A good thing about having preconceptions about a place is that you can often find yourself surprised and delighted with the reality that confronts you when you’re actually in amongst it. So it was with my visit to Tiree a couple of weeks back. Adouble-whammy trip to Coll and Tiree – the Hebridean Twins, lying south-west of Ardnamurchan and west of Mull – had been looming for a while, but when the time came to depart I felt a little reluctant.
I needed to visit these isles to walk the routes planned for the forthcoming guidebook to Walking on Rum and the Small Isles, to which Coll and Tiree have been tacked because of geographic proximity. I wasn’t really looking forward to the Tiree bit, which was the first part of the trip, though I normally love walking trips on my own – I’d be spending four days walking around the coast and camping – I thought the walking would be uninteresting as the island is low-lying, not very rugged and relatively densely populated for a Heb.
The second part of the trip would take me to Coll where I’d be staying in a holiday cottage with The Lovely Fiona, Dougal the dog and our friends Andy and Giulia; I was really looking forward to the Coll bit, the island looks more rugged and interesting and I enjoy the company of my wife, dog and our lovely friends, so this made me feel like the Tiree part would be a bit of an annoying necessity.
How wrong can you be? Sure, Tiree is low-lying, not very rugged etc, but it’s certainly blessed with some magnificent coastline, tremendous views, plentiful wildlife and usually a bracing breeze. Furthermore, the folk I met were – with one exception – warm and friendly in an unassuming way.
So, after a long journey from Glasgow – 3 hours train, 3 hours wait, 4 hours ferry – I disembarked at Scarinish and walked the few miles across the island on a very rustic road to Balephetrish Bay. Above the eastern end of the bay, there is a farm and a couple of houses – one of which is decked out in a fine collection of net floats, marker buoys and other such man-made flotsam.
I asked at the furthermost house if it was ok to camp in the dunes behind the bay and I was told in a soft, lilting accent with a faint Irish hue – which would become familiar over coming days – that that would be fine. So I found me a spot sheltered from the stiff breeze – which would become familiar over coming days – and pitched my tent. I brewed some tea, rustled up some tuna fandango and went to admire the bay.
I retired to the tent and read Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent Slaughterhouse Five which is about a gangly and weak young American lad by the name of Billy Pilgrim, who gets captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy is eventually transferred to Dresden where he survives the firestorm resulting from Allied bombing, which killed 25,000 people in a series of raids between February 13th and 15th 1945.
Thus far the novel is based on Vonnegut’s own wartime experience, where the narrative begins to diverge from the semi-autobiographical is when Billy is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and is kept in a zoo there with a kidnapped blue movie (that’s what they used to call them) star by the name of Montana Wildhack. Needless to say it’s a hugely entertaining read…
I digress. I was up promptly next morning with the bright early light, the breeze was still there, though not as stiff as the previous evening. My plan was to walk around the entire coast of the eastern part of the island – around 15 miles or so – and return to Balephetrish for a second night. I set off at the back of 8am and pottered along the coast; after a few miles I spotted the famous Ringing Stone. Here’s a description from the forthcoming guide book:
The Ringing Stone, known as Clach a’ Choire in Gaelic, is so called as it emits a range of resonant metallic tones when struck with stones. It is an erratic boulder carried from the isle of Rum, 56kms to the north, by the ice during the last glacial period. The light grey granodiorite boulder is much younger than Tiree’s ancient Lewisian gneiss – some of the oldest rock in the world. The Ringing Stone is decorated with dozens of cup marks – 53 to be exact – which date back 4000 years and are believed to have religious significance, though their precise purpose and meaning is unknown. Tradition has it that the stone was thrown by a giant from Mull – should it ever be removed from Tiree the island will sink below the waves and be lost forever.
It seems that some pagans or hippies or hippy pagans (with full respect) had decorated the stone by placing pebbles in the cup marks and adorning it with a small piece of knitting.
