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My Return to Tiree

Archaeologist and historian Callum Thomson spent his childhood on the Isle of Tiree, the outermost of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago. In this personal recount, he describes life growing up there, teaches us more about Tiree, and recalls a visit to the island many years later on a Scotland Slowly expedition.
Morag Cameron Moss Tiree photo courtesy of An Iodhlann and Angus Munn

© An Iodhlann & Angus Munn

Morag Cameron in the doorway of her traditional thatched house at Moss, Tiree. The thatch is covered by a net of coir rope weighted down with stones. The outside and inside walls were painted with white lime made by burning limpet shells. In the 1700s and 1800s houses like this were occupied by families of up to twelve or more; only a few now remain on Tiree.

Growing Up on Balephetrish Bay

In the 1950s, my parents began bringing our family for holidays from smoggy crowded London to the beautiful clarity of the Isle of Tiree, the outermost of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Within a few years, my parents John and Peggy decided to move there permanently and re-developed a spacious three-storey house on a small croft on Balephetrish Bay into a guest house.

Next door, at Hillcrest, Lachie and Mary Flora MacKinnon were the kindest and most helpful neighbours imaginable. Lachie took me on as a trainee crofter (occupant and tenant of a small area of arable land, typically twenty-five acres or so) and helped my parents in the gradual purchases of livestock and equipment. I learned to how drive a tractor and its many attachments, rose with the dawn to milk cows by hand, dipped sheep, hauled kelp off the beaches, scattered nutritious cow manure on the fields, and learned to take pleasure in jobs well done.

Lachie had been a tea planter in Malaysia in the 1940s when it was overrun by enemy troops; his injuries suffered in captivity created a deep determination to return to his beloved island. He became a vital mentor to me. His strength, resilience, kindness, work ethic, and knowledge somehow worked through me, and many of those qualities (shared and honed by my wife Jane) now reside in our own three sons Dugald, Euan, and Jimmy.

Map of Tiree

© Hilger Lemke, John Bowler, and Jeroen Reneerkens / Wader Study Group Bulletin

Fertile Grounds & Strong Winds

The name Tiree is a corruption of the original Gaelic Tir Iodh, meaning “land of the corn,” and has a population today of about 650. Historically its many farms supplied St. Columba’s fifth-century monastic community of Iona, fourteen miles southeast of the island and visible as a row of low hilltops off the southwest corner of Mull. Today, cattle from the MacKinnon’s farm at Hillcrest consistently sell for the highest prices at island and mainland sales.

Despite its presence at the same latitude as southern Labrador, frost and snow are rare and short-lived on Tiree, and their rarity contribute to the island’s long growing season. Tiree’s fertility has also contributed to a long history of distilling, which recently legally resurfaced in a local microdistillery, the Tiree Whisky Company, producing gin and whisky.

Because of its flat terrain and exposure to all directions, Tiree has the highest wind rate in Scotland, averaging thirty-four days of gales each year. The island’s reputation for these gale force winds has led to the development of the Tiree Wave Classic, which attracts windsurfers from all airts. On calmer days, visitors and residents might be seen whacking balls around the Vaul Golf Club, where sheep are encouraged to provide free mowing.

Surprised sheep Tiree

© James Yardley / geograph.org.uk

Returning to Tiree

A few decades ago, my wife Jane and I sailed out to Tiree from Oban and spent a few days exploring the island and many of its archaeological sites, including a dun—a small hill fort occupied a couple of thousand years ago on the edge of our old croft, looking northward across the Minch to Barra and the Uists. The island is ringed by at least twenty of these structures used for lookout, defense, and housing of both people and animals, as well as two larger brochs, including Dun Mor Bhalla, about five kilometres west of Balephetrish. To my chagrin, I confessed to Jane that as a youth I thought of our dun as just a little knoll where our sheep gambolled and cropped the rich machair vegetation.

Then, during a Scotland Slowly expedition with Adventure Canada, we had another opportunity to visit Tiree. Unbeknownst to us, the tragic death of a young girl had occurred on the island the previous day. But as we crept ashore by Zodiac through thick fog towards Traigh Bhagh on the southwest shore of the island, we were nonetheless welcomed by shouted directions, until we gradually glimpsed looming landforms and houses.

Restored Tiree spotted house

© Sue Jackson / geograph.org.uk

We were helped ashore on the crushed-shell sandy beach and offered a bus tour by Nan, the resident butcher/school bus driver. Nan took us on a run around the island’s scenic one-lane roads, past crofts full of scattered sheep and fat cattle. We passed still-occupied historic thatched-roof “black houses” and more modern two storey “spotted houses,” on which the thrifty islanders painted only the mortar, leaving the stone bare. The machair sparkled with tiny wildflowers, unobscured by trees, of which there are virtually none on this windy island.

We drove through the grand metropolis of Scarinish (population about one hundred), where the daily boat from Oban ties up at the pier when the gales allow, and where my mother had taught five grades of children in the one-room schoolhouse. On our return towards the waiting Zodiacs at Bhagh Beach, we stopped at the community hall where the island’s ladies had prepared and served a delightful tea with scones, pancakes, sandwiches, and cakes. Even in tragedy, Tirisdeach hospitality was at its finest.

About the Author

Callum Thomson

Callum Thomson

Archaeologist and Historian

Callum was brought up in the United Kingdom and quit school when he realized that he was not ready for formal education (or was it vice-versa?). He spent the rest of his youth in the Scottish Hebrides as a crofter and lobster fisherman.

In 1968, Callum emigrated to Canada. There he eventually found his true vocation, trading a shovel for a trowel, and obtaining degrees in archaeology and anthropology, specializing in Arctic cultures. He still takes on a field project or two every year in Arctic Canada, looking for, recording, and protecting archaeological sites on proposed industrial properties.

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