and the secret of kells, based on mediaeval Irish history.
“They’re style of illustration really brought forward my style, the way they did tiny details in the backgrounds, created their characters, that was everything I wanted in my style, so I adapted it to myself for my water-colour based illustrations.”
Maureen said: “When Laura and I chatted first about the folklore, I thought she was maybe going to produce something for the university and get her marks, I didn’t expect for one minute for such a beautiful book to come out of it a few weeks later.
“I love giving young folk encouragement and seeing them make the most of what their abilities are.”
Laura is about to take up a new role as a digital marketing assistant with IT service provider The Apprentice Store in Inverness, designing web sites, marketing and managing social media.
But she won’t have her feet out of her own community.
“I’m going to be helping create their new website and making sure they have a social media presence, so it’s putting my love for this area into my work.”
And Laura is continuing with her own work, with a second book underway.
Meanwhile Maureen is undertaking projects with school children and the wider community to keep the local knowledge and traditions alive.
She loves some of the quirkier traditions which grew up alongside the fishing.
“You mustn’t say salmon here, call him the pink fellow.
“Ministers used to get a hard time down here.
“If you met the minister on your way down to the sea, you more or less turned around and went home, he was bad luck.
“You would never take him out fishing with you, that was even worse, it was like Jonah in the boat almost
“The poor minister had a hard time, and definitely if you met him on a Monday.”
Seeing a hare on your way down to the boat meant there wouldn’t be a good catch.
“Also whistling on the boats.
“If you whistled, the wind would get up, so that was a no-no unless of course you were out at sea dead calm and you whistled up the wind to get home.
“We were very religious in these villages, but staying alongside religion were the strange superstitions, we managed to have them sitting alongside each other.
“You get a good laugh at the same time, how can they believe, live their lives like that, but that’s the way it was.”
For Maureen and her young protégée Laura, it’s time to turn their rich culture to the advantage of their community.
Maureen said: “These are the things that people nowadays enjoy hearing about and immersing themselves in.
“Folklore, people passing on stories, from one generation to another.”