Isle of Tiree – Sunshine Island

Isle of Tiree - Scarinish HarbourThe Isle of Tiree, in Gaelic, Eilean Tiriodh is the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides, sixty miles west of Oban and twenty-two miles west of Ardnamurchan, the nearest point on the Scottish mainland. The small islet of Gunna and then the Isle of Coll lie close by to the northeast. Tiree is about twelve miles long and six miles wide at its widest point, and is mostly low-lying, with wide open skies and sea views in all directions. There are two hills; Ben Hynish in the south rises to 462 ft and Ben Hough in the northwest tops at 390 ft. The island’s beaches extend most of the way around the island’s shoreline, a distance of forty-six miles altogether.

Tiree has a mild climate, with some of the highest levels of sunshine recorded anywhere in the British Isles, averaging 220+ hours in the month of May. It also benefits from the mild influence of the Gulf Stream, so frost is rare and summer weather is warm and pleasant. Being fairly flat and ‘out in the open’ in the Atlantic, Tiree is also known as a windy place, with winter gales normally occurring in December and January. The advantage, however, is that in summer-time the breezes keep the midges away. Rainfall is low, averaging 45 inches per year.

In 1883, George, eighth Duke of Argyll wrote that the climate was “far better than that of the mainland. There is much less rain, the rainfall scarcely exceeding the average of from 35 to 40 inches. I fully expect that far on in summers I shall not see, the island of Tiree will be a great resort of health. Its strong yet soft sea-air, its comparative dryness, its fragrant turf full of wild thyme and clover, its miles of pure white sandy bays equally pleasant for riding, driving, or walking, or for sea-bathing, and last not least, its unrivalled expanses for the game of golf, all combine to render it most attractive and wholesome in the summer months. My own tastes would lead me to add, as a special recommendation, its wealth of sky ringing with the song of skylarks, which are extraordinarily abundant.”

Tiree’s weather (station)
The weather dominates life on Tiree, as in other Hebridean islands, in a way it rarely does in mainland towns and cities. Prevailing south-westerly winds bring weather systems in from the Atlantic, often in succession. There are gales on average of thirty four days a year. Listeners to the BBC’s Shipping Forecast and Reports from Coastal Stations will be familiar with the reports from Tiree. Tiree’s first meteorological station was set up in 1926 in a corner of Cornaig schoolyard, with headmaster Mr. D O MacLean reporting weather observations by telegraph three times a day. In 1935, the instruments were moved to a purpose-built enclosure to the north-west of the school. Taking over the running of the station during te war years, the RAF moved it again, this time to Crossapol, and the 518 Squadron flew twice-daily weather reconnaisance trips 800 miles out into the Atlantic. The new weather station at Tiree airport was built in 1995 and was automated in July 2000.

Traigh Bhi, Balephuil Bay
Traigh Bhi, Balephuil Bay

Beaches and Surfing
The island’s beautiful beaches provide miles of clean, fine white sands, natural tidal paddling pools for the little ones, and surfing, body-boarding and windsurfing for the adventurous. The prevailing south-westerly winds bring a succession of weather systems from the Atlantic and its numerous beaches make for satisfyingly large waves, and the island has become a magnet for intrepid windsurfers. The Tiree Wave Classic – the exciting windsurfing National Championship event on Argyll’s ‘sunshine island’ of Tiree, runs annually in the autumn. The world’s best windsurfers will compete against each other at the UK’s premier windsurfing competition. The 6-day event gets dedicated worldwide TV coverage as competitors brave the full Atlantic furies of wind and waves off this Hebridean island. First held in 1986 and sanctioned to World Cup level in 2007, the superb waves and £5000 prize fund provides the riskiest and most adventurous challenge for windsurfing’s elite competitors.

The Granary of the Hebrides
The name Tiree/Tiriodh, Tir Iodh, means ‘the land of corn’, and as the most fertile of the Hebridean islands, Tiree has been known as the granary of the Hebrides, as grain crops grow well in Tiree’s machair and famously sunny weather. Tiree’s land is shared between 286 crofts and five farms, with the land divided into thirty one crofting townships, each managed by a Grazing Committee. In an agricultural sense, Tiree has an outer ring of machair, a middle area of dark, rich, arable earth, and a centre of peaty ground called sliabh (pronounced slieve). In most crofting townships the land is apportioned so as to give each croft a ‘slice’ of each type of ground, for rotational use. The hill grazing and sliabh, which keep their moisture, are used mainly for summer grazing. The field land in the middle area is cropped, growing grass for silage or hay, and corn, and the machair provides grazing during wetter times of the year. A deep layer of windblown shell-sand makes up the machair soil, providing the beautiful and useful habitat of the machair lands. Machair is a fragile environment, and can, in all the islands, and as it is free-draining, can become dry and ‘burnt’ by strong summer sun and wind where the vegetation is not kept long enough to cover and hold the ground. After agriculture, Tiree’s other industries are in tourism, fishing for shellfish, and the service sector.

