Fake it till you make it

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Tiree is traditionally at its most beguiling when I need to leave.

My last view from the ferry window frames her: draped in cool green sward, dabbing a sparkling turquoise eye and fluttering tasteful white-cloud handkerchiefs.

Each time, I look away with a pang of regret. But today, as I queue with my belongings packed carefully into the boot, vengeful tears are hammering down.

The Doc and I exchange a sodden cheerio. Familiar faces smile behind steamed-up windows. I retreat to the car, revving the demisters up to warp speed.

When chapters in our lives close, it’s tempting to lean back and dwell fondly on our successes. Instead, departing my role as Tiree Ranger, I’d like to salute the times when things didn’t go according to plan.

It started with the cornfake. Our RSPB officer was on holiday, and having enjoyed a modest run of birding triumphs, confidence was high. For ‘those in the know’, each wildlife watching location is laced with its own booby traps.

On Mull, should an island guest extol the virtues of the eagles they’ve seen perched on fence posts, it is customary for the local birder to adopt an air of studied hesitancy, before gently explaining that they were most likely buzzards.

On Tiree, it’s the starlings that stunt-double – mimicking the corncrake’s call some weeks before these rare migrants arrive.

April 1, 2017, was dazzlingly bright. As the ponies munched contentedly, drooling out chop and maintenance mix, reed buntings skittered between their half-empty buckets. The sun threw out palpable heat, and the wind-scoured fields shone golden.

No surprise, then, the distant rasp of a corncrake. Another win – and naturally – one for the ranger service Twitter account. Later, at my office, a bird was reported crossing the road in Cornaig. This was welcome corroboration and I enthused graciously. But it was still nice to have snagged the first record of the year.

Lamentably, it turned out to be the first record from anywhere (and doubtless caused some head scratching among the birding Twitterati).

Corncrakes don’t arrive on Tiree until mid-April. They also follow a regular and reliable pattern of dispersal – to which my record did not conform.

Tragically, humiliatingly, my corncrake was in fact a cornfake. I’d been had by the blasted starlings, and John’s air of studied hesitancy said it all.

The second sighting was probably a water rail; a similar looking species that often shows well in April. In an excruciating climbdown, corrective Tweets and emails were duly dispatched.

I nursed the shame of the cornfake like a broken rib. For weeks, I was indisposed to birdwatch. Luckily, other sources of toe-curling embarrassment were close at hand.

On Tiree, the Hebridean tradition of keeping the same names within families thrives. Being unfamiliar with the monikers used to dodge confusion, lifting the telephone was akin to being the rat in an electric maze: I got zapped frequently.

During one such call, I was informed that the gentleman I wished to speak with had passed away two weeks earlier. A lengthy, agonising silence followed.

This news (delivered by his widow) came as a terrible shock, not least because he’d given me a jolly wave from his pickup only that morning.

Indeed, the harder I tried, the more spectacularly my efforts seemed to backfire. During my final guided walk, I happened upon a large family group picnicking at the furthest end of Traigh Bhi.

There were boogie boards, hampers, blankets and a variety of children. It was a majestic assemblage. As my guests and I turned into the dunes, several 4×4 vehicles slid into view – parked on heavily protected machair, and well away from the approved area.

Tiree Ranger Service’s raison d’être is to promote and uphold the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. I eyed the family irritably. I had mere days left in post, and nobody likes a jobsworth. Sighing, I dropped the telescope and waded in, radiating what I hoped was an air of authority, and poised to quote chapter and verse on responsible access.

I had only delivered a short snippet of my speech before the Duke of Argyll made himself known. The Duke still owns the majority of Tiree and, as such, can pretty much park where he likes.

With a sniff, I scraped up the ruins of my dignity and fled.