Why on earth would you want to give up everything familiar to you to move to a remote Scottish island that you barely know? So prolific has the exodus been from cities and towns to the Hebrides over the past few years that the answer seems to be ‘why not?’
There are all sorts of reasons for making such a drastic move, the most obvious being a post-pandemic re-assessment of priorities. Our quest for a healthier work-life balance and the growing popularity of quiet quitting, whereby you do no more than your contracted hours, have made such decisions easier. Add to this the swathe of under 30s currently swashbuckling in Peru with their mortgage fund because life’s too short, and the plethora of over 50s who have opted for early retirement and a campervan, and you begin to understand why Nelly, who had hitherto ended each evening with a cup of tea in mother’s cup whilst mulling the wisdom of lino over laminate, is suddenly packing her trunk and saying goodbye to the circus. Sometimes, though, it’s simply those in a rut wanting to escape and reinvent themselves somewhere where they may live blissfully and anonymously in harmony with nature and the community. Generally speaking, those are the ones that don’t last, usually due to a gross miscalculation in three of their four assumptions.
And let’s be honest, if you had both opportunity and means to live the dream 24/7 in your favourite holiday destination, wouldn’t you contemplate it too? Well, before you make any yay or nay decisions, allow me to debunk a few myths.
Is accommodation easy to find? No. Accommodation is seldom easy to find in any popular location, long or short term, and Tiree is an increasingly popular location. Properties for sale can be found on isleoftiree.com and rightmove.com - a quick Google search will bring up others. Long-term lets seem to be more difficult to secure than properties for sale, possibly because there's less movement in these properties. Accommodation is probably (but not necessarily) your biggest hurdle. The rest of this assumes you've over come it.
You will hate the winters. Oh, I don’t think so. Not even the harshest, stone-cold, city-raised heart could fail to skip a beat at the sight of a raging sea in a force nine as it rises majestically before crashing onto the rocks, over and over, whilst a trampoline from a garden half a mile away rolls past your window like tumbleweed. Yes, there will be times when it will rain incessantly, and it will be horizontal and it will come with a force greater than anything you thought possible. You’ll struggle to open the front door of the house you didn’t want to leave the comfort of in the first place, but needs must. There hasn’t been a ferry for four days and if you don’t go now, it could be a fortnight before you see another apple. You have to use the passenger side to get into the driver’s seat because you know the wind is likely to whip off the driver’s door the second you try to open it. This may go on and on… and on… for days, possibly weeks, until one morning….
You open the curtains to a calm and crisp dawn. There will be a clear-blue, cloud-free sky with bright sunshine reflecting on a millpond sea. This will be no accident. Its purpose is specifically to remind you that, yes, yes, fine, it rains a lot now and then but… this is indeed a most beautiful place to live and you are extremely privileged and fortunate to be here.
You will be part of a great community. This is very true. But it’s also true that Tiree is made up of many communities. Tiree has around 750 residents. The great majority are not publicly vocal. A fair percentage are not on Social Media. There are a several independent charitable groups and social groups with their own committees, all doing great things, while hundreds of residents are not part of any committee and also doing great things. I’m not convinced that it’s possible for any island with a population in excess of 200 to have one voice. Not a resounding one, at any rate. There are too many variables. Too many residents that we don’t know who are content to remain on the periphery with their friendship groups, their shared hobbies and pastimes, book clubs and dinners. Too many Tiree-born families who wouldn’t hesitate to offer a helping hand when needed but just want to get on with their lives without banging a drum or joining a committee. Gone are the days when everyone knew everyone else and what they were up to. The demise of the net curtain has had a profound effect on island life. These days there are people like me sitting in lounges or at tables behind entire walls of glass with no curtains, letting the world and his wife look in on what’s not happening all day and night. It’s almost as if we want to be talked about. Or don’t care. Changed days.
