The island of Tiree, off the west coast of Scotland, is windswept and treeless. But venture there in August and you will bump into famous artists, Britain’s best chefs and a slew of politicians. Bella Bathurst heads to the smart set’s Hebridean hideaway.
Observer Magazine, Sunday 6th September 2015
The first rule of Tiree is that no-one talks about Tiree. Ever. It just doesn’t happen. Nobody talks about it so it doesn’t exist. An island 18 kilometres long with 650 inhabitants completely dematerialises. There is no Tiree so there is no discussion of Tiree; in the space west of Mull, there’s now only sea.
Perhaps once in a very rare while, if you happen to hang around in certain public spaces in Edinburgh’s New Town, you might chance on a couple of initiates trading code words (‘lobster’, ‘ferry charge’) on park benches. Otherwise, silence. Try bringing the subject up and people come over all peculiar. They stop returning your calls. If they do pick up the phone they give a stagey sort of gasp and say, ‘I’m not supposed to talk to you!‘ If you’re persistent, then they remember urgent holidays. Old friends advise you to drop the subject, or are conspicuously out when visibly in. Twenty-year friendships start to look a bit ricketty. This is the law of omerta: starts with ostracism, ends with baseball bats.
Naturally, all this secrecy does is make Tiree seem a whole lot more interesting. My God, you think, this place must be sensational! Last time I was there it looked quite like a Scottishisland, but maybe now it’s become a Bond-style arch-villain lair, or one of those rare geological anomalies warmed by hot springs with palm trees and crofters sipping mojitos. Maybe the island is hiding something, like gold, or roaming Serengeti-like herds of grazing celebrities. Whatever it is, it has to be genuinely astounding to be worth all this fuss.
The murmurings you do pick up are confusing, and none of them include anything about cocktails or gold. Instead, there’s stuff about crabs and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a few ominous-sounding rumours involving foraging, and the occasional mention of dinner parties. Dig deeper and you draw a few unsubstantiated sightings of foodies and politicos – Fergus Henderson, Heston Blumenthal, Alastair Campbell, SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney. There are encrypted warnings involving kite-surfing and a music festival which blew away. ‘It’s simple,’ one initiate confesses after prolongued rendition. ‘Nice people go, and they bring other nice people with them.’
So, as befits a totally secret island which doesn’t exist, Tiree is served by two scheduled flights a day from Glasgow plus the ferry from Oban. ‘Welcome to the island!’ calls across one of the airport ground staff, pointing at the sunny sky. ‘Today is summer!’ The summer of 2015 may have been ordinary in England, but in Scotland it’s been impressively bad, moving smoothly from winter to hurricane and completely ignoring any of the bits about warmth or spring.
Still, since I’m lucky enough to arrive during the 24 hours when there isn’t an active storm warning, I get going. Strangely, Tiree looks a lot like it always did; a sort of Hebridean East Anglia. Looking out over the water, I can see the mountains of Mull on one side and Barra on the other, but Tiree itself is almost flat. It has some spectacular wild flowers but none of the usual heather-and-majesty stuff that tourists expect from Scotland. Instead, it has beaches, eighteen of them in total, fabulous alluring white-sand spaces which, on a day like this, look almost Caribbean until you stick your naked toe in the water and instantly shrivel to half life-size. It’s those beaches that draw the surfers. If conditions aren’t right on one side of the island, all they need to do is to shift round to another side and find exactly the right wave.
Driving around, it becomes clear that over last decade or so, Tiree has been completely Trip Advisored. Every one of the island’s distinctive black-roofed houses appears to have been restored, whitewashed, re-glazed and laid out for letting with the statutory national allocation of Emma Bridgewater crockery. There are other signs of a thriving middle-class tourist industry: the island’s only shop has an impressive selection of £35 bottles of Moet and 12-year-old single malts, down on the beach a man flies a camera drone over the body-boarders, and at the fish van a woman asks its owner if his chips are gluten-free.
In other ways, Tiree has kept its island qualities. The police station has its own flock of chickens, at the airport the keys to the hire car have been left trustingly in the ignition, and people chat. It doesn’t take long to discover that, far from being secretive, anyone who lives and works on the island is more than happy to talk about Tiree.
Dr John Holliday worked first with the Aboriginal health service in Australia before coming here over thirty years ago. A life-sized plastic human skeleton sunbathes by the window while Dr Holliday sits at his desk arranging pens into the shape of a triangle, placing his words with consideration. When he first arrived Tiree had only a handful of tourists a year. Now, ‘We get 26,000 visitors a year, we think. You see people coming off the ferry with huge 4x4s with four bicycles on the back, three surfboards on the top, and three hulking teenagers staring at their iPads – that’s the classic entry into Tiree. They’re not coming to look at the lovely beaches. The parents want something healthy and educational for their kids to do, which makes it very much a place for families to come for hormonal kids to let off some steam.’
As a holiday option, it’s not cheap. This month a return from Oban on the CalMac ferry for a family of five with an ordinary car is £184.10, plus the cost of accommodation (around £800 to £1,000 per week for a 4-bed self-catering house), plus the automatic freight premium added to all island imports, plus the cost of any activities on top of that. And those activities tend to be of the bracing, hooray-limpets-for-tea sort. There are two hotel bars but no pub, no restaurants, no cash machine, and Dr Holliday is the NHS: ‘There’s no x-rays, no blood tests, no hospital beds. So if you break a leg and you need to go to hospital, then I call a plane and you go. If you are very unwell, I can call a drill team – a consultant and an anaesthetist and they come here. But it can be foggy and the plane can’t get in, or it could be a force 10, and your broken leg would be stuck. That’s not uncommon – you can’t get people off, and if you have appendicitis or you have a heart attack and you can’t get to hospital, then you can’t go to hospital.’
