Tiree, Scotland’s ‘Sunshine Isle’ by Paul Rees

The below article featured in the travel section of The Guardian last Wednesday the 24th of July. With the writer, Paul Rees giving a rave review of our ‘sunshine isle’. Have a read and see what you think.

The last time I sat on the saddle of a pushbike I was still in short trousers. Forty years later, I was pedalling gleefully down an undulating single-track road on a clear blue mid-July morning. Either side, the road was framed by hedgerows and, beyond, untamed croft land was gold and purple thanks to an abundance of buttercups and heather. Up ahead lay an expanse of ocean, aquamarine and twinkling. The air was rich with birdsong and the scent of grasses and sea. There wasn’t a car in sight. It was like riding into the pages of an Enid Blyton story. Until, that is, a great black-backed gull swooped from on high, plucked an enormous brown rat from a roadside ditch, soared once more to the heavens and flung its poor victim back to Earth, and its doom.

Such are the enchantments and wildness of Tiree – resident population 650, and the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides. When I arrived the previous morning by ferry from the mainland port of Oban, it didn’t so much loom as sneak into view: pancake-flat but for Ben Hynish, the solitary, 141-metre hill, and all but treeless. Tiree, though, glories in what happens around and about its 36 miles of coastline. It both reinforces and gives lie to the cliche that the beaches of the Hebrides could belong to the Caribbean or Pacific, but for their weather, heather and midges. Tiree’s edges are indeed made up of numerous secluded crescent-shaped bays, each with fine, white sand, as picturepostcard perfect as the next, and near deserted. Thanks to the mild influence of the Gulf Stream, Tiree is the Sunshine Isle, basking in more hours of annual sunlight than just about any other location in the British Isles. Since it is also out in the Atlantic, and as such also Britain’s windiest place, it has the additional advantage of being inhospitable to the summer-long curse of most of Scotland’s islands and Highlands: midges.

The Gulf Stream also warms the waters around Tiree and its near-neighbour, Coll, and they teem with life. The latter half of my four-hour ferry journey was a marine adventure in itself. From my vantage point on the upper stern deck, I counted five surfacing minke whales, an eight-strong pod of leaping white-beaked dolphins and the arched black backs of many more harbour porpoise. Not to mention squadrons of gulls, shags, guillemots, arctic terns, marauding arctic skuas and diving gannets.

The three-mile drive from the tiny port of Scarinish to my accommodation covered a quarter of Tiree’s length. I stayed in a cosy, white-walled crofter’s cottage, Traigh Mhor, surrounded on three sides by heathland grazed by a herd of Highland cattle, and facing out to the island’s longest uninterrupted stretch of sand, Gott Bay. Other snug and hardy houses (with outer walls painted bright pink, yellow or red) are dotted along the track roads that criss-cross the island. At 12 in number, Tiree also boasts the highest concentration of traditional thatched buildings in Scotland. Tiree’s two exceptions to convention are House No 7 and An Turas. Nestled into a coastal promontory at the southern tip of Scarinish, the former is a multi-award-winning home. Designed and built for his parents by London-based architect Murray Kerr, it is a striking, but empathetic melding of an older, renovated cottage with a brace of more futuristic-looking, metal-clad, barn-like extensions. Sadly, it’s not for rent. Sited dockside at Scarinish port and Scotland’s 2003 Building of the Year, An Turas meanwhile is a standout cuboid structure of glass, metal and wood that serves as both art exhibition space and a shelter for foot passengers on the ferry. Both buildings bring a dash of daring to Tiree. Otherwise, Tiree is an escape from the fast pace of modernity and best seen from a bike (hired from various outlets around the island, from £8 a day).

On a glorious afternoon, I pedalled up and down Tiree’s southern extremity, visiting Balevullin Bay at one end and Balephuil Bay at the other. At Balevullin, surfers and windsurfers rode crashing whitewater waves. From Balephuil, the venerable Skerryvore lighthouse is visible on the horizon, standing guard on its base of jagged, treacherous rock. It was described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “the noblest of all deep sea lights”, and there is a charming museum to this 19th-century monument at the nearby township of Hynish. For lunch, I called at the Farmhouse Cafe, just around the headland from Hynish in Balemartine, which offers simple sandwich and snack fare. Sitting on a sun-dappled patio I was serenaded from the bordering grassland by the distinctive comb-scraping-on-matchbox call of corncrake. Later, I stopped off at Chocolate & Charms, a gift-and-snack shop in Heylipol, for a cup of rich, creamy hot chocolate. On this occasion, from my outside perch on a wooden bench, I was dive-bombed by batteries of swallows and sand martin.

Eating out at night in Tiree is also a rustic experience. The island has a handful of fish and chip shops, and the Cobbled Cow at Crossapol does meat and seafood dinners, but you will search in vain for fine dining. Best bet for an evening meal is to pick up something from Tiree Lobster & Crab in Scarinish. It’s basically a Portacabin in the car park next to the Co-op, and sells catch-of-the-day fish and shellfish at reasonable prices. On my last night on Tiree, I walked a mile up the road from my cottage to Salum Bay. This more rugged, tucked-away corner of the island hosts a 70-strong grey seal colony and affords a panoramic view of the Outer Hebrides, the shadow peaks of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula sweeping off into the further Atlantic.

At 11pm, the darkened sky was still gashed with the crimson of a setting sun and there was no sound but for the barking of seals and lapping waves.

Like Tiree, I was entirely at peace.

One comment

  • Another summer draws to a close, and its obvious from social media that some still have difficulty comprehending that year on year visitor numbers will continue to increase and that change is accelerating faster than many can comprehend.

    “The odd thing is that Tirisdeachs and second homers and holiday-makers are all after the same thing. What each of Tiree’s tribes wants is an island just full enough of members of the same tribe, but where they can still exist completely without self-consciousness. Despite fears of total invasion, it seems likely that stalking John Swinney MSP round the machair will remain a niche interest. Either way, the game is up. It was up a long time ago. Once you’ve reached 26,000 visitors a year, you better accept you’re an open secret.”

    The campervan scheme has acted as a short term solution on Tiree, a sticking plaster on a long term issue that is affecting all of our Scottish remoter and wilder beauty spots. Campervans offer freedom to roam the highways and byeways for all, it is a great way to holiday…and if you are inclined to enjoy outdoor sports be they water based or landbased…they offer the ideal transportation method, but you need somewhere to park-up, go to the toilet and shower.
    We do not even reach a bare minimum for such infrastructure on Tiree, and we cannot, unless we are the first in the UK turn such vehicles away. Why would we want to ever contemplate turning such an income stream away is I am afraid nonsensical.

    We can’t fight this change but we can manage it.

    Its high time that diversification of all types that embraces this income stream is allowed to flourish in a sustainable manner. If we do not diversify the full time residents of Tiree may be trampled underfoot and miss a genuine opportunity, alternatively we can at a latter date stick our heads in whatever remains of the machir and a few of us can sell t shirts saying ” we told you so”. Ultimately, or at least at the moment only the busier months of July and August seem to cause issue…but the shoulder months and even winter visitors are increasing.
    The 8>10 weeks of summer income can go a long way in seeing a Tiree family through an entire winter.

    “To little to late” is the real elephant in the room for all of us who actually live on Tiree or love Tiree,… and its time for us all to face up to this fact.

    solutions to the problem on a postcard please.

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