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  • Writer's pictureYellow Hare

From The Hebrides With Love. Or At Least A Warm Welcome.

What does it mean to you when you visit Tiree, or any of the Hebridean isles? What made you want to visit or live here, if you do now, but had no family on the island? Whilst some come to leave city life behind, to settle somewhere quieter or be by the sea, others see it as a safe haven and something more meaningful and spiritual. But what of the culture? And what is local culture to you? Speaking a few words in Gaelic... listening to traditional music... playing the bagpipes? Yes - they all are, I suppose, but these things are all so... so... obvious. Real culture, the very bones of it, the stuff less obvious that goes back generation upon generation, stitching the Hebrides together into one great canvas is everywhere, every day, and plays a much bigger part in your decision to be here than you probably realise. It also influences your behaviour when you come to stay.

The friendliness of island people is something visitors often comment on. We wave to each other. Even when we don't know you. This isn't something that was begun by someone who came to live on the island. We wave to each other because in the days of yore everyone knew everyone else by name, house, family link and history. This is no longer the case, it hasn't been for decades, but we still wave to everyone and his wife even if we don't know them and it's learned behaviour for those who come to stay. Not the worst habit to pick up.

The way no one tells you when you've offended them. Including you, moved from the mainland and once so forthright, now more easily silenced. Less inclined to speak your mind. What happened to your voice? This is an easy one. No-one wants to fall out. Small islands have small populations that are often tightly related in some way or other and many have a very particular of skills we may need at some point, none of which, we trust, would come in handy in a hotel room in Paris if your daughter was being abducted. Cousins and in-laws represent a huge chunk of our population. For centuries, the small isles kept themselves to themselves and each other, creating four or five very, very large families. My own mother's brag when we were young was that we were related to 95% of the population of Berneray. Erm. Moving on...

The pace of life. We're all sooooo laid back.... isn't it wonderful? Ever since we learned to make and row a boat, materials have taken days and weeks to reach islanders hoping to eat whilst making or building things. This has as much to do with the mode of transport as it has the weather. Often the latter compounds the former. You get the materials after a month-long wait that would have taken three days on the mainland only to be met with a four day storm that takes a week to dry out. Only then, do you find half your order is missing. Imagine this when it was all horse and carts and boats without engines. Chillax or implode. Do other things whilst you wait. That's what's made us all so self sufficient and multi-skilled. Island forefathers were forced to learn a plethora of skills which have wound their way down the generations.

We're all a bunch of boozers. Yes, largely, but we're working on that. Things are changing. Since the dawn of time, the only way of unwinding was to have a dram in someone's house after a hard day on the croft. Hostelries were few and far between and anyway t'was much more enjoyable in your neighbours house. Whisky was the dram of choice because it was easily got and if we all drank the same then we didn't need to concern ourselves about what to have in the house or take to someone else's. It's where ceilidh's and storytelling were born. Many's a bard honed his craft on the hoof of an evening at Lachie Dòmhnall's. Nowadays this is taken outside and celidhs tend to take place on beaches or at the local dance, and we don't call them ceilidhs or storytelling, we might say 'aye, we were just having some craic,' but not in a druggy way.

So you see, moving to the Hebrides has not forced you to bend to its will, or changed you at all; you're merely culturally conditioned. And as a visitor you're appreciative of that for the time that you're here. Some things look fairly recent but it's all very old school. By and large, crofting methods remain, traditional housing style still dominates (for now!) and we have a seldom changing landscape. Tiree today has evolved over centuries and is not about to be erased. Sleep easy.

The following snapshot of time reads like something from Dickens. Reflecting on it ages me. But it forms the basis of where we are now, and how, despite the loss of some traditions, some things - the essence of what makes one Hebridean - haven't truly changed at all.

