Rain at first, sun later. Force 8 gale imminent
Peter Walker finds that the remote Hebridean isle of Tiree is more than just a name in the shipping forecast
Sunday 20 September 1998
But no one else aboard The Clansman seemed to mind. The passengers fell into three broad categories: islanders returning from the mainland dressed in new Oxford Street-style booty; city folk wearing rustic jerseys, heavy boots and sou'westers; and surfers who had no uniform but who are always indistinguishable from one another anyway. There was also a minor but sharply defined sub-group in category two: a little gang of modernist architects, of whom more later. All of them eagerly crowded along the rails identifying objects of interest on the featureless coast. When we docked they hurried ashore urgently and disappeared into the tempest.
Tiree has a population of about 800. We docked at Scarinish, the capital, which has a small supermarket, a pub renowned for its gloom, and about 20 houses bracing themselves against the gale. The village reminded me of Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, though without the metropolitan bustle. The island is about 12 miles long and has the advantage for visitors of being undeniably a part of Britain and at the same time strangely foreign. The traditional houses - a good many survive - have walls 9ft thick and small roofs like upturned hulls, and they look not just unlike any other houses in Britain, but unlike any in Europe.
Scarinish also has a good butcher's shop, and at certain back doors lobsters longer than your forearm can be bought. Planning to come back later to stock up, we left Scarinish to drive to a house we had rented about five miles away. It was a surprise to see no Argentinian war graves just outside town, but there were plenty of other objects to consider: black cows, brown-and-white cows and some unusual grey cows ("It's the worry," said Margot) all turning their backsides to the storm.
There were, as well, a number of sheep and, always just out of sight, Britain's largest population of corncrakes, a species of bird of whose existence I had been unaware until then. The corncrake is a rare and furtive bird which no one, as far as I can make out, has ever actually seen but only heard - and even that with some difficulty on Tiree, above the noise of the wind.
Philologists debate over the meaning of the name Tiree, but it's plainly a bit of Gaelic onomatopoeia, imitating the scream of a gale. Not long after I reached this conclusion, however, everything went still. The rain ceased, the wind died down, and then the famous sunshine came out shining far away over the grassland, and suddenly Tiree became a land of contentment, of heart's-ease, both open and secretive at the same time, like a child's drawing.
I could see, as well, why it is loved by modernist architects. With its bare white houses standing alone on the spare lines of grass and rock, Tiree is that fashionable thing - a set of structures reduced to absolute essentials. "Pity there aren't trees on this island," I said incautiously. "Trees? What do you want them for?" was the architectural response, rather scornful, as if I had called for the return of the doily or admired a row of Victorian caryatids.
Later in the day we went to one of the houses across the tundra and were met at the door by a beaming lady who arranged to procure lobsters for us. A big white gull settled on a post a foot away, while an old dog came out of the house and barked hoarsely at some invisible Hebridean presence moving across the tableland. As to the Gaelicness of the place, it's hard to tell. Certainly, an unknown and melodious language can be heard in the shops, though it stops when a stranger comes in, probably on the principle that it is too good for the English to overhear.
For the rest of the week the sun came and went, though mostly it went, and from time to time the wind died down, though never for long. This is, of course, a good thing in Scotland since the wind blows the midges away, and makes the wind-surfers happy on their inland loch. There is ocean surfing at a couple of chosen beaches, where the water temperature in early August was 52 degrees Fahrenheit, "and 53 in the warm bits", according to a blue and shivering Aussie I met. On the other beaches, where there are no surfers in black wetsuits bobbing up and down in the water, seals fill the same ecological niche, and if you call out in a certain way (Margot favoured a kind of shrill Germanic scald - "Ach! ach! ach!") sleek heads pop up and look around enquiringly.
Tiree has two museums, one dedicated to arts and crafts which failed to lure me in, and another fine little institution, set up in a kind of Victorian mock-lighthouse, and devoted to the "Lighthouse Stevensons", the family who in the last century built a series of granite lighthouses enclosing the whole coast of Scotland in a great loop of safety. The museum concentrates particularly on the construction of Skerryvore, "perhaps the most beautiful lighthouse in the world", according to the writer Bella Bathurst, who is writing a book on the Stevensons and their towers, which became a symbol of reassurance used by building societies and insurance companies the world over.
A little later, when we were further along the coast, the rain cleared and there it was on the horizon: Skerryvore, smaller than a matchstick, utterly remote, and familiar as a nursery tale.
The Isle of Tiree is reached by boat from Oban on Caledonian Macbrayne Ferries (tel: 0990 650000). Crossings take nearly four hours and depart five days a week (not Thursday or Sunday), reduced to three per week after 18 October. A five-day return costs pounds 17.80. To reach Oban, there are three trains a week from Glasgow. The journey takes about three hours and a return ticket costs from pounds 22.90 (tel: 0345 484950).
Where to stay
The Oban Tourist Office (tel: 01631 563122) has a list of accommodation possibilities on the Isle of Tiree, including self-catering, b&b and two hotels, the Scarinish (tel: 01688 220308) and the Tiree Lodge (tel: 01688 220368).
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