Donald Brown is a man with two sets of clothing. A blue boiler suit that he wears all through the week, and a clean blue boiler suit he saves for Sundays. He’s a thick set, burly Hebridean of the old school, and yet speaks with the highest, softest tone I’ve ever heard. Donald is a crofter, a fisherman, a postman, sometime driver of the school bus and the best bet for a lift from the pier end to the place at the far end of the island where I’m staying. I stepped off the Lord of the Isles (glad to leave the diesel oil and bacon buttie stench of the canteen) and into the rusty land rover.
We started off down the single-track road. There is only one road in Tiree, with pockets of dusty passing places etched into fields every few hundreds yards – and if there’s an oncoming car we pull into these, always accompanied with a smile and wave. The road goes around the edge of the island, following the contours of the sandy beaches and rocky inlets. Tiree is a very low island; there are no hills apart from on the west point, where steep cliffs are inhabited by swooping gulls that reside on the ledges. The island has many names, one of them being the “Land Below the Waves”. Even on a fine day, one is so close to the water that it feels a little like being on a boat. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that wherever one stands on the island, it is possible to see the sea. On a clear day the colours are like nowhere else, as if they’ve come straight from a child’s paint box. Lurid greens and bright hues of blue that can change dramatically in a flash, or a passing cloud. You can set off for a walk with a picnic in the sunshine, only to find yourself drenched from a spontaneous storm, five minutes later.
Watching the colours shift, the tide change and the weather move is one of the many pleasures of being on the island, and when there I always feel very aware of how small I am in the face of the immensity of nature. It is always windy on the island; there is no shelter found in trees or hills from the wild gales – and on a really blustery day the sea tosses and rages, threatening to swallow you up whole. During the winter months you can feel quite cut off from the outside world, and many a time I’ve been unable to return to the mainland in time for the new school term, as the weather is too wild and the ferries are cancelled. Nevertheless, whatever the weather, we spend a lot of time outside. I still remember the time my sisters dressed a four year old me in all the coats and puffer jackets we had, and pushed me between them like a giant beach ball being tossed in the wind. The aim of the game was to see whose push would send me face into the grass, and how long it would then take for me to stand up, in fierce combat with the wind.
It is very invigorating, if overwhelming, being on the island in the winter – however in the summer it’s a completely different place. This isn’t only due to the fact that – more often than not – the wind drops and the sun shines (Tiree has the reputation for being the sunniest place on the British Isles). There are 660 inhabitants on the island, but the population swells to more than three times in the summer months. During the last weekend of July, Tiree hosts a ‘traditional folk and pop music festival’, which attracts all sorts of visitors from families, to ageing hippies, to bored teenagers seeking a thrill. “The Red Hot Chilli Pipers” are regulars on the main stage (the field by the Village Hall) and have their part to play in the making the festival as renowned as it is. Each year there is a drama surrounding the Tiree Music Festival. One year the weather turned bad and campers were moved, for their safety into the school hall (their tents found, in the morning, attached to the fences on the side of the road). Another year the headliners couldn’t be flown in on the old aeroplane. Once the food stalls were, mostly, without food due to a complication with the lorry loading from the mainland. It’s always an event, even if sometimes for the wrong reasons.
Like Donald, the locals are friendly and always encourage gossip on whatever might be happening on the mainland. It may seem like the island is stuck in a time-warp – detached from the outside world – but the introduction of broadband and wireless connection means that the islanders are actually much more engaged and interested in current affairs than one might imagine. A bill to establish a wind farm eight miles off the coast of the island was met with fierce and well organised opposition and thus the proposal was scrapped, much to everyone’s delight.
The pleasures of Tiree are very simple ones, kite and windsurfers go for the waves, birdwatchers go for the wildlife, but it seems to me that whether you are an adrenaline junkie or nature lover, the charm of the island is a hard one to resist.
It’s a profoundly peaceful and unpretentious place, where it is impossible not to relax and forget about pretty much everything that you’ve left behind. I have been going to Tiree since I was born, and whilst I still can’t fully understand the thick Gaelic accent of Donald and his friends, I would almost always prefer to be there than anywhere else.