Lambing has started on Tiree, a friend there told me this morning. After another brutal, gale-pummelled winter, the little island is waking up. The machair, the great grass carpet that covers almost everything, has cowslips, primroses and wild hyacinths pushing up at the spring sun. But I can’t go. Caledonian MacBrayne won’t let outsiders on the ferry. My friend, self-isolating in her family’s croft, suggests a Facebook site that has video of an afternoon at a favourite beach: “Lie in your garden, close your eyes, listen to the sea and pretend.”
As you approach it, the island hardly seems to be there at all. “The land beneath the waves” is just one of the old names for Tiree, a 10-mile scrap of dune, rock and grass to the west of Mull on the far edge of the Inner Hebrides. It does seem not much more than a wisp, a dream of an island, a piece of flotsam in the vastness of the Atlantic. There is nothing west of it until Newfoundland, 2,000 miles away. But when the ferry shoulders alongside Gott Bay pier, the place is real enough, though constructed mainly of fly-away things – fine sand, grass, wildflowers. Its most solid features are the sheep and the 600-odd hardy, friendly souls who live there, and the wind.
I’ve been visiting all my life. All our childhood holidays were spent there, except for one disastrous caravanning trip round mid-Wales. Before the first world war, my grandmother, whose aunt lived there, played on the beaches and in the same rockpools where my children do. Maybe one day I’ll help my grandchildren make sand volcanoes, dig for cockles and start out on the surf at Balevuilin Bay. My children have got the bug – ask them where, anywhere in the world, they’d like to go for summer holidays and their answer is guaranteed.
What is it to us, and the other people who love the place, visitors and islanders? Tiree is not like anywhere else, not even any other Hebridean island: that’s clear enough. In June it has more sun than almost anywhere in the UK, for a start. It is an escape, of course, a sanctuary place where a life expands, where your eyes rediscover the long distance, your nose the smells of a simpler world: salt-flavoured rain, warm clover, kelp drying on the beach, sun on a tarred roof, fresh mackerel frying in a buttered pan. We are city people pretending to be Highland crofters: your holiday is just a reality TV show, a friend laughed at us. Yes, not unfair: that’s how lucky we are.
For all my life, Tiree has been most important when I haven’t been there. Working, worrying, in exhaustion or despair, it’s the place I go to in my mind for ease and peace, with the backstop of knowing that if things get tough, I can just get to Oban and jump on the ferry. Now, for the first time ever, I can’t. An Tirisdeach, the island’s fortnightly news-sheet arrives through my city letterbox with news that the Baptist chapel at Baugh has become an isolation ward – should need arise – and a charming editorial that begs Tiree’s friends and visitors to stay away. We mustn’t even go to help with the lambing. The editor promises the island will welcome us back, when the right time comes.
• Alex Renton’s latest book is Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class