Guest Blog by Stephanie Cope, Tiree’s Community Ranger.
For the Isle of Tiree, roaming responsibly is kind of a big deal. On a blustery January morning in 2017, I rolled off MV Clansman to become the island’s new community ranger (to those of you who only visit during the summer jollies - yes, those waxed paper bags are there with good reason). It is a post that I occupy alone; supported by my colleagues at Tiree Community Development Trust.
Tiree Ranger Service is supported by: Scottish Natural Heritage; Tiree Community Development Trust; Discover Tiree and our own fundraising activities. As ranger, I serve community members and island guests. This includes access management, the provision of heritage leaflets, printed books (see: here), evening talks, daytime events, guided walks (see: here), the use of off-road wheelchairs (see: here) and the option to camp on traditional island crofts (see: here). It’s a busy job.
I hadn’t visited Tiree prior to my interview - though I had been living and working on the Isle of Mull, which served as a half-way-house to this more isolated existence. Six-hundred and fifty people live on Tiree; a largely agricultural island of just under 80km2. I was very anxious about working away from my partner and home in Tobermory. Because of the ferry route, I sailed past our house on that first trip - with my belongings packed into the car below. When you’re full of doubt and you have tears in your eyes, it takes something very special to change your mind. Tiree is special. This is why I’m so passionate about helping people to enjoy it responsibly.
Looking West from Mull, Tiree and its neighbouring island of Coll are nothing more than a thickening of the horizon. Tiree is the most low-lying of the two; barely peeking out above our legendary Hebridean waves. If you haven’t yet experienced the adrenaline-fueled insanity of Tiree Wave Classic (our very own windsurfing competition, which is the longest running professional windsurfing event in the world - see: here) then trust me, you need to.
The island’s slim profile creates its most precious and spectacular habitat: machair. Tiny fragments of shell, battered against offshore reefs and blown far inland from pristine beaches, provide a calcium influence that counters the naturally acidic substrate. Each April, our machair is a fried-egg medley of white daisies and yellow buttercups. Sometimes the daisy carpet grows so thick, it could be mistaken for snowfall (which we rarely get, thanks to our maritime climate).
As the days lengthen purple orchids, perfumed clover and bright trefoil create a kaleidoscope of smell and colour; chock full of tiny wader chicks and rare bumblebees. On traditionally managed croft land, the in-bye rasps with Corncrakes all summer (approximately a third of the UK population) and is swept by the cool grace of wildfowl throughout winter. These systems are achingly beautiful, and they are fragile.
One of my first jobs was to install new signage and interpretation. Digging down into the ‘soil’ at our beach parking areas, I was horrified to discover nothing more than sand - with a smudge of greyish organic colour, barely a hand deep. If the binding surface vegetation wears away, this sand is exposed to our howling winds and quickly erodes. Thus, vehicles can be an incredