At first glance, there is not much to the tiny ferry port of Tingwall in Orkney. It would be tempting to write the whole place off as nothing more than a farm, a part-time ticket office and a pier.
The thing is, this is not entirely true. On first appearances, yes. But because Himself and I arrived massively early for the ferry (my doing entirely, I am paranoid about my booked transport leaving without me) we had a bit of time to explore. What we discovered was a little gem; a slice of bibliophile heaven on earth.
Betty’s Reading Room is in one of the outbuildings of the old farm at Tingwall pier. It is dedicated to the memory of Betty Prictor, a teacher who loved books and reading. When she died, her friends decided that the best way to celebrate her life would be to try and pass on that love to other people.
They did up the old building at Tingwall, through sweat and hard graft and the work of their own hands. They filled it with books, wonderful books of every kind. In April 2012, Betty’s Reading Room opened to the public, to people like me and Himself, wanting somewhere comfortable to sit and wait for our ferry to arrive at this isolated and deserted harbour.
It is a fabulous place. It has sofas and decorations, and books galore. There’s not a bookshop around that wouldn’t be proud to have the selection in Betty’s Reading Room sitting on their shelves.
You could take and read whatever you pleased, and take it with you when you left if it caught your fancy. A sign on the shelves said ‘Please return – eventually.’
There is a woodburning stove for winter and a small garden with a bench for summer. The owners leave a bucket out for donations to the RNLI, Red Cross and animal welfare charities; not a single penny for themselves or to pay for the labour and materials that went into making such a beautiful place.
If you ever find yourself at Tingwall in Orkney, take a moment to step inside Betty’s Reading Room and let yourself revel for a moment in the love of books and generosity of spirit that led to its creation. It can only bode well for the world that there are still people who will do such a thing.