Will we be welcomed by the island? Variations on this include, ‘Do the locals want visitors?’ and ‘How do people on the island feel about newcomers?’ etc. Honestly, this is a bit like asking the same question of America. There is no welcoming committee, and no man is an island. You will be welcomed by some people and ignored by others. It’s not personal. Please assume you are welcome. The more the merrier. Tiree, like the rest of the British Isles, permits free passage to anyone who isn’t evading capture from the FBI, CIA, MI5, CID, or any other law-enforcing acronym. And to be honest, even then you probably wouldn’t be stopped – there's no border control. But do look at and learn a little about the local culture before taking the leap. Try Gaelic as a second language. Even a few phrases. Find out what makes the island tick. As pointed out above, Tiree is made up of people from all walks of life. And yes, some may be running from something, but that’s allowed – remote islands tend to attract this. So long as what you’re running from isn’t too dodgy and likely to impact on those around you, you’ll be left alone in your blissful Walter Mitty wonderland. Beware of isolating yourself too much, though. If you’re not willing to integrate to some small degree, even if it’s only with a smile and a nod now and then, you may inadvertently raise more eyebrows than RuPaul's Drag Race.
Lockdown exposed some surprising keyboard warriors, as it did all over the globe. Many an anxious resident squirmed under the scrutiny of unfair and entirely unwarranted in-house finger-pointing, never mind those who dared to suggest visiting the island. Hence, it’s important to remember that there will always be a very loud minority, like me and those angry keyboard warriors, with an equally loud opinion to express. This loud minority give a very good impression of fair representation, but it’s not so. And it *is* a minority. Look at social media, or newletters or websites. We are all there, ever present; always the same voices, always the same small numbers. The great majority of islanders are unconditionally hospitable, kind, impartial, considerate and welcoming.
You will have to deal with constantly cancelled ferries. This is a hot potato. I struggle to agree with the dissenters who continually give Calmac a hard time. I’ve only had my business on the island for 5 years, two of them pandemic related, so perhaps I don’t have the right to a voice on this. Then again, as a frequent user of Calmac over 45 years in various locales throughout the Hebrides, I do qualify on that basis. I can say, categorically, that my business has not suffered as a consequence of cancellations, delays or alterations either this year or previously. On the contrary, Calmac is largely responsible for the lion’s share of Yellow Hare’s income. Calmac brings my customers to me and Calmac takes them away again. A delay almost always works in my favour. At worst, cancellations are hugely frustrating, at best an inconvenience. Over the years I’ve missed Hogmanays and Christmases, gatherings and appointments. But I’m old school. When I first came to Tiree there were 5 ferries a week in peak season and UHT milk was the norm. Now there are nine ferries and no-one seems to drink cow’s milk any more. The issues surrounding new ferries, old ferries, clapped out ferries and kickback ferries are largely political and have very little to do with grass-roots Calmac.
I don’t know any other transport service provider which accommodates changes to customer bookings at a few hour’s notice, free of charge, and without fuss. Staff are always considerate and accommodating. You may change your route, your date, your vehicle, or your passengers, as often as you need to. You may even cancel and get a full refund. They consistently turn a blind eye to minor local-business contraventions. I don’t know how much longer they’ll allow these privileges but they must surely be on borrowed time because if it was me and I had to listen to half the complaints Calmac receive I’d be telling y’all where to get off and it wouldn’t be Oban. If you are contemplating living on a remote island, accept that there will be times when you cannot leave it. Sometimes for several days.
What if I’m unwell and can’t get off the island in an emergency? Mercifully, this very seldom happens and in fact you may well reach hospital faster from Tiree than you might in a city. The Tiree Medical Practice is de facto one of the best in Britain. We have doctors and nurses and medics. We have an ambulance and a fire engine and a police station. An unfortunate Tesla owner recently slammed into a shop wall when his foot slipped as he was exiting the vehicle, setting off the Tesla's automated emergency call out. The driver was unharmed but nonetheless all services were obliged to scramble and blue-light to the scene. Volunteers had to shuffle out of boiler suits and pinnies and leap into their emergency vehicle. Fire, police, ambulance, all raced from different directions. It is the first time in more than thirty years that I have heard the ambulance use its nay-naw. I’m not sure I had heard the police car siren prior to that day either. What this did, apart from embarrass the Tesla owner, was emphasise just how efficient our emergency services are. The Air Ambulance service does not get the recognition it deserves. If you could see some of the weathers that it gets through in those skies… Don’t think about it. Let’s talk about something cheery.