I wanted to see what the stone looked like with its cup marks on show so I’m afraid I removed the pebbles…
I did put the knitting back though. The Curse of the Pagan Hippies struck me a couple of days later…
Anyway, after my brief interaction with this splendid glacial erratic, I continued on my way along the coast. After a couple of miles of bouncing along on springy machair turf and squelching through some slightly boggy ground, I found myself at the western end of the lovely Vaul Bay.
I scampered around the bay keeping to that stretch of sand freshly stranded by the receding tide, which is always the most solid part of a sandy beach. Up and over a low rock and dune outcrop traversed by a stock fence – a soon to be familiar phenomenon. I dropped down to continue along the possibly-even-more-lovely Salum Bay and near its eastern end I parked myself at the edge of the dunes to scribble some notes. No fancy palm top computers for yours truly! It was then that I noticed a tall, tanned figure in shorts striding along the bay in my footsteps – unmistakably a walker! I took a picture – as the publishers like to have the scenery pics populated – then approached to ask if he minded (shoot first, ask questions later). He didn’t and asked when he might expect a royalty cheque in the post – ho ho!
So, I spent a very enjoyable hour walking in the company of this fine gentleman, name of Don Maxwell who hails from the north-east of England and was holidaying on Tiree with one of his sons. I would say that Don was some way beyond retirement age, but I would also say that he looked a lot fitter than the majority of men half his age. A keen hill walker, Don had been a member of the Chamois Mountaneering Club for years and regaled me with a few tales, including an account of an epic trip to Rum in the early ’70s. We strolled on together, around the island’s north-eastern tip at Urvaig and then gazed across the Sound of Gunna to the eponymous small island with Coll just beyond.
We continued on our way along the coast with sparkling vistas of sunlit sea and sand in every direction.
The breeze-whipped concoction of sand, salt and sun was wonderfully invigorating. We carried on walking and talking for a while as the coastline turned south, Don told me that although he’d climbed the majority of Munros, he’d quit when one day he found himself having a miserable time in miserable weather on a miserable hill. I admire a man who can stand back from the tyranny of the hill-collectors’ list and say ‘actually, no…’. Don also told me with no small amount of quiet pride about his sons, keen athletes all. The son he was holidaying with is a keen kite surfer – Tiree is a Mecca for enthusiasts of the sport and windsurfing too – and had invited his dad on holiday as a xmas present.
After a while I realised that I needed to scribble some more notes, so Don and I parted company. A little later I saw his lofty figure loping along in the distance; a fine man indeed.
I continued along the coast, around Rubha Dubh – Tiree’s easternmost point – passing a couple of remote houses along the way. On passing the lonely cottage at Port Ban, I was into some slightly rougher terrain, though a little heather and rock is as nought to a veteran of Jura’s wild west coast. I followed the rocky coastline as it turned west and soon enough I passed through a wooden gate to join a path. The path became a track, then became a road and I follwed this around to the small pier and harbour at Milton. From the pier I followed a serpentine landrover track at length before crossing a few stock fences and emerging onto the beach at Skipinish. A short stroll around Rubh’ a’ Phuirt Bhig – at the landward end of a sandy isthmus connecting the tide-separated islet of Soa – and I was striding out along the vast sandy expanse of Traigh Mhor fringing Gott Bay. This beach is almost 4km long!
Half a dozen kite surfers were zipping to and fro through the wind-whipped waves, occasionally jumping several metres out of the water. It looked to be enormous fun, but you could tell that a lot of skill was involved.
I traipsed along the endless beach – it certainly felt longer than 4km, though I’m not complaining! – and eventually climbed to the road just near Gott. A quick foray into Scarinish for some supplies and then I tootled back along the road to Balephetrish.
I was happy bunny as I sat cooking my evening’s tuna fandango, feeling all wind burnt and sun blasted. As the sun finally sank below the horizon with minimal fuss, I repaired to the tent to plan the following day’s campaign and to catch up on Billy Pilgrim’s progress.