When settlers first arrived on the Isle of Tiree around 9,000 years ago, their boats would have come ashore at one of the island’s many beautiful white sandy beaches. This 12 mile-long strip of virtually treeless grass boasts a coastline that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean, if it weren’t for the thoroughly Scottish climate. Remains of the communities established by Iron Age arrivals can be found all over the island, the most intact being that of Dùn Mòr Bhalla, at Vaul.
The lives of many subsequent generations of Tireeans are recorded at An Iodhlann, the island’s historical centre. It offers an overview of Tiree’s long history, presented as a lively display featuring photographs and ephemera.
The historical centre is also a de facto local archive; its collection of books, maps, letters,emigrant lists, newspaper cuttings, Gaelic stories and songs making it something of a gold mine for genealogists.
Those with ancestral links to the Isle of Tiree are spread all over the world, as a large proportion of the population emigrated during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1849 alone, 600 people left the island for Canada. Those who remained mostly made their living from crofting and farming and lived in the modest thatched cottages still in evidence all over the island. An authentic example can be seen at Sandaig Museum, a terrace of dwellings carefully restored by The Hebridean Trust using traditional methods, and furnished in period style.
Between 1838 and 1844 Tiree was also a base for the hardy souls who helped to build Skerryvore lighthouse, Scotland’s tallest, on a remote reef 12 miles south-west of the windswept isle. The architect of this ambitious project was Alan Stevenson, uncle of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who loyally spoke of Skerryvore as “the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights”.
Until 1892 Skerryvore’s shore station and signal tower were at Hynish, now home to the tiny and unmanned Skerryvore Lighthouse Museum. The signal tower was used to relay messages between lighthouse and shore station, including those more marital than maritime. On those occasions when a light-keeper’s wife had a baby while her husband was on duty at Skerryvore, the child’s sex would be communicated by hanging a dress or a pair of trousers on the signal tower’s flagstaff.
The Hynish Heritage Trail (maps available from the museum) leads you around the workshops and walled gardens that once served this small community, as well as telling the story of Skerryvore, a remarkable feat of 19th-century engineering.
Don’t miss: the four lighthouse keepers’ cottages at Hynish – the unusual porticos and styling owe something to the mid-19th-century fashion for Egyptian architecture.
Isle of Tiree, Hebrides
tel: 01879 220510