Heather McKinlay in search of family roots and food on the Hebridean island of Tiree.
It’s a strange feeling when you have never been somewhere before, but you know a part of you is “from” there: my great, great grandfather was born on Tiree in 1810.
The plane from Glasgow was delayed somewhat – low cloud over the island meant it was after three when we first set foot. So the search was on for a late lunch. We suspected this might be challenging here on this most westerly of windswept outposts.
The hotel in Scarinish had stopped serving at 2.30pm. The enticing Sam’s Seafood Van across the road claimed to offer all day fare, but the shutters were resolutely pulled down. We headed back out of town, following signs to “Chocolate and Charms”. We arrived at a very quaint shop, crammed with colourful crafts and shiny silver jewellery plus copious chocolate. Coffee and cakes were on offer too, but I have a rather savoury tooth, so the hunt continued. A little further on, the Farmhouse Café promised Mon to Sat opening. It was just 4pm as we pulled alongside, only to see the “closed” sign flapping on the door, while the last, lucky customers hastened out of the side entrance.
The hunger pangs were worsening, so I tore into the recently purchased bar of chocolate to ease my mood while we meandered along the single track roads back to the main town. Nothing for it but to settle for the lunch of last resort – a savoury pastry, bottle of water and some raspberries straight out of the Scarinish Co-Op.
Tiree is famed as the windiest corner of the UK, attracting surfers of all persuasions. It also has an enviable sunshine record: often the rain and clouds simply blow-in off the Atlantic and straight over the top of this low-lying land mass. Today, however, the clouds were hanging about. Even through the grey and the spray, the place had an alluring aura, and a strong sense of community. Maybe my Tirisdeach (“from Tiree”) roots were influencing me somewhat? Or perhaps I was just happier now I had eaten!
I’d made an appointment to meet Duncan, the volunteer genealogist at An Iodhlann, the historical centre. Here I heard fascinating stories of how Tiree people had spread far and wide, though many just to Glasgow. We browsed island records both on and offline in search of McFarlanes and MacArthurs (my paternal grandmother’s line), while learning about the island’s social history.
It is unfathomable to compare my upbringing and comfortable modern-day lifestyle with that of my Scottish family going back just a generation or two. My great, great grandfather left Tiree at some point in the first half of the 19th century – perhaps because of the potato famine, perhaps on the promise of work elsewhere within the Duke of Argyll’s lands, perhaps because he met and fell in love with a visitor – now I’m almost certainly over-romanticising. The census of 1851 shows him in Campbeltown, Kintyre, working as a “drainer” laying clay pipes.
McFarlanes and MacArthurs are still found on Tiree, so I may have been brushing shoulders with distant cousins. Just as we were leaving the historical centre, I spotted a picture of D&A MacArthur’s Stores – once the main general store in Scarinish. I read that it burnt down several decades ago, to be replaced on the same site by, you’ve guessed it, the Co-Op.
Maybe my lunch venue of last resort was just meant to be.
by Heather McKinlay