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.
Living with the sea only a few steps from your door is peaceful and soothing but not totally silent.
Apart from a very occasional still day when the sea is smooth and viscous – there is constant motion and constant sound. The opera of the sea washes over everything and the wave-music is carried on the slightest breeze along the shore, across the dunes and through the marram. The rhythmic pulse is steady and harmonious and gives a heartbeat and pace to each day.
On some days the light quality changes here on the beach. Amongst the bright, sunny days with clear skies and deep shadows we occasionally get silvery days when the light is diffused through a blanket of thin cloud. Both land, sea and sky take on a much more muted palette with subtle changes in colour and hue. An amazing combination of tranquillity and beauty.
It starts with the journey. Moving deliberately through the water sailing slowly towards the horizon and leaving the mainland behind. This gentle process seems to break the bonds that tie us to the stresses and strains of our ‘ordinary’ lives.
This is not something to be endured – it’s something to be enjoyed and savoured. Part of the unburdening process, accompanied by anticipation, that is completed as you take your first step onto the island.
The tranquil beauty of this island never fails to amaze. Whether it’s your first visit, or one of many in a long line of visits, the impact of the shape and form of the land, the wide and open sky, the crystal clear water and the vivid colours never fails to press the heart and still the turmoil.
Some will navigate the uncertainty to visit the island this year. Others will wait with increasing anticipation for next summer before they visit. An extreme case of deferred gratification!
There’s been something of a growing trend in the production of books showing historic photographs placed alongside contemporary images of the same location. It’s a bit like a cultural ‘spot the difference’ exercise and can be great fun in appreciating how favourite locations have changed over the years. Perhaps it’s something to do with wanting to make a connection to our past and feel part of a bigger picture.
I’ve created our own ‘then and now’ showing the view of our part of Balemartine in 1928 and now in 2020. Some interesting changes. The old byre, on the left, with its felt roof, has had many uses over the last ninety-two years.
This humble building has been a real asset to four generations. Originally a wash house and byre for over-wintering the milking cow, it was also used as a workshop and a store room. In the 1950s a garage was added. It was transformed in 2002 to a gallery and in 2016 to a self-catering cottage. Quite a history.
Perhaps it deserves its own television programme – A Byre Through Time.
Seeing some children playing on the beach in the sunshine last week reminded me of the iconic Tiree paintings by Duncan MacGregor Whyte. Although he was born in Oban he had a strong connection to the island through his grandfather. In 1899 he gained permission to build a wooden studio at Balephuil and he built his studio at Ceann na Creige overlooking the beach at Balephuil shortly afterwards. He stayed, and painted there, with his artist wife Mary Barnard, for most of each summer, in the years that followed.
Between 1911 and 1922 he travelled and lived in Canada and Australia undertaking commissions and building his reputation. From 1923 he became a regular summer visitor to Tiree again and became well known for his bucolic Tiree landscapes and scenes of daily life on the island. His paintings are a visual record of times past and a way of life now only dimly remembered. He died on 3 December 1953.