TIGHTROPE-WALKING IN PARADISE
Updated: Sep 18
You follow someone on social media, perhaps a café or a gift shop or an artistic something or other. You see their posts filter through daily, and they always look good. Not too polished or professional; they are real, earthy, sincere. Faraway places making things, baking things, faking things. ‘Here’s how you do this, in five simple steps,’ they’ll cheerfully claim, using ticker-tape captions, upbeat music and a picturesque backdrop. They reel you in. Thanks to plentiful apps that excel in making the mediocre look magnificent, it's inviting and achievable. And The Hebrides is up there with the best of them as an inspirational destination. You’ve never been north of Glasgow but you’re certain you’re ready for it. You see it and think, this looks easy, fun, pretty straightforward. You tell yourself ‘I really like this. I could do this. I could live there. I could move to that beautiful island in the middle of nowhere and set up shop just like they’ve done. Perhaps work from home. Join the community. Live the dream.’
Because you’re stuck in a rut. Or because you’ve held the same job for an age and are desperate for a change. Or because you’ve been an at-home mum/dad for two or ten years and are climbing the walls. Or because you have cash in the bank and have been waiting for opportunity to knock. Well, here it is. The blogs and reels have convinced you; you could do this. In fact, you really want to do this.
Okay, so stop right there and think a bit more. Everything is true. It is. However, there are other things to consider, and I don’t mean the weather, which I still enjoy watching and being in the midst of, decades after my first winter here. No – the things I'm talking about are those concerning family, friends, social life and peace of mind. If you are taking them with you, fine and well but, if not, consider how you may start from scratch without them. Long term.
Tiree and the surrounding Hebridean Isles are stunningly beautiful, calming and peaceful. Countless images on social media evoke a sense of well-being, contentment and general rude health. Even the most reckless storm performs well on social media, seamlessly transporting us in a heartbeat from horizontal hail to a comfy sofa and flickering embers. Most of us know that this is postured imagery and don’t come looking for it as a life-changing experience. We treat it as the holiday it ought to be, and enjoy it as such. We know the reality of full-time island-living is probably very different. But the romantics, innocents and dare-and-be-damned among us refuse to accept this and embrace the change and challenge with fervour. We arrive with our dreams in our pockets, set up home, then sit back and wait for the wonder to wash over us.
I came to Tiree as a teenager, which wasn’t yesterday. It traumatises me to think how many years have passed since then. I’ve joined the generation before me, and every one before that, in the chorus of how time flies. I know many of the families, and their web of children and grandchildren, and those linked by marriage, paternity or familial association. Anyone who has moved to a small community will fully appreciate the value of such knowledge without my having to spell it out. It’s pure gold. And yet still I manage to offend with relative ease.
I’ve shared a meal with many a Tirisdeach; I’ve attended their weddings; slept under their roofs; partied, danced and laughed with them; fallen in love and fallen out with them. Over the years I’ve lived in Crossapol, Hynish, Ruaig, Balinoe and Scarinish. I know Tiree better than anywhere else in the world. I know it better than many who now live here with a family link to the island. This is where I work, sleep, contribute and choose to live. And yet I shall never feel I belong here, however much I love it.
Why? It’s in the conversations of the mis-informed, it’s on the lips of almost every new customer who asks ‘are you from here?’, it’s in the divisive behaviour of committees, it’s in every debate over holiday homes, second homes, preservation of indigenous population, culture and history. Curiously, there was never a sense that I didn’t belong in Edinburgh during almost 35-years of living there. And Edinburgh can be a cold, cold city!
My family on my mother’s side hail from Berneray Harris, an island measuring approximately one and a half miles long by one mile wide. I’ve never known the population to be greater than 130. Mum used to say with great pride to anyone who would listen that we were related to 90% of the population.
This knowledge mortified me as a young teenager. Our family line on the island stretches back some 450 years. Although greatly depleted in recent times, I still have relatives there. Mine is the first generation of our family not to be born and raised on the island. We spent every year of my childhood visiting for holidays (as my son, here on West Beach, has also done all of his life), but I have only lived there once, in the 90s, for less than a year. We call it home, and that’s how it feels whenever I return, despite not having been born there, not having lived there for any time, or however long I’m absent.
Living on an island within a rural community is not like living on the mainland in a small community. I hear people say “rural communities are the same everywhere,” but it’s not so. If you live in a rural community on the mainland, there is always means of escape or respite. It’s possible to remain oblivious or at least reclaim some oblivion temporarily. An entire change of scenery and company is a mere bus, train or car journey away. It’s worth pointing out that you will never be entirely anonymous in any small community, even if you may think so; you are pretty much guaranteed to be known of, if not known well. This lack of anonymity is most stark in island communities. Indeed, the more you foster a desire for it, the more attention you will draw to yourself. “That one in Rose Tinted Cottage… Strange, you never see him. Who is he?” You think you’re being left alone, which you are, but the antennae of someone somewhere is twitching.
That said, anonymity is not all it’s cracked up to be. Being recognised and greeted in the local shop, ferry terminal office, hotel and post office reminds you that you are not invisible. You are someone and you are known. Even if you are not someone everyone would like to know, or are not known well. You are not invisible. And that’s good to know.
