Tiree is a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland, one of the inner Hebrides. Until last year, I had never been there. Mind you, there are 790 islands off the coast of Scotland (so says Mr Wikipedia), so on one hand perhaps that is not so surprising. However, I have just counted off on my fingers that I have only, in fact, actually been to 11 other Scottish islands (Arran, Rum, Iona, Lewis, Harris, Mainland (Shetland), Skye, Bute, Crammond Island, Menteith and Little Cumbrae (also known as Millport), so I have quite a few to catch up on.
I wrote the following on my second visit to Tiree, in April 2016, when there was an unexpected snow fall – the first in 6 years. Needless to say, I was the only person running around with a camera, taking photographs. The local people were digging out lambs and filling 4x4s with bales of feed for the cattle.
Back in the warmth, I tried to capture the colours and the impressions that I have of Tiree, the very things which keep drawing me back.
The island of Tiree is a tiny gem in a necklace of precious stones strung across the sapphire velvet of the sea. The 15 seater Twin Otter circles lazily over the bays and the lochs, over the fields and the machair, and manages to avoid the sheep and the hares on the runway as it lands.
I walk everywhere here, on the narrow roads between the sea and the land. The sporadic drivers always wave as I hop out of their way onto the flower-strewn verge, and I wave back like we are old friends.
Tiree is the sunniest place in the UK, I’ve read, and I have packed my sunscreen and sunglasses. But the wind on Tiree is ferocious, threatening to tear me apart. I am wearing my windproof jacket and thermal trousers. My extremities are protected by Thinsulate fleece. Anything to block out the raging wind which scours the land, rioting across the island like a viking marauder, and tears my hair from under my hat, sending it streaming in Medusa ribbons around my face.
Walking the island in April, and I am drunk on the colours. The sky is the high azure of the Mediterranean, cloudless and wide. The land is a rich green, studded with tiny daisies and celandines. Brave daffodils still muster in the lee of houses where the heavy slate roofs anchor the homes to the earth.
Energetic lambs race their own shadows, and skip around with their brothers and sisters. Their mothers call anxiously, and the lambs answer, and the air is full of their sound.
The birds are nesting on an island where there are no trees, and rise up calling as my footfalls disturb the ground. Lapwings, curlew and skylarks mingle their calls across the fields, as the geese begin their flight south.
But the sea is where my eyes are drawn, the intensity of colour demands my attention. The grassy machair gives way to the pink white beach which curves elegantly like the fallen sickle moon.
It is strewn with grey-brown rocks, as old as the universe, scattered by a giant hand, and draped in bright orange lichen which glows like neon. Banks of seaweed lie scarlet and orange, like the shreds of a soldier’s uniform. But look closely in the small pools, and seaweed is also luminous green and shocking pink. My eyes feast.
But the sea. Oh the sea. From translucent pale green, au-de-nil, it sucks and foams into turquoise and then to the dark green of bottle glass. White crested waves shoulder each other out of the way as they rise from the dark sapphire of the Atlantic. I am stunned into silence by the intensity and purity of the colour and, one by one, feel my senses drown.
I return to the house, with rosy-cheeks and sparkling eyes, and fall asleep as the sound of the wind and the waves rock the island into night.
The morning curtains show only heavy opaque glass and my brain struggles to register what it sees. Windblown snow has covered the windows and the house is dark inside. I am not expecting this after so many sunny mornings and intoxicating days of colour. When the sound of the snow hitting the glass stops, I bundle up and step into a monochrome world, a world suddenly negated.
The land and the houses have disappeared under a blanket of heavy snow, whose whiteness glows. I trudge to the beach, curious. The pink white beaches are dazzling draped in snow, which reaches even to the edge of the sea.
I am amazed that the snow has even covered this, covered the pink white sands and the dark rocks and the seaweed.
The snow and the sand and the sea all nestle together as the orange-billed oyster catchers huddle disconsolately in the raging wind. The sea is now a deep charcoal, its teeth flashing white and fierce, snapping at the seabirds. The sky hangs heavy with roiling clouds of portent, which boil ceaselessly and obscure the light.
In this void of colour I still take delight. This is the negative of Tiree.
I walk home to the sound of the plaintive bleating of the confused lambs calling to their mothers who, equally, have no explanation for this. The horses dance in the snow, white and black.
The old burnt-out croft has become a thing of beauty, draped in a white shawl. Primroses poke through in pale resistance.
I am not really prepared for Tiree. But Tiree herself is prepared for anything.