Tales from the Trail: Isle of Tiree
Join us for our weekly blog as we share experiences from sites along the Hebridean Whale Trail - this week we are introduced to the beautiful Isle of Tiree, as Stephanie talks about the wildlife, landscapes and seascapes that make her island special.
Below the Waves - Stephanie Cope, Tiree Ranger Service
The island that I love is shaped by man and ocean. Without the industry of either, Tiree as we know it today could not exist. Our most celebrated habitat - the delicate and sublimely beautiful machair - is the dazzling fruit of this union.
Tiree is a frontier land; a last outpost between the Inner Hebrides and America. All winter, wild westerlies rake the Atlantic. The gnashing teeth and hooves of uncountable white horses pound debris from offshore maerl beds; creating the fine shell-sand of our celebrated beaches. In the softer moods of summer, Basking Sharks are readily seen; cruising the plankton-rich waters that swill between Hynish and Skerryvore with lazy grace.
One upon a time, Tiree (not presently famed for its tree cover) was forested like other Hebridean islands. Iron Age broch builders used whale bones to fix structural timbers, and later, Viking families burned home-grown wood on their fires in Balinoe. Today, our island is naked and exposed. Its modesty-trees have all been felled, and the Atlantic’s breath carries sand far inland through whispering dune systems. As it travels, calcium from the shells and skeletons of dead sea creatures acts to neutralise our naturally poor and acidic soil; improving growing conditions for vegetation.
Left to its own devices, the seasonal scrambling-up and dying-off of Tiree’s vegetation would crowd out low-growing and pioneer species. In the struggle for light, and as nutrients seep into the soil from their decaying comrades, plant communities go through a process of succession. If Tiree’s crofters and grazing animals all left the island tomorrow (a busy day for CalMac), the island would transmogrify from machair to willow scrub. This latter is a useful habitat in its own right - but it is not as diverse as the present patchwork of flower-rich plains, oozing wet flushes, in-bye croft fields and peaty sliabh. Thus, with acid soils tempered by the sea, it is the carefully managed grazing of animals that maintains our spectacular floral abundance.
It isn’t only plants that prosper. Traditional, small-scale agriculture and a richness of beach-cast kelp create ideal conditions for birdlife - evincing that creative alliance between man and sea. From Twite and Linnet to Lapwing and Corncrake, nationally threatened species thrive here in numbers. Our twinkling shoals of Golden Plover will take your breath away in autumn; as will the yapping skeins of Greenland Barnacle Geese, or the cool Arctic white of our wintering Whooper Swans. You might come here for the whales, but I bet you’ll stay for the birds.
Bottlenose Dolphin hug our shores on lingering midsummer evenings, along with the more unusual Risso’s Dolphin. Short-beaked Common Dolphins are a frequent sight; either from MV Clansman, or because acrobatic super-pods catch your attention far out at sea. Hunting silvery tidelines, the balloon-smooth backs of Minke Whales curve briefly from the surface.
Tiree is known as ‘the land below the waves’. Truly, the Atlantic commands a powerful influence here. The bounty of this ocean - and man’s dependence on it - is mirrored in the richness of our beautiful island. Our machair plains are the coral reefs of the overworld; our bird flocks, sweeping schools of darting fish. Here, where nutrients cycle between sea and land, the transaction is a profitable one.