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Issue 30 - Island Jewel (Tiree)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006

 

This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Island Jewel (Tiree)

Fiona Russell travels to the Hebridean island of Tiree to find out what makes it so special

Standing at the highest point on the Isle of Tiree it is difficult to believe I’m still in Scotland.

The tiny hill of Ben Hynish, at just 141 metres above sea level, stands in stark contrast to the mainland. From this viewpoint, however, I can see almost the entire island. I survey acre upon acre of astonishingly flat, green terrain. Blinking in the bright sunshine, I look further into the distance where wide white beaches slope gently down to a shallow glittering sea. At some point I’m sure the iridescent layers of blue and turquoise sea will meet the cloudless blue sky, but it’s difficult to decide where.

I realise I’ve suddenly discovered a treasured gem. But had I listened to some so-called friends I might never have made it to Tiree, the outermost of the Inner Hebridean islands. During the years, so many people had laboured hard to put me off my first visit. While I’d heard hushed whispers of stunning beaches, warm seas and record sunshine hours, most reports had centred on the tyrannical midge and unrelenting high-powered winds.

“It’s really flat, too,” said one of my supposed friends, with a downbeat tone.

“There are no trees or hills, you know.” But I had become suspicious. I wondered what these Tiree devotees were trying to hide and why they kept going back. So I decided to make the four-hour trip by ferry from Oban on the mainland to Tiree’s small port of Scarinish.

Tiree, measuring 12 miles by three miles, is inhabited by about 750 people, many of them crofters. Rarely rising more than 15 metres above sea level, it’s easy to see how the island came by its Gaelic name, Tir An Eorna, meaning the land beneath the waves.

It’s a laid-back place, where pottering is a prized commodity. Single track roads require slow, careful navigation by car or, better still, easy-going cycling. At this gentle pace you’re best placed to witness a kaleidoscope of the natural world.

The island boasts an extraordinary variety of birds. Crofting techniques have produced rich machair grasslands, at their prettiest during the spring months, which provide homes for a vocal collection of lapwing, snipe and other waders. If you’re lucky you may sight one of Tiree’s famously shy but noisy inhabitants, a corncrake. More than a quarter of the United Kingdom’s population of corncrake spend their summer on Tiree, arriving from sub-Saharan wintering grounds. Marine life, too, is keenly attracted to Tiree’s lochs and shores.

Spotting otters, seals, porpoises, dolphins and even Minke whales and basking sharks is not uncommon.

Above all, though, it’s Tiree’s coast that magnetises the eyes. A kind hand of nature – presumably the same one that has also gifted Tiree clement seas thanks to the Gulf Stream – has produced the Hawaiistyle beaches. As if staged to produce the most perfect picture postcard, folds of frothy white waves crash again and again over clear seas before gently lapping up numerous beaches. But because there are so many bays and secret coves, not one ever looks populated. The busiest during my stay was Gott Bay, where a couple of kite-surfers and sand-karters played alongside children building sandcastles.

Aside from the natural wonders there is plenty to keep the visitor busy. I discovered tiny art galleries, such as Blue Beyond, boasting colourful frameworks of the island’s gorgeous landscape, and craft shops, including the wonderfully eclectic Chocolates and Charms. At Tiree Pottery, a busy worker who is turning a plate at the wheel, tells me that without recourse to advertising, they sell every item of vividly colourful pottery that they can make.

Tiree’s rich history, dating back to the first Iron Age settlers, is told in various museums. At Sandaig Museum, a thatched croft house and byre, depicts 19th century island life, while the story of Tiree’s Skerryvore lighthouse, the tallest in Britain, is related at The Hynish Centre.

An Iodhlann, next to the Co-op at Scarinish, reveals a treasure trove of historical detail.

Scattered across the island are remains of Iron Age fortification. There are numerous Bronze Age standing stones, too, as well as the mysterious Ringing Stone on the northern coast, which can be reached from Balephetrish Farm or Dunmore at Vaul. The stone is about five feet tall and marked with more than 50 cup-shaped hollows. When struck, the rock gives off an eerie ringing sound but be warned: legend has it that if it ever shatters the whole island will sink into the sea.

Another distinctive sighting is the Highland black house. While a few are still thatched in the traditional manner, most owners have now opted for the more practical black tar-painted felt. It gives the long and low white homes a bottom-heavy look but in an environment where gale force winds in winter are commonplace, the style is wholly sensible.

No-one appears to mind the almost constant wind on Tiree. In fact outdoors enthusiasts flock to the island to take part in the exhilarating sports of wind surfing, kite surfing, sand yachting and blokarting. The annual Tiree Wave Classic – showcasing many of the best British windsurfers – attracts ever more devotees each October. Equally, beginners can find their feet in the shallow waters of Loch Bhasapol.

There are days, however, when the wind drops. “And that’s when the midges sometimes come out,” says a local shopkeeper, somewhat ominously. On these rare days, sports fans take the opportunity to surf. At Balevullin, on the northwest coast, Wild Diamond surf instructor Craig “Suds” Sutherland says: “When the wind is up there’s fantastic surfing for those with surfing experience, but on less windy days the waves here are great for beginners.” And so it proved. I was thrilled to find that during my first ever surfing lesson I was able to ride the waves. Standing up at one point (for all of 10 seconds!) I felt a huge rush of excitement as I sped towards the shore. I knew then that I would be making a return trip to this beautiful island – and that I too had joined that select band of travellers reluctant to spill the beans on this secret holiday hideaway.

Thankfully, though, Tiree is not about to become busy. There is only limited holiday accommodation and what there is – two hotels, a few guest houses, a hostel and 20-odd cottage lets – book up fast. If you fancy a trip you’ll need to move like the wind.

TRAVEL NOTES
Fly from Glasgow to Tiree with British Airways. www.britishairways.com

Caledonian MacBrayne www.calmac.co.uk Tel: +44 (0)1475 650 100 A five-day return ferry ticket from Oban is £21.85 per person and £127 for the car until October 21, then £18.15 per person and £105 for the car during the winter timetable

Tiree Scarinish Hotel www.tireescarinishhotel.com Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 308

Tiree Wave Classic October 14 -21 www.tireewaveclassic.com

Wild Diamond Watersports www.tireewatersports.co.uk Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 399

Tiree on Horseback www.tireeonhorseback.co.uk Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 881

Vaul Golf Club Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 729

Blue Beyond www.bluebeyond.uk.com Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 510

Chocolates & Charms www.chocolatesandcharms.co.uk Tel: +44 (0)1879 220 037