So why this extraordinary level of secrecy about the place? Talking to Dr Holliday, it becomes apparent that the social radar system built into every Briton is calibrated to hair-trigger acuity on Tiree. Basically, it’s tribal. There are the native-born Tirisdeachs, many of whom choose to go to the mainland for jobs or education but who come back either periodically or to settle here when older. Then there’s the incomers who have moved here full-time and who throw themselves gladly into the ongoing life of the island. Then there’s the second-homers, many of whom have been coming here every summer for four generations or more. Then there’s the holiday homers who have been coming for only a few years. And finally there’s the blow-ins who rent a place for a couple of weeks over the school holidays.
The secrecy comes not from the inhabitants but from a few second homers who love this place, feel proprietorial about it, and don’t want the secret to become any better known. But as Steve Thomson, who moved to Tiree in 2004, points out, it’s a bit late for that: ‘I’ll tell you, from my experience, it’s them and about half of Edinburgh.’ Or, as Dr Holliday puts it, ‘That’s a perfectly understandable view to have about your pet location, but I think there’s a natural balance. To be honest, we’re approaching a tipping point. There’s a sense that Tiree has become full. If you want to get to Tiree in June, July, August, and you haven’t booked a place on the ferry six months in advance, you won’t get in. We have now got a situation where we’ve got an excess capacity of accommodation and people can’t get to it. Or they book it, they don’t take it, and the people who rebook can’t get here.’
Even when they do get here, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. On a good day this place may look like Rock or Croyde in Cornwall, but then there haven’t been any good days this summer. Michael Heseltine, whose daughter Annabel had her 50th birthday here last summer, is said to have looked round at the Hebridean splendour laid out before him and asked, ‘Why aren’t we in Tuscany?’ On a bad day, you either sit on the beach in a hurricane picking flotsam out of your sandwiches and pretending this is a whole lot more fun than being in a hot country like, say, England, or you end up stuck in a blackhouse complaining about the patchy mobile signal whilst trying to think of new ways to cook dulse.
As for winter, even islanders speak of it with awe. ‘Horrific,’ says William Angus, 38, born and bred on the island and director of Wild Diamond, Tiree’s biggest watersports company. ‘Seventeen or eighteen-hour nights and six, seven hours of daylight a day. When it’s force 10 round from the right and pitch dark, you’re pretty much stuck in the house. If you’re tied into a 9 to 5 regime as well, then that poses some serious issues for your general sanity.’ Steve Thomson, who moved himself and his family to the island in 2004, ran his Russian aerospace consultancy from there and managed eleven winters before he cracked. ‘It’s not that it’s bad weather,’ he says, ‘It’s that it’s bad weather for weeks. That’s what gets you down – gales and rain, day after day.’
Tiree is the windiest place in Britain (the local anenometer once registered a gust of 120mph before it too blew away), and Thomson says though he’s a big man – sixteen and a half stone – one gust knocked him flat last winter. Back in June, the Tiree Music Festival had a taste of that weather. Steve Thomson has teenage daughters who love and look forward to TMF every year. On the first night this year, the winds rose far past the forecast. ‘I was terrified,’ he says. ‘I got there at 2am, and it looked like one of those disasters on TV. It was pitch black because all the lights had gone out and I walked through this bomb site – all the tents had blown away or exploded and I got to our tent and there were my daughters just clinging on with these four lads I’d not met before. One of them had nothing but his shorts and a t-shirt because everything else he owned had blown away.’
As it was, the islanders rallied round. Tesco and Argos in Oban sent over their extra stock of camping equipment and the 2,000-odd homeless festival-goers were put up in the churches, airport, business centre, school and homes. Sam Lomas, protege of Hugh FW’s River Cafe, is chef at the pop-up Beachcomber cafe over the summer. He arrived just before the festival, and got hurled straight in. ‘I think they’re still scraping canvas off the fences, but we got through it somehow. It was almost like a refugee crisis – TMF asked us if we could make 300 sandwiches so we came back here, asked a couple of the refugees to help and started mass-sandwich making. It was quite exciting – we worked out that one of the days we pulled a 20 hour shift.’ The following day the weather improved, the festival picked itself up and the majority of visitors just kept on going.
And that sense of resourcefulness suits some people. When Steve Thomson moved here and discovered that there was no broadband, he didn’t hang about. He went into partnership, rented a satellite, bought the equipment for a wireless service from HIE, and set about assembling a network which now serves 140 island subscribers.
He also realised that, on an island this small, there was no such thing as privacy. ‘It’s a bit like you’re in your own little drama. I’m living in the city now and I just about know my neighbours, but I know absolutely utterly everything about everyone around us in Tiree. And they know everything about us – they’ve seen our children grow up, they know all the grannies, the aunties and uncles etc. So it is like living in a goldfish bowl.’
The odd thing is that Tirisdeachs and second homers and holiday-makers are all after the same thing. What each of Tiree’s tribes wants is an island just full enough of members of the same tribe, but where they can still exist completely without self-consciousness. Famous people do like this place but they also like other islands – David Cameron favours Jura, Elbow and Mumford & Sons prefer Mull – and it seems likely that, despite fears of total invasion, stalking John Swinney round the machair will remain a niche interest. Either way, the game is up. It was up a long time ago. Once you’ve reached 26,000 visitors a year, you’re an open secret.