What do people do for jobs? There is far more work on the island than people available to do it. Perhaps there always has been. Apart from agricultural roles, there are plenty opportunities in lots of areas; trades, hotels, transport, haulage, school, changeovers, builders, administration, hospitality. There are vacancies in all of them, in many cases all year round. Employers draw the line at being told what to pay but it’s still largely a worker’s market. It’s often observed by visitors in a quaint way how one person may have several jobs. Many people have a variety of jobs for different reasons; sometimes there aren’t enough hours offered for one job alone to be financially viable; sometimes people simply enjoy the variety and like to keep busy; and sometimes good people put their hands up for jobs no-one else wants, which often leaves them running ragged trying to keep up with the unwanted but entirely worthy roles they are filling.
Be very wary of falling into the trap of assuming that the roles people fill are commensurate with their perceived qualifications or social circumstances. Tiree is home to countless highly qualified, talented and successful individuals who don’t use their skillset. Sometimes because there isn’t a place for it here and sometimes because they’ve taken a new direction. It’s that thing about choosing to be here, because it ticks every other box.
Is it boring in winter? Is it boring where you are now in winter? If yes, then it may be boring for you here too. Otherwise, no. There’s no reason to be bored unless you choose to be. If you are a social butterfly sort who likes to dive into anything and everything, then you need the twice-monthly local newsletter, An Tirisdeach (an cheer-iz/dee-ach). This lists all upcoming events. There are whist drives, raffles, parties and talks. Not masses but certainly enough to keep you topped up. As for the rest of us, winter provides fleeting opportunity to catch up with friends we didn’t get to see all summer, and have socials, or dinners or … just relax by a roaring fire. Perhaps surprisingly, winter often provides amazing weather and with it, the opportunity to run, surf, stroll, gallop or swim. Every other house has a dog and/or a surfboard.
It’s such an amazing community, everyone seems to get on so well! Right. Hold that thought, but whatever you do, don’t move here on the back of it.
What do the children do to fill their time? The same as every other baby, toddler and teenager all over the world. Except here they probably do it better and certainly healthier. Watersports, reading, football, horse riding, walking, meeting up, clubs, television, games, online shopping. Many also work outside school hours, whether on the family croft or locally in businesses. They live within the same budgetary constraints as children on the mainland, which means not doing a huge amount if it requires money. Yes, the mainland has cinemas and shops and theme parks and clubs, but most children can’t afford them. Tiree doesn't have those distractions. Instead, children are often forced to play outdoors using only their imagination. Tough, huh?
Does it cost more to live on Tiree? It costs more for businesses due to freight-related surcharges and the like, but that’s largely offset by not having to pay rates. As for individuals, I don’t see why it ought - notwithstanding the current financial crisis which is crippling everyone, be they here or away. Mainly for reasons cited above; there are fewer distractions. No cinema, few shops, few takeaways, less to spend money on, less pressure. Fashion plays a smaller part here too. Brands don’t have the same clout. Sure, they crop up now and then, the Michel Kors, the Nikes and Barbers, but mostly it’s a fairly level playing field. The up-side of this is that you know if you look good, it’s because you are straight-down-the-line class with a capital C and not because you’ve been propped up with labels.
Tiree is a glorious bag of happy, unhappy, fulfilled, frustrated, ambitious, benign, hard-working, idle and contented individuals who are from here, and not from here, but all here regardless. We all have our moments. We all have our histories and we all have our stories to tell. The great thing about Tiree, for me, is its other-wordly feel. It really is very easy to detach from the realities of what’s happening on the mainland. The politics and unrest – it's all so... so… over there. Nothing to do with us, until it is. It’s a safe place to be. By and large we rest easy and sleep well. There are incidents, of course, but rarely on the scale of what might occur on the mainland.
Kindness and hospitality are hallmarks of Hebridean culture and are often what persuade people to exchange the life they’ve always known for something entirely new. People are generous and helpful, tolerant and good natured. Tiree is not a Utopia and it doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for a lot of families and individuals, more and more each year. Here's how some schoolchildren see it. A lovely animation by screenargyll.co.uk, also based on Tiree.