Living life clinging to a perfect rock

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Summer guests like nothing better than a snapshot of ‘real’ island life – an intimate and gritty peek behind the stage curtain.

Between the dry coughing of corncrakes, or when the basking shark finally vacates its bright circle in our telescope, the inevitability of this topic is like gravity.

Often, it happens on the way back from a guided walk, during those last minutes before we reach our vehicles, ticking in the afternoon sunshine.

A guest will sidle up to ask in hushed and conspiratorial tones: ‘Do you live here all year round? But what’s it like?’

Stephanie Cope, Tiree Ranger Service.

I have never felt more interesting. As an individual whose hobbies include collecting unusual pebbles and pioneering a complex system for colour-coding with Swan highlighters, I am flatly amazed that people seem so fascinated by my life.

After conducting a two-year love affair with Tiree, perhaps the question merits an answer.

Like all the best romances, joining a small community begins with awkward moments.

To the virgin explorer, Tiree’s road signs are more a lottery than a source of information. The east of the island is particularly troublesome: beguiling little turn-offs tempt you down toward the shore; signposted for what you imagine might be a charming cottars’ settlement or township. Instead, one’s adventure is just as apt to end abruptly with a front door.

The courage to execute a flawless 57-point turn on the lawn must then be summoned, as the resident family sip tea and watch amicably from their front window.

You never sail alone when you live on Tiree. As your eyebrows crest the last wooden step in the CalMac terminal, you are locked into a ritual of recognising and being recognised. Your eyelids may be all but duct-taped open at that time in the morning but solemn nods are still exchanged before you take your seat and caffeinate.

Passengers for Coll add jeopardy: they are familiar, but do you know them? Do they know you?

Indeed, if I walk into a room and don’t exchange cheerful nods with at least three people, I feel quite out of sorts. It’s easy to become used to a community where so many residents are so generous with their time.

Living on Tiree feels like being part of a club or secret society (we haven’t nailed-down the handshake yet).

Nocturnal winter drives are sprinkled with the twinkling lights of civic buildings, where volunteer boards and committees are giving up their evenings, hard at work to keep our island running.

It’s a small place and that brings unique challenges. But where else could you arrive home following the death of a loved one, to find cards on your mat from people you could hardly claim to know? Kindness is absolutely rife in the islands.

On Tiree, people and nature rub shoulders. I have never before experienced life in the shadow of corncrakes. Should you be careless enough to air the house by leaving a door open, there is a real and present danger of occupation. These peculiar little birds like to move along edges; apparently having no compunction about calling from inside your house (rather than simply deafening you from the exterior) should they accidentally follow the wall in.

It’s wonderfully ridiculous but ridiculously wonderful.

Occasionally, they are brought home alive by domestic cats – at which point, the novelty of a corncrake dinner is seemingly diminished by its obstinate and repetitive blatting. Corncrakes are, of course, terribly rare in the UK. We love them dearly. But at 4am, they can still exercise one’s nerves if camped outside the bedroom window.

Tiree is a perfect and delicious cocktail of the wild and the familiar. Our island is an increasingly important (and sadly uncommon) example of how people and nature can thrive successfully together.

While traditional agriculture underpins our biodiversity and is at the heart of our rural economy, Tiree is no museum piece. Our community works tirelessly to be progressive, innovative and resilient.

We face our challenges as a team and we carry nature with us. When all is said and done, we still find ourselves clinging to the same rock. That breeds commonality.

Standing shin-deep in wildflowers under a forever sky, with the calls of skylark and lapwing tumbling down like confetti from paradise, life’s challenges fall away like dead skin. It’s just so easy to forget them.

What’s it like to live here? Well, to be honest, you should probably try it.

Stephanie Cope,

Tiree Ranger Service.