Traigh Bail
Tiree Traigh Bail

21st Century Tiree
While farming and, to a lesser extent, fishing, continue to provide most of the income of Tiree, tourism plays an increasing part in the island’s economy. Accommodation on Tiree is offered by two hotels and a selection of guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and self catering cottage holiday lets. A number of the island’s houses are holiday homes. There is a bank, post office, two general stores, an electrical good shop, a hardware store, two garages and a variety of small studio art and craft galleries. The two hotels serve meals to non-residents, and there are two further restaurants, and An Talla or the Rural Centre serve lunches and snacks. There’s a nine-hole golf course at Vaul. Tiree School at Cornaigmore village provides full primary and secondary education. Tiree High School teaches up to sixth year, for students aged about 18 and to university entrance standard. About half of the island’s population are Gaelic speakers, and the school teaches in both Gaelic and English. Its population is currently around 770, a level that has been relatively stable over the last 10 years after prolonged depopulation due to emigration during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Early Settlers
Recent archaeological research shows that there have been settlers in Tiree since Mesolithic times, about 7,500 years ago. Although no traces of their boats have yet been discovered, there have been worked flints from the time of these hunter-gatherer people found around the shoreline of Tiree. Examples of early more permanent settlement on Tiree come from remains of over twenty Iron Age forts dating from about 500BC. Most of these were built on steep crags, to be visible from the sea and visible from each other. Warning of attack may have been passed by signal fires from one to the other. Good examples of forts on the island can be seen at Dùn na Cleite (fort of the pointed hill) at the end of Happy Valley and at Dùn Shiadair (fort of the shieling) in West Hynish.
Two Iron Age brochs can be seen on Tiree. Dùn Mòr Bhalla (the big fort of Vaul) is the only pre-historic structure on Tiree that has been properly excavated, and pottery and tools dating from approximately 800BC were found from a settlement pre-dating the broch itself. Broch Dùn Mòr a’ Chaolais (the big fort of Caolas) overlooks Milton harbour.

Columba and his twelve companions settled on Iona in 563, then on afterwards founded a monastery on Tiree. This is thought to have been located at the old burial ground at Soroby, but it is may have been near (or under!) the old chapels at Kirkapol. 8th century Vikings from southern Norway raided the Hebrides, then began to settle and farm in the islands. Two graves, said to be from the Viking period, have been found on the island. A tortoise-shell shaped brooch and a bronze pin were found in 1872 and have been exhibited in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. The archaeological and documentary records leave only tantalising hints, but a native population seems to have survived alongside the new settlers. The centuries from 1000 to 1500 were a time of turbulence in the Hebrides, with disputes between the Kings of Norway, the Isle of Man, local warlords, the Lordship of the Isles and eventually the Scottish Crown.

Tiree Gott Bay
Gott Bay at sunset

In the 1715 uprising the Duke of Argyll led the government side, defeating the Earl of Mar’s army at Sherriffmuir. The following year saw 358 Tiree men disarmed in Scarinish by the Duke’s representative as the majority of them were Jacobite rebels fighting against the government. By the time of the 1745 uprising, little had changed on the island. In the aftermath of Bonny Prince Charlie’s defeat at Culloden, thirty government soldiers arrived on Tiree. Their leader was “to apprehend some of the leading rebels and drive their cattle, nay I should be glad if he would even burn some of their houses”.
The population of Tiree rose to about 4,500 in the 1830s, due to more efficient agriculture, the introduction of the potato, and the kelp industry.