Going Home - 1969

We arrived by small boat and it was often in darkness.  From there we walked, six of us of all ages, with cases and bags, guided only by moonlight and habit. Our house, an old thatched cottage, was a mile or so from the jetty.  We had to be careful under foot when we got near; there was no proper road or track from the main road, only wild machair and mud if it had been raining.  It was in darkness because Jessie had thought we’d arrive much sooner and so hadn’t lit the gas mantles.  Dad took his matches and went from room to room doing this. I would follow in trepidation, waiting for him to touch one with the flame and it would be ruined. 

The island had no electricity until the very late nineteen-sixties, which I’m sure makes everyone currently under twenty feel vindicated for assuming anyone over fifty was born in the dark ages, but it’s not true.  Being so remote, the Hebrides was the last place to receive what the mainland had taken for granted for decades and in many ways this hasn’t changed. We had a coal-fired Raeburn that served as both cooker and fire.  The walls and ceilings were wood-panelled; a recent modernisation of what had originally been rough stone. Beds were old and rickety with harsh and itchy tweed army blankets that took forever to provide warmth.  They stole your body heat first, storing it and feeding it back to you overnight. We had to get water from the well in the morning to wash.  There was no pump. The well wasn’t terribly wide or deep. Nothing you would have thrown sixpence into with a wish. You threw a bucket tied to rope down a hole and hauled up the contents, ensuring you replaced the stone slab afterwards. To say the water was cold is an understatement. Little wonder so many children were reminded to wash necks and ears.  A face-splash was more than enough for most of us if we could get away with it.  The house was draughty with no heating other than the Raeburn and the toilet was the smallest cupboard by the front door.  There was no bath or shower, not that we ever noticed. Three shared the only double bed in one room whilst I, the youngest, shared with mum and dad.  


This was our twice-yearly visit to the place we called home and at the time it was paradisiacal to us. We came for two weeks at Easter and four weeks in summer.  It was a destination that took fourteen hours and three ferries to reach from Glasgow.  Today that same journey requires one ferry and takes eight hours door to door.


Waking up to a landscape as far removed from that last seen in daylight was, for a child, a wild and wonderful adventure full of promise. Some of us carry this into adulthood and hold it for a lifetime.  I was five years old when I first imprinted that image in my mind’s eye. I will have seen it many times previously, but for some reason it was only truly memorable to me from that point forward. Perhaps it was my first true awareness.

First thing in the morning, rain or shine, we would argue over whose turn it was to go for the milk.  Two of us were permitted, but not three and certainly not all four.  Elder sister and I got to go.  We took the jug off to get it filled at Bessie’s, a ten-minute stroll from ours.  She was always ridiculously happy to see us and would immediately launch into a barrage of questions without waiting for answers; how were we, when did we arrive, how is mum and dad, when is she (mum) coming to visit, have you time for juice and a biscuit (always). Sometimes she had milk ready and other times we had to milk the cow ourselves.  Miraculously, the full jug always made it home, generally still warm.


The weeks were spent mainly outdoors when we weren’t visiting houses with mum. She was the link.  These were her people. Aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends. It was a place where kind and generous hospitality could be taken for granted and this still prevails today throughout the Hebrides.


We could not enter a house and leave without having eaten a scone, pancake, or oatcake and cheese.  And at least one cup of tea, preferably two.  As children, we could escape the tea but not the food.  I don’t recall mum ever leaving any house empty handed.  It wasn’t a big deal, even when a fuss was made to decline; that was just etiquette. Scones, eggs, potatoes, cake, fresh lamb or beef, sometimes black pudding.  


It wasn’t unusual to enter a house and find a carcass of lamb on the kitchen table in the process of being divvied up for general distribution.  And I do mean the entire lamb.  Kidney and heart were favourites of Annie who was doing the carving, now in her fifties and who had been running the family croft with her sister since the age of thirteen when their father died.   Then, crofters could kill their own animals.  Twins Jessie and Annie made all manner of things themselves, as did most others; butter and black pudding, sausages, mince, home baking and delicious crowdie (a sort of thick cottage cheese). Nowadays cattle goes to the mainland to be killed and returned.


