We’ve only had a fraction of our usual visitors to the island this year. For most of the summer travel restrictions meant that only essential visitors were allowed to arrive and the island enjoyed a time of relative quietude.
Of course, for those who didn’t need permission to sail or fly the island has been a haven and a sanctuary. We’ve been delighted to see so many of our usual resident birds thriving this year – numbers have been encouraging and they’ve been much more visible than usual. We’ve even had some rare species on the island.
In our celebrity obsessed world – we’ve had a visitor this week that’s attracted a lot of attention. All the way from North America – and way off course – Tiree has been home to a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. The twitchers have been here and the airport has been full of camouflage, cameras and scopes! Photo | John Bowler RSPB Tiree
The last few days have been wild and windy. There’s no doubt that this is the start of winter and we’re entering the season of storms.
We always wonder what will be revealed as the wind-driven sea scours the beach just below the cottage. Each winter, as the sand is eroded and relocated along the beach, the history of our township is revealed. Discarded household objects are tantalisingly uncovered and we have great fun speculating about who they belonged to, how they were used and why they were consigned to the midden.
Alongside the ubiquitous glass bottles, broken crockery and kitchen utensils we sometimes find exotic, unusual and bizarre objects.
This winter we’ve already found an old stock pot which would have been suspended over the kitchen range in one of the cottages and an old sewing machine! An old tailor used to live in the house next to ours many years ago. Could this be one of his old machines – discarded after many years of making and mending clothes for the whole township.
As we slip slowly towards autumn – it’s always hard to determine the change in seasons on Tiree – the weather has taken a turn towards changeable and fickle. It’s turn and turn about – one grim day followed by a stunner followed by another grim one! Today’s been windy but brilliantly clear and the colours of the sky, the sea and the land have been intense and vivid. These bright days feed the senses and the soul. This is truly an amazing island.
We’ve lost the call of the Corncrake for another year! Until fairly recently we had males calling in the long grass around the cottage – hoping for a third brood.
RSPB have just launched a conservation project called ‘Corncrake Calling’ which aims to save one of Scotland’s rarest and most secretive birds. Once widespread across UK meadows the Corncrake population fell catastrophically during the 1900s due to mechanisation and the trend towards the earlier mowing of grass crops. Corncrake are now confined to a few Scottish islands and a few isolated areas on the North West coast. Tiree is really very fortunate because we have the highest concentration of this red listed bird anywhere in the UK – almost a third of the entire population.
‘Corncrake Calling’ will work closely with farmers, local communities and national audiences to provide these iconic birds with the best possible chance of future success. Strategies usually involve creating fenced areas which remain uncultivated, cutting hay or silage later in the summer and cutting from the centre of fields outwards – allowing birds to escape to the edges of the fields and away to safety.
Recent counts show how fragile the numbers are. In 2017 there were only 866 recorded in the UK with 316 on Tiree. The following year the numbers recovered slightly with 899 males recorded across the UK and 322 on Tiree. Last year numbers had fallen again with only 870 calling males recorded within the UK with 300 on Tiree. This year there were 294 recorded on Tiree.
Storm Ellen has wrought a mighty change on the beach below the cottage. The storm, which lasted two days, created massive turbulence in the sea and the accompanying high winds pushed the waves onto the beach. The result is a massive deposit of ‘brown gold’ along the length of the whole beach. The majority of the weed is kelp, although there are smaller quantities of sea lettuce, carrageen, dulse and various wracks in the mixture.
Although not pretty, kelp was at the heart of a very important industry on the island two centuries ago. During the Napoleonic Wars, when other supplies from Spain dried up, the price of kelp ash rose from £2 to £12 per ton.
West coast landowners were quick to capitalise on this bonanza and between 1803 and 1837 kelp was gathered, dried and burned on the island to recover soda and potash. These compounds were essential to the soap and glass industries.
