Seanair, my grandfather, was and continues to be one of my favourite people. The year before he died in 2014, my mum made him a photobook of photos she’d taken on a recent trip to Tiree, his childhood home, to allow him to connect with the island and home he was no longer able to travel to see. Thinking of this and Seanair in his final days of life, I felt quite emotional as we flew into the island, on our tiny 25-seater plane. I wish he could have been there with me, or at least have known that I was going.
Our arrival on Monday morning coincided with the beginning of A’ Bhuain, Tiree Homecoming, a festival where those with Tiree ancestors returned to the island of their roots, for a week of special events and tours. The timing could not have been more appropriate; I am a quarter Tirisdeach, after all. Tiree Homecoming first took place back in 2006 and after great demand, it was decided to bring it back in 2016. As I learned at the opening ceremony and lunch, I wasn’t the only person tracing their family roots on their trip – every second person that I spoke to had a grandmother/grandfather born in Tiree! It was incredible to see that so many visitors had come all the way from Canada for the week – their relatives had emigrated there in the late 1800s. A slightly longer journey than my hop up from London.
On arrival at the airport we were met by Neil, my mum’s first cousin, and his wife Vicky. Neil’s mother Katie and my Seanair (also called Neil) were two of six siblings who grew up on a croft in Kenovay, across the road from where Neil and Vicky live today. Unfortunately, there was a fire in the house where they grew up, and Seanair and Katie’s brother John died in the accident. Much of the building was destroyed. It has been renovated and brought back to new life today, but though the current owners were kind enough to let me walk through the house, it was difficult to get a sense of what it might have been like when Seanair and his family lived there.
However, I loved talking with Neil and Vicky, whom I was meeting on this trip for the first time in life. Neil knew Seanair as his uncle and he and Vicky had spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and spoke very fondly of them. The next best thing to having my grandparents here now is speaking with people who love them like I do.
Having hired a car on Islay, I thought it would be fun to rent bikes for our time on Tiree – it is known to be the flattest inhabited island in Scotland, after all, and who doesn’t love to cycle? I forgot to factor in (a) our next-to-zero fitness levels, and (b) the discomfort experienced when sitting on a bike for extended periods of time without practice. We didn’t even last a full day on the bikes. After returning them to their owners, we went for the classic, old school approach to transport: walking. You did want to walk four miles for lunch on your 28th birthday, right, Silvia?
Unfortunately, walking got us into a spot of bother. It was all going so well. We were walking up to Ben Hynish, the highest point on Tiree, after lunch, when Lachie Brown, one of the organisers of Tiree Homecoming, stopped to offer us a lift. “I knew your grandfather,” was the first thing he said to me, as he rolled down his window. Though I had absolutely no idea who he was, and certainly no idea how he knew who I was, I was happy to oblige and take the free ride. The view from the top of Hynish on this particular day was incredible. We could make out the silhouettes of neighbouring Islay, Jura, Mull and Rum. Suddenly, the very flat and isolated island didn’t seem so lonely. It was part of a bigger collective.
We decided to take an alternative route on the way down from Hynish as we searched for the ironically named Happy Valley. An hour and a half later, there was no sign of any valley that could be described as happy. We’d squelched our way through extensive boggy marshland and eventually realised we were entirely surrounded by barbed wire fences. Not only that, but we were about 6 miles walk from our hostel. On top of this, it was a scorching summer’s day and we had left our hostel, several miles earlier, with no sunscreen. Happy birthday, Silvia! Needless to say, we were very sunburnt the next day. So, what did we do? After establishing from a farmer that we would not be able to walk through his enclosure full of cows, and a brief scare where I actually did get stuck in the mud (sorry, beautiful new trainers), we ended up climbing three sets of barbed wire, eventually crashing in the driveway of two beautiful houses, in the middle of nowhere.
“We’re a bit lost,” I explained down the phone to Neil (thank goodness for phone signal). “You can’t get lost on Tiree!” exclaimed Neil, clearly amused by what he was hearing. He wasn’t the last person to tell us this on our trip. Thankfully he established from my very vague descriptions which particular barbed wire fence we had conquered and promised that he and Vicky would come and rescue us immediately. Meanwhile, we had caused such mayhem that we had caught the attention of the residents of one of the houses. “Come over for a cup of tea!” the man called out. We hadn’t found the happy valley, but at least we’d found a happy ending. A cup of tea, a rescue and an inspired number plate.
Tiree is very unique. With only 650 inhabitants, including roughly 100 children who attend the all-in nursery/primary/secondary school, it’s the most remote island I have ever visited. There is one bank, a Coop, another “wee” shop, and two hotels/restaurants on the island. There are also a handful of cafés, such as the delightful Farmhouse Café in Balemartine (best iced latté of my life), and the classic pottery/glass making/jewellery establishments which seem to be as engrained a part of remote Scottish island life as the cows and sheep roaming the machair. There are also a number of incredible, white, sandy beaches, which are, more often than not, entirely deserted.
However, with this isolation comes a very apparent sense of community. The Tiree Homecoming celebrations spoke for themselves in this regard. This sense of a close-knit community was particularly evident during a play performed on the Tuesday evening as part of the week’s events. The setting was a court room where different characters gave their testimonies about how their lives had been affected by the clearances in Tiree back in the late 1800s. Those participating came from all generations – from school children right up to retirees – demonstrating a kind of community and context that is foreign to my own life in London and that I have only ever experienced in a church setting. These social and cultural ties must be one of the greatest benefits of living on such a small island. Tirisdeachs also seem to know double the number of ceilidh dances that I do, as we experienced in the Homecoming Ceilidh that followed the play. Maybe that’s what they do instead of going to the cinema – invent ceilidh dances!?
As was quoted in a thank you e-mail sent to all Homecoming attendees: if you don’t go, you can’t come back. Thank you Tiree for giving me another home to come back to.
We flew from Glasgow International Airport into Tiree with FlyBe for £66, and on the return leg, took the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Tiree to mainland Oban, via Coll – an adult single costs £10.30. We stayed in a twin room at the Millhouse Hostel, located in Cornaig, north of the airport. This cost £22 per night per person.