Breadmaking wasn’t such a big thing when we were young.  Households favoured scones and oatcakes or pancakes.  They were easy to make and quick to produce.


Everyone spoke in Gaelic unless there was a known non-Gaelic speaker in the company.  It was considered rude to speak it if anyone in the company didn’t understand.  Some people have suggested Gaelic would not be spoken because it was frowned upon.  This was the case in schools, for sure – it was banned for a time, however things were different at home.  At home, or when out and about, it was most people's first language.  I understood Gaelic far better as a child than I do now.  One may argue it's still in there but I don't go looking. Regional accents don’t help. Gaelic spoken in the Uists sounds very different to my ear than that spoken on Tiree, and everyone knows Lewis has a language entirely of their own making.


We weren’t allowed out on Sundays unless it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere.  Nor could we go out to play – joviality was not encouraged on Sundays.  We could go for walks.  Along roads, up hills, to the beach.  But not to anyone’s house. There were two church services, morning and evening, and it was common to attend both. Hat and gloves were a given.


The absence of cash in many households was more than compensated for by the common exchange of things of greater value.  Local potatoes, meat, fresh fish, eggs and home baking carried a much higher currency than hard cash, as do crofters with tractors and farm machinery in general.   Cash has always played second fiddle to the bartering system in the Hebrides, and with good reason.  Cash won’t get your car out of a ditch or the sand on an incoming tide and it won’t put food on the table if supplies haven’t reached the shops.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that cash doesn’t matter; there’s many an Ebenezer lurking in his or her Hebridean counting house as I type, but its use, locally, is often limited even now; we depend far more on the kindnesses of neighbours than we would on the mainland.


When I think back on those lifelong childhood memories, warmth, generosity and kindness pervades every single one of them in equal measure.  I cannot recollect a single memory which is not accompanied by a sense of kindness and generosity.  We call it hospitality.  Hebrideans would call it being themselves.


This prevails today.  In the Outer Hebrides, in the Inner Hebrides.  On Tiree.  People were - and are - inherently kind.   Receiving visitors, wherever they came from and whoever they were was, and still is, the greatest pleasure for most.  To be given reason to stop work and chat, to spend time in company, to share a dram or a cup of tea, to see faces old and new, absent for so long, to hear news from 'abroad'; never have I know that to be regarded in any way less than keenly here.  Kindness and generosity are free, plentiful and simple to bestow.


The Hebriean isles in general are now a mixed bag. Probably at least 50% newbies – those who weren’t born where they now live. Still, the great majority of those who have relocated to the Hebrides are also kind, obliging and welcoming.  The rest… well, let’s call them collateral damage when working towards a sustainable island.   


So, when I hear someone who has had a holiday home here for decades jokingly say, ‘oh the locals hate us,’ it doesn’t make me want to laugh with them. It saddens me hugely, because it is simply not true. Indeed, it is the greatest untruth, propagated by a very, very small and insignificant attention-seeking minority which the great majority of us pointedly choose to ignore.

How great it would be if you could trust yourself to contemplate the island you are visiting now in the same way that you did when you very first arrived, be that decades ago or recently.  To recall the feeling of peace and beauty that it triggered in you.  How you were struck by the kindness of strangers. Being blown away by the sincerity and honesty of people you didn't know and may never meet again.  The time you stood at the edge of the shore and looked out at the vastness of a sea that held your heart. When you allowed your eyes to take in a landscape so flawless, you believed you may never want to leave. The contentment you felt just at that moment.


It's all still there. Every last bit of it.  Don’t ever doubt it.


Kate MacLeod 2024

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Alan Bisset
Alan Bisset
Jun 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

As a frequent visitor to the Islands and Highlands of Scotland over 60 years or so your wee summary of traditional island life strikes a chord ❤️ Well put down and certainly needing to be said!

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