Sunday, 15 May 2016

Tiree - Tir-fo-Thuinn (the land beneath the waves)

 The start of the Tiree half marathon and 10k took place on a glorious stretch of golden sandy beach under beautiful blues skies. That’s the positive. The negative was that by the time I had stepped off the soft sands on to the road I was knackered and could do little as my Heb Half nemesis Hamish scampered away into the distance. I then attempted to stay ahead of the other female runners around me and became deeply engrossed in a couple of mini battles with another runner…only to see her take the turn off to the 10k finish. This was a factor that had escaped me in the excitement of it all so while my competitor had maybe another mile or two to go I had another 8 or 9 and had wasted valuable energy in trying to stay ahead of her, a runner who wasn’t even in my race. Well played Louise.
The start and first few hundres yards were on soft sand
I’d like to say that matters improved as the race progressed but I’d be lying, still once the 10k runners had gone their separate way the field thinned out and I felt a bit happier running alone through the low lying, flat, featureless landscape that is Tiree with its fields populated by oyster catchers, lapwings, plover, geese and the highly elusive corncrake. It is an island almost completely devoid of trees so there was nothing to act as a wind break to the winds that we were being buffeted by. The island after all is a renowned surfing centre so for this reason alone it’s never likely to be a pb course. The flat expansive landscape and long stretches of single track road meant that ever so often I would catch glimpses of Hamish just tantalisingly ahead but still I was unable to do anything about it.
Finlay heads towards the finish
Bert in action
I was blaming my enthusiastic approach to the previous day’s bike ride for the weary state of my legs (actually to be honest I was blaming everything under the sun) but for whatever the reason by mile 10 I was walking. That has not happened to me in a race in a VERY long time. After a torrent of abuse from Simon who fortunately hadn’t managed to film the whole sorry spectacle on his go-pro camera I slowly eased myself back into a jog although it was little more than a shuffle. And then, miracle of miracles, I spotted Hamish up ahead. And, even bigger miracle, I seemed to be closing on him. As I turned the corner just before the 12 mile mark Simon was there yelling at me and I couldn’t help sticking two fingers up at him…..all caught in full glorious technicolor by the go-pro. I went past Hamish and, as penance for this, I spent the next mile with my heart in my mouth as I waited for him to come back at me. 

The course turned a corner where the Mainland Mules support team had located themselves and on to the beach for the final few hundred metres. This was a little unexpected as I had thought that the finish would be located at the same point as the start line and so those couple of hundred metres of sand felt very long and very heavy going. However this didn’t feel nearly as far as the cycle ride back to the Millhouse hostel felt after the race. There was a fine number of Mules competing in both races with myself, Bert, Hamish, Davie and Heather in the half marathon and Finlay and John in the 10k ably supported by Eric, Allan and Simon aka the Steven Spielberg Wannabe.
A snow covered Ben More
It was a tad chilly out on deck
Solving the issue of global warming
Last year I thought that the May Day weekend had been unseasonably cold but that was nothing compared to this year. The view from the ferry, the good ol’ “Clansman,” was of snow-capped peaks on Mull, Skye and the Mainland and even a covering of snow on Tiree, something that is pretty well unheard of. The strange weather conditions were the topic of much conjecture with regard to global warming and Allan explained that it had something to do with the earth’s orbit of the sun but similarly to the “goats and garages” conundrum of 3 years ago I really can’t remember the conclusion but I have no doubt that between us we managed to come up with a solution to global climate change. (Did I really have to go mentioning goats and garages again?! It was a topic that we were all at pains to avoid all weekend)
The low lying island of Tiree with its dusting of snow
We arrived on a snow speckled Tiree where the white stuff was swiftly melting and made our way to the bunkhouse. This is always a nervous time for the organiser of these types of weekend. What would the bunkhouse be like? Would it be warm enough? What if the pre-booked transport doesn’t turn up? Thoughts such as these were racing through my brain. Much of my stress about the weekend had been about transport options to try and negate the need for everyone to take cars over and so without a doubt the discovery of the weekend was the “ring n’ ride” bus service which was amazingly efficient and ran in true informal island style. We used this option to get us to and from the post-race ceilidh which we all decided to go to not least because that race prizes were to be presented there and both Bert and Heather were winners in their respective categories. There was an incredible 362 entrants across both races so no wonder the ceilidh was packed although I’ve no idea how the island accommodated everyone. After the ceilidh we caught the party bus….err sorry… the “ring n’ ride” bus back to the hostel for some serious whisky sampling. It was only the next morning that phenomenon I have christened the Brian Factor came to light. Ok so after a heavy night on the booze what is the one thing you are going to want to do the next morning? That’s right, you want to get some shut eye. That is hard to achieve when someone is banging doors, stomping down wooden stairs in boots and TALKING VERY LOUDLY ON THE PHONE just outside your room at some god awful time in the morning.

Firstly an explanation. This was all Bert’s fault. This is a philosophy that has served me well numerous times in the past and no doubt will so again in the future. On race day Bert had acquired a friend by the name of Brian. Now Brian had arrived on Tiree with a tent and little else, least of all social skills, but as the weather was due to take a turn for the worst over-night Bert had taken pity on Brian and asked if he could stay with us in the bunkhouse. Reluctantly, and with some reservations, I agreed.
Group dynamics is something that those poor unfortunates taking management degrees have to study and the Brian phenomenon would have made a fascinating thesis topic. Brian was not what you might call an asset to the group. I tried to cut him some slack by saying that he maybe was not familiar with bunkhouse etiquette but the topic was greeted with gritted teeth by Simon, Hamish and Davie were somewhat exasperated and Heather was positively spitting feathers. I too changed my tune at the point at which it became clear that Brian had declared open season on the communal wine stocks. John, however was as sweet and tolerant as ever and took Brian under his wing. And, as Simon pointed out, if Brian wasnt there we would have just have to have found someone else to bitch about anyway.