Kelp was also collected from 1863 to 1901 to extract iodine and sodium alginate. In recent years dried kelp from the island has been used to produce alginate food thickenings used in ice cream, beer and medical dressings.
It looks like there may be a small fortune on the beach!
What do the words icicles, test and stowing have in common? Well, we’ve been using them as a unique three word address to pinpoint the cottage location for some time now. The three words, assigned by what3words.com, give a pinpoint location for the cottage here on the island
what3words is a simple geocode system that encodes geographical coordinates into three dictionary words and differs from other systems which use long strings of numbers or letters.
what3words has created a grid of 3m x 3m squares across the whole globe and the three random words are permanently fixed to each square. The main advantage of this system is the memorable, unambiguous nature of words taken from everyday use and the possibility of voice input.
In 2019 a huge number of emergency services signed up to the system – and there are many instances where the use of what3words has saved lives and enabled the recovery of lost, stranded and injured people.
It’s always intriguing to see what words are used for different locations. The beach below the cottage has many but the best are – holiday.roadways.destiny and avid.encoded.sped.
Tiree has always been a place apart. Separated by water and set aside from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. It’s always rejoiced in the security and the peace and quiet of its location and the close knit nature of its community. This year these elements have been weighted with greater significance. We’ve enjoyed a very quiet spring and early summer on the island this year. Without our usual visitors – many of whom return every year – the island seems to have sleepily moved from week to week and the months have slipped by with gentle regularity. The beaches and landscape have been deserted and even the skies have been clear and free of vapour trails.
Like so many lives and communities around the world – as we move forward with the gradual loosening of restrictions the island has once again become a place of dreams, expectation, excitement and activity. We’ve gone from splendid isolation to busy and bustling in record time. Lots of visitors here enjoying some wonderful weather.
Everyone will remember this year in their own way – for some it will be a year of huge loss, brokenness, pain, anxiety and stress – for others a year of challenges, reflection, opportunities and new beginnings.
This will certainly be a year we all remember.
I’m often amazed, as I walk along the beach below the cottage, by the changes that are evident each day in the shape and structure of the sand. Beaches are real shape-shifters. Although I’ve noticed this many times before – it never fails to surprise me that incoming and outgoing tides can constantly create such wonderful and beautiful transformations along the shore.
Shifting sands are often characterised as bad and dangerous and to be avoided. All our precepts about solidity and reliability lead us to regard the unstable world of moving sands as very dubious and untrustworthy.
I’ve come to see these constant and organic changes along the shore as a beautiful part of the cycle of nature. Dylan Thomas described it as ‘the force that drives the waters through the rocks drives my red blood … the hand that whirls the water in the pool stirs the quicksand’.
Attachment to special places seems to be part of our emotional makeup. Memories come flooding back when we visit locations that have personal significance. These places hold, and release to us a landscape of feelings, experiences and memories. They enable us to reconnect with part of our lives that have past – different times and experiences.
It seems that realising the context in which memories are created is crucially important in remembering them later. The idea is known as ‘contextual-binding-theory’, and it recognises that context in building memories is important. Not only do events and experiences become associated with each other but the context in which these occurred is significant – and location seems to be particularly important.
When I walk along the beach below the cottage it’s a double joy. I’m able to enjoy the ever-changing beauty of the shoreline and the memories that are released by the sandy location of special times and special people.
We’ve got familiar blue-grey-green tufts of Marram grass growing along the edge of the beach just below the cottage. Each year this edge changes – advances of retreats according to the storms and tidal surges we get – but it’s an ever present backdrop to all our activities on the beach. It has lots of uses. Traditionally it was used to thatch cottages on the island and has been woven into rope, cordage and baskets.
Of course, it’s main role – and it’s most important to us – is to stabilise the dunes and prevent too much coastal erosion by water or wind. It’s fibrous, matted roots bind the sand together and encourage other plants to colonise amongst its glossy drought-resistant leaves.
It proved its worth this winter when we had huge storms and tidal surges.