Kelp Industry
Brown seaweeds called kelp grow in the seas around Tiree in enormous quantities. It was discovered during the eighteenth century that iodine, soda and potash could be recovered by burning some seaweed species. These minerals were required by the soap and glass-making industries, and for commercial linen bleaching. Fresh kelp was harvested by going into the sea and cutting it off the rocks or the sea bed, or by snagging it with tools from small boats. Seaweed was dried by the shore, then in the summer months the kelp was burnt for many hours in pits, then pounded into chunks with kelp irons. The pit was then covered in turf and the cooled ash cakes later collected to transport. Kelp pits can still be seen at the north end of Tràigh Bhì by Ceann a’ Bharra and at the west end of Balevullin beach.

tiree Beach and Machair
Tiree Beach, Dunes and Machair

Life as a tangle gatherer was hard. Donald MacLean, a 65 year old cottar from Kilmoluaig, gave evidence to the 1883 Napier Commission. “They [the kelp workers] are badly treated in many a way. They very often have to get up at midnight [for the low spring tides] and go away and pick up tangle out of the surf when the sea is washing over them, and take it up out of the reach of the tide on their backs over rough ground.”

From 1848-1852 many people emigrated from Tiree, sailing to Montreal on board the ships Barlow, Charlotte, Birman, Onyx and Conrad. In 1849 alone, 600 people left Tiree for Canada. Many of the emigrants were offered grants, but the Duke of Argyll also demanded evictions. However, Tiree largely escaped the brutality of forced clearances as happened in Sutherland and other Highland areas. In the later 19th and early 20th century many young men went from Tiree to Patagonia, Argentina. Donald Paterson from Cù’ Dhèis, Balinoe, was a stock approver in Patagonia. Writing to his brother in Tiree in 1885 said that he had taken up nine square miles of land, almost 6,000 acres. Patagonia still has a small enclave of Scottish Gaelic speakers, because of the emigrants of that time. Even though they were well paid and land was cheap or free, many of the Patagonian emigrants later returned to Tiree.

By the 1880s, the still-increasing population brought agitation for land, in Tiree and throughout the Highlands and Islands. Members of the Napier Commission were appointed by the Government to examine the land issue, holding a public meeting in one of Tiree’s churches on 7th August 1883. The Crofters Act of 1886 which resulted from these public consultations set fair rents, security of tenure, the ability to bequeath crofts to a successor and the entitlement to compensation for improvements if the crofter later gave up his croft. This was and still is overseen by the Crofters Commission. In their first visit to Tiree in 1887, the new Commission slashed rents on the island.

Tiree Blackhouses
There are still twelve traditional thatched buildings on Tiree, the highest concentration left in Scotland of housing which was once very common. The design and method of thatching is unique, and this vernacular architecture of Tiree is one of the features which strike the visitor. These traditional houses were built from dressed stone, laid without mortar in a double wall. Between the two walls, layer of sand was inserted. The compound walls are commonly six feet thick from ‘outdoors’ to inner surface, with deeply inset windows and one doorway. The roof trusses are supported by the inside wall top on the tobhta (the double wall head), and water runs off the roof and down between the two layers of stone. The usual material for thatching in Tiree is the tough marram grass which grows on dunes above the beaches. A layer of marram is laid loose on the roof, then new thatch applied over the old every two years. Traditionally the thatch would be secured using knotted ropes held down with stone weights. Steel chicken-mesh or fishing nets are now used. These ‘black’ houses, so called because the chimney-less type were rather dark and smoky inside, went out of use on Tiree by the 1950s although a small number are still in use today.

Tiree Ferry Terminal
Tiree Calmac Ferry Terminal

Getting to Tiree
Caledonian MacBrayne runs regular ferries from Oban. There are frequent flights, except Sundays, operated by British Airways/Flybe from Glasgow. The island’s residents provide a wide variety of very comfortable accommodation, and there is always a warm welcome.

Tiree Ring and Ride
Isle of Tiree - Ring and RideThis service is available on demand anywhere on the Isle of Tiree between the hours of 0700 to 1800 hrs Mondays to Saturdays with extended evening service available on Tuesdays up to 2200 hrs. Please note that these times relate to when the bus is in operation. It may not be possible to uplift you at 0700 exactly or to set you down as late as 1800 (or 2200 on Tuesdays) depending on where you are on the Island. Preference will be given to bookings connecting to or from Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sailings. Anyone can use this service. To book a journey contact the operator (Nancy McKechnie trading as
John Kennedy) on 01879 220419. Journeys can be booked up to one week in advance and as late as up to one hour before the time of travel (subject to availability). Normal fares apply on this service and holders of the Strathclyde Concessionary Travel Card travel free.

 Tiree Community & Local Websites. Tourist Information: – Isle of Tiree visitor information – Isle of Tiree images – Tiree Wave Classic information – Tourist Information for Argyll
Tiree Map – Detailed OS map of the island

image copyright ferry pier and machair Roger McLachlan, traigh bail Sue Jackson, traigh Bhi Irvine Smith licensed for reuse creative commons licence