A Winter in Tiree

By Isobel W. Hutchison

…As I had decided to spend the winter on the island, it occurred to me that the sandy soil seemed very suitable for a small experiment in bulb-growing. Flowers are scarcely cultivated on Tiree, and so I had to make a garden on my own.

I obtained a border of ground at one of the schoolhouses close to where I was living, and there, with the assistance of ten schoolboys, who all had small plots of their own, we set upon planting three thousand lilies, crocuses, tulips, hyacinths and chionodoxas. Few of the children had ever seen any of these plants; one boy told me that he thought there had been one lily last year, and the suggestion of a possible thousand in April was greeted with a bewildered smile. The coming of spring was therefore awaited by us all with much excitement. By the end of December the first crocuses were already pushing their white, papery spathes through the sandy soil. We also planted a rose bush in every plot, but unfortunately the roses did not flourish in the light soil, and I was told that when summer came only three roses came with it to Tiree. The bulbs, however, despite the fierce gales that ravaged the island in the spring, did better, and when I revisited Tiree in June, there were still two white lilies in fragrant flower.

A method of culture more suitable to the climate was a competition for the best bulb grown indoors in a jam-crock—the most convenient substitute at hand for a flower-pot—and when the time came to judge these, one wild evening in March shortly before my departure, the stone floor of the teacher’s little kitchen, on which the pots were outspread by the children, bore quite a creditable resemblance to the stall of a flower-show, and it was a very difficult matter to award the prize, particularly as the winning bulb was claimed by two boys at once. Fortunately, the rightful owner was able to identify his pot by remembering he had put tea leaves round the bulb, and so carried off first prize, but several consolation prizes had to be awarded in justice to the other competitors.

The flowers looked so pretty on the kitchen floor that it seemed a pity not to make some special use of them, and as it happened that a wedding was being celebrated next morning at Scarinish the children unanimously agreed to gather their flowers for the bride’s bouquet. This looked really very pretty when it was finished—despite the fact that several of the shorter-stalked hyacinths had to be propped up on wooden sticks—and the bride was much delighted with the unique offering, and carried it to the altar along with some golden daffodils from Mull. They were the first flowers of this kind that had been grown on Tiree in this way, and we all felt they could not have served a happier purpose.

Our garden borders the road, if road the rough track over the green machair, with its single line of telegraph-wire, may be called. The level sands of Tiree furnish the islanders with their best roads, and form splendid natural highways, repaired twice daily by the tide. The long drive or walk over these on one’s first arrival is a delightful and uncommon experience.

Working in the garden during the stormy days of November, I made friends with the few passers-by, mostly crofters with their carts bound for the seashore to gather seaweed as manure for their fields, where it lies outspread in winter, a beautiful sight when the sun shines on the long glittering strips of lemon or orange-red. These people watched the progress of my labours with friendly interest, sometimes pausing to look over the low wall and exchange a few remarks in Gaelic.

As everyone in Tiree talks Gaelic, I determined that I must make an effort to try to learn it. On wet days I sometimes went to study into the little mission chapel, which was being used a temporary class-room during the rebuilding of the school-house. Here I became gradually acquainted with the children, and often spent the morning writing exercises by the stove, which it was the duty of one of the boys to light each day.

And a job he had of it! For the chimney, which was simply a tall pipe let into one of the windows, was very refractory under an east wind, and more than once the school had to be closed early because the teacher could scarcely distinguish the boys from the girls amid the thick haze of blue smoke which kept pouring back into the room!

But to the eye of the gardener this stove teemed with possibilities. It happened that our bulbs had arrived from Edinburgh in a large deep wooden box, the very thing for a make-shift frame. I was busy dividing and replanting some roots of rhubarb in the garden when this inspiration struck me. Why not fill the big box with sand and force some of the rhubarb beside the stove? The only draw-back to this scheme was that, as the school was really a church in which services were held on Sundays, and in which the children were not allowed to sing anything but hymns, I was a little afraid of giving offence to some of the older members of the congregation by introducing vegetation and using the building for practical gardening! However, one cold December day I could resist temptation no longer, and with the assistance of two of the boys, and after much puffing and blowing—for it was a weighty affair—eventually got the frame filled, planted and conveyed on a barrow to the church door, and finally deposited in triumph by the stove. There it reposed, watered at surreptitious intervals by the boys, pushed under the nearest pew on Sundays, and by New Year’s Day it was already showing succulent pink stalks of alarming length, which were soon too tall to conceal under the pew and had perforce to be eaten before another Sunday.

Just in time, a good use turned up for it. In a tumble-down but picturesque cottage by the shore a young man of thirty lay dying of consumption, tended by his sister. For a year he had lain in a tiny room which had not even a window to light it; he himself, and his mother who had died shortly before, has refused repeated offers of help to send him to a Glasgow sanatorium. Distrustful of the unknown city, Neil preferred to die in the little cottage where he had lived all his life, and whose thatched roof would no longer keep the rain from his bed on wild nights. The roof itself was so shaky that kind neighbours could scarcely venture on it to rethatch the cottage for the poor couple. It was Neil who became the recipient of the few early pink stalks of our “religious rhubarb” shortly before his death, and he enjoyed them, his sister told us, better than anything he had tasted for many months; so we all felt that our rhubarb, like our flowers, had served a very happy purpose, and our only regret was that there was so little of it.

