We start this epic series with a map. It is huge – 8 feet by 6 – and painted on canvas. It belongs to the Duke of Argyll and sits in his archives at Inveraray Castle. We have a small copy in An Iodhlann. In 1768 the Campbells had owned Tiree for less than one hundred years, but already the Duke had decided to use his crown jewel not as a clan chief, but as its landlord. Driving up revenues from this fertile island was this main aim, and moving a medieval farming system into the modern age was his method. First he needed to know the island’s potential.
James Turnbull was his chosen surveyor for this enterprise. We know very little about him, other than it took him five weeks to travel to Tiree and return to his Edinburgh home. But he was obviously a supremely skilled professional and his map a thing of lasting beauty as well as being a treasure trove of information about the island in the 18th century. The boundaries of the old farming townships curve through the landscape (for example either side of the Caolas road), every house is drawn in its place and every field and its furrows are marked precisely. The map was drawn thirty years before the crofts were marked out: the thirty or so houses in Vaul are clustered at the bay, just east of Seaside, while the township’s cropped fields cover the golf course!
Turnbull also wrote an accompanying field-by-field report: ‘Barapol: Field number 44; Infield; A compound of loam, gravel and clay, a good soil’. He calculated that 3,474 acres, 25% of Tiree’s land area, were sown with oats and barley – numbers we can only dream about today!