There will always be disparity between those who ‘belong’ and so-called ‘incomers’. It’s often put down to personalities, differences of opinion and superiority of one over the other, but really it’s simpler than that. Living on an island that your family has occupied for several generations means having shared knowledge with other families who have also occupied the island for several generations. This knowledge is like The Knowledge London cabbies must have to be a cabbie, except two or three hundred years older and more interesting. It’s knowing who is linked to whom; knowing who owns which croft and how they came to occupy it; the path it has taken over several generations, from grandfather to father to son to cousin to sister. The fights that were fought to get it and to keep it. The hard work required to run it. The hand-me-down tractors. The houses that were built by forefathers and still occupied by family generations later. The age-old feuds that stifle friendships long after the protagonists have ceased to be. It’s memories of ceilidhs and crofter’s tales many decades earlier, recounted and passed down the ages. It’s knowing the web of marriages and subsequent offspring of all of the above. Being boxed, judged and pidgeon-holed is the price those islanders pay for it, because everyone naturally thinks that knowing each other’s history means knowing each other when often they really don’t (as succinctly explained in the attached snippet here by Aurora). All of these things tie families together even when the families are not related. But frequently they are related, and you really do need to know how if you are to limit the number of ways you will inevitably offend given time. Particularly if you’ve come from the city and are eager to educate.
Whatever else you become as you reinvent yourself on a remote island far from your humble beginnings - and there are plenty of options - you can never, ever be that rare specimen so envied and sought for their shared history of the island going back several generations. But it shouldn’t mean you don’t belong there. A sense of belonging comes from the heart and soul and is not always about the ties that bind us. It’s being where you are most at peace, most comfortable, most settled, and without justification. It’s waking up feeling that you are exactly where you ought to be.
The fundamental difference, I think, between locals who originate from the islands and those who don’t is emotional attachment. Having a strong family line going back several generations makes you less likely to turn your back on home indefinitely. The complete opposite is true if you have no family connections. And this bears out time after time. The transient population on Tiree and surrounding islands is growing. Two years, five years, ten years. Families come and families go. Sometimes they make their mark and are remembered for things they did, changes they made, who they were. Mostly they are forgotten. Those with family history, a strong connection, are seldom forgotten decades later.
Island life is social and hospitable, and unquestionably all the more attractive for it, but you do have to watch what you say and how you say it, all the time. That’s all well and good if you are a quiet mousey type unlikely to say boo to a goose. You may go about your daily business in blissful ignorance. But what if you’re a little more confident, or dim but chatty, or keen to engage? What then? Well, let me tell you how that plays out. You’ll be chatting to someone over a beer at the bar and you’ll want to be friendly and so you turn to the chap nearby and say; “you’re awfully like that young boy in the house next to us, aged about 7 or 8, are you related? You must be related! You’re the very double of him.” You’ll learn soon enough to avoid that rabbit hole in future. Or you’ll be making small talk in the safety of your own kitchen to the gas engineer who’s only over from Glasgow for the day to do some jobs, and you say to him, “you’re doing a better job than the fellow before you; he was hopeless, came from Oban, charged a fortune too,” only to learn later that the fellow before this one is this one’s cousin whose wife’s from the island, and that’s how this one got the jobs in the first place, and now you’re going to struggle to get someone to fix your boiler when it goes kaput again, although you don’t realise that yet. And then there’s the smile and the nod. You pass people and you smile and nod. But some days you don’t feel like smiling and nodding. You’ve a lot on your mind. Your head hurts with all the stuff bursting inside it, desperate to be done. Smiling and nodding is not on the list of priorities that day. But if you’re coming out of the co-op, or passing in the car, and you don’t smile and nod at someone you normally smile and nod at, you may very well be labelled an ignorant arse by the time you reach the safety of home. There’s no end to the ways in which you may offend with ease, over and over and over again. This threat magnifies significantly if you have a business on the island. Living in paradise can be so damn stressful.
But yet, for all that…. You look out daily on a landscape of unparalleled beauty; a sea that changes constantly; a sky ablaze with stars on a clear night because it doesn’t have light pollution. You live in safety. Aside from the very petty, crime is virtually non-existent. People are friendly, helpful and kind – most of the time. If your car breaks down, someone will help tow you. If you need fresh eggs, someone will have them. If you appeal for something to be brought from the mainland, someone will do it. If you are stuck for a lift, someone will provide it. If you can’t get to the shop and need supplies, someone will bring them. None of those people will necessarily be your neighbour. Most of us are happy to help, unconditionally.
So the next time you’re scrolling those reels and media posts and thinking, ‘awww that is just sooooo fabulous, I wantomovetherenowwwww!’ Do think about it. By all means do it. But realise that island life is not always the best gig and above all, please, please don’t arrive with an overwhelming desire to change the world one island at a time, starting with this one. Fastest route to rejection and ejection, that is. Perhaps more importantly; have a contingency in place for escape now and then. Leaving the island at least once a year, if not all winter, is important if you’re not to go round the twist. Especially if, like me, you have no family around you. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that Yellow Hare is my family. Yip. That means you. C’mon…. group hug!