Fairies and ghosts, long driven from most parts of the mainland, still inhabit Tiree, and it is seldom that one meets an islander who has not some belief in these supernatural beings. “There must be something,” they will tell you, to account for the tales that are so common in the west Highlands. St. Columba is said to have banished the evil spirits from Iona to Tiree. But there are good fairies here too. Their dwelling is underground, beneath the soft green mounds which are of frequent occurrence on the machair lands, and they can sometimes be heard singing if one puts one’s ear to the grass. A traveller one day tethered his horse to one of those grassy hillocks, but no sooner had he driven the rope-peg into the ground than one of the little people popped out his head and peremptorily told him to stable his horse elsewhere, as he was letting the rain through the roof of the fairies’ dwelling.

On the wide lonely stretches of sand at night the fairy hound may be heard baying or thundering after you with a noise of scrambling feet. You must run when his wild cry sounds, for if you hear it a third time before you reach the shelter of your door he will overtake you and you will never be heard of again!

In 1920 for the first time a more substantial sort of fairy, in the shape of Father Christmas, visited Tiree. Perhaps the treelessness of the island had hitherto prevented him from landing, for the first thing we had to do when we heard of his proposed visit was to send post haste all the way to Mull for a Christmas Tree, and much anxiety prevailed lest the weather should prevent the boat from landing it in time. Fortunately, the sun was shining on a tossing green sea when the mail-boat, two days before Christmas, arrived from Tobermory with a beautiful waving spruce tree, twelve feet or more high, an unusual spectacle amid the sacks of flour and wooden crates which are the boat’s usual cargo. The tree was met by the minister himself, and triumphantly conveyed in his pony-trap across three miles of glittering sand to its destination at the little chapel of Ruaig. The scholars were in the midst of a geography lesson, and the tree arrived just in the nick of time to save the “black sheep” of the class who either could not or would not point out Glasgow on the map of Scotland, from his daily “palmy”. (Perhaps Father Christmas has a soft spot somewhere in his heart for black sheep).

There was much excitement when the waving green tips were pushed through the doorway. Here was vegetation enough in the church to put the rhubarb to the blush indeed! The tree was carried in like a gigantic baby in the arms of three older boys, and deposited along the backs of the pews against the wall, where it exhaled a delightfully fresh odour of resinous sap in the stuffy little chamber, and wept gummy tears for its lost home on the slopes of Aros, in beautiful Eilean Muileach. I could not help feeling very sorry for it myself, and decided that the only amends we could make it was to plant a cutting or two from its branches in our garden, which we did, but they would not reconcile themselves to the sands of Tiree, and pined away after a few weeks.

More exciting than the arrival of the tree was the arrival of Santa Claus himself on Christmas Eve. Many of the smaller children had never heard of him before, and were struck silent with astonishment when a fine tall old gentleman with a long white beard—who was much too burly to get down by the slender chimney-pipe let into the window—solemnly appeared in the doorway, bowing and smiling and evidently well-acquainted with the Gaelic! He was dressed in red robes and wore a holly crown, and he carried on his back a huge sack, for all the world like a postman’s bag! The children were awestruck. “Can that man hear, do you think?” asked one little boy who had obtained his heart’s desire in the shape of a box of soldiers, and he was assured that Santa Claus had very sharp ears. He brought just enough presents to go round; what is more, he actually remembered the “black sheep”, who could not be asked to the treat because he had never come to the Sunday school. This present, which was a glittering new knife with two blades, was presented next morning during lessons (the Tiree children do not all get a holiday on Christmas Day), and a new wave of incredulous red swept over the owner’s face, which it would have done Santa Claus good to see, though it was just as well he was not a witness to the unhappy sequel. For what can one do with a new knife but use it? Alas! the nearest wood at hand was the spongy surface of the bookboard and pew in front, and here the “black sheep” proceeded instantly and energetically to carve his initials. Scarcely had the glistening blade whittled out the first shapely semi-circle, however, when vengeance descended. Sacrilege is a serious crime, especially in the Highlands, but not even the punishment of six “palmies” could quite wash out the gleam in the culprit’s eye when he felt the bulge in his trouser pocket where the knife reposed!

It is pleasant to record that the following Christmas Santa Claus again found time to visit this wind-swept isle of the Hebrides bringing his tree with him once more. Let us hope that now that he has found his way he will continue to do so, driving the naughty spirits, banished hither by St. Columba, still further west to rest for ever in the depths of the broad Atlantic.

Extract from A Winter in Tiree by Isobel W. Hutchison published in a Blackie’s Girls Annual in the 1920s.