Now we all have this charming British tendency to not say it how it is and to try not to offend. That is all of us except Bert. He is Dutch.  In studies on group dynamics the text books say that this type of situation requires a facilitator to ensure that everyone behaves as they should and so the group all gets along. So we need a facilitator. For next year I nominate Bert.
Pre race dinner
The celidih hall was packed
Prize winners
Bert was in danger of losing his prize of Tiree chocolate...
All aboard the party bus!
The hostel was wonderful and as a special treat David, the owner, let us see the waterwheel working and he even let us open the sluice gates leading from the reservoir some half a mile away to the mill building, the construction of both the mill and the sluice gates dating from 1802. Tir-fo-Thuinn is actually a nickname for Tiree, its true name in Gaelic being tir iodh* which translates to land of corn. And so explains the presence of a mill.

The Mill at Cornaig was commissioned in 1771 by the 5th Duke of Argyll. It was to grind the corn for the whole island, thus replacing inefficient horizontal mills, and hand mills or querns. Work began in 1802. A lade from Loch Bhasapol to the mill was constructed with a sluice gate at the loch end. This raised the level of the water in the loch and provided a year round flow to the wheel which is of the ‘breast’ type, as the water hits the wheel at mid height. The mill was completed in 1803, and from 1804 until 1945 a succession of millers lived and worked at Millhouse. However after 1945 the mill underwent a period of dismantling and decay.
The wheel was rescued and restored in 2006 by the Boyd family who are the present owners. Ian MacArthur, a local skilled metal worker, agreed to undertake this challenging project. The work was done in situ as the wheel was too fragile to move, but the original cast iron shrouds and central naves and shaft were still intact and are the ones you see today, over 200 years old. New bearings were engineered, and new larch paddles and sole boards were painstakingly replaced one by one. Even the bolts were made with square heads, to replicate the original (present day bolts have hexagonal heads).The sluice gate at the loch was repaired, and at the mill end a new trap door which acts as an ‘on/off switch’ was made to direct water either onto the wheel or down the shute. Amazingly, this is operated by the original handle which was discovered in the debris

David told us of various future plans for the building such as converting it into a bistro restaurant which would be a fine use for this historic structure. As I watched the waterwheel turn I wondered whether it would be possible to mill flour to be used in cakes produced and sold at the bistro. I suspect that there would be some EU health and safety legislation forbidding this though! It would be good though if the mill could be put to some practical use rather than just as a large water feature.
The empty channel

The walk to the sluice gate

Opening the sluice gate

We all got a turn
The water supply to the mill

Watching the channel fill with water....
.....and flow towards the waterwheel

Watching the working waterwheel

Once everyone had emerged from their drunken slumbers on Sunday people went their separate ways to have a look around the island. Simon and I went to look at one of the archaeological sites by the name of Dun Mor Vaul, a broch situated on an exposed hill on the north east of the island. It was occupied as a timber fort from the 6th century BC with its current stone construction dating from the 1st century BC.
Double wall structure
No jokes about old ruins please!

Unusually for Scotland Tiree does not appear to have a rabbit population but we saw a surprising number of hares as we walked to and from the fort as well as the constant accompaniment of the sounds of the island’s birdlife. Finlay was extending his stay on the island to go bird watching and I wondered if at some point I would finally get to see the elusive corncrake, however it was not to be.
Oyster catchers on the beach

Most people had taken advantage of either bringing or hiring bikes which was quite a good way of seeing the island – weather permitting – and needless to say the weather was quite a big topic of conversation given the number of ferry cancellations that the island is subject to due to high winds. We were very lucky, Friday afternoon was fine, race day was pretty good, dry and sunny, as was Sunday for the most part and we were able to get the ferry back to Oban on the Monday. There were a couple of storms but these passed over the island, departing as quickly as they arrived, and they were at night. Finlay’s sailing on the Wednesday after the race was cancelled and the last thing I heard Thursday was looking doubtful too. In fact, does anyone know if he has got back yet…?
Stand off on the isle of Tiree

Like visits to all Hebridean islands it definitely wouldn’t be a disappointment to be stuck on the island for longer than expected. Tiree is no exception to this.
It didnt really matter if it rained all weekend....

Expressing appreciation of art and architecture through the medium of dance...
Waiting for the ferry

Working out the kitty was all too much for Hamish
A tired little Hubert

*this is disputed according to Hamish Haswell-Smith’s guide to the islands. Apparently the name may be pre-celtic. I think that might mean bronze age?

The Mainland Mules role of honour

The half marathon

Bert – 16/153 – 1.33.11 – 1ST V60

Davie – 26/153 - 1.39.24

Louise – 34/153 (6f/86f) - 1.44.57

Hamish – 40/153 – 1.47.00

Heather – 47/153 (13f/86f) – 1.48.00 1st V50

The 10k

John – 35/209 – 50.48

Finlay – 71/209 – 56.39

A priceless Mainland Mules relic - I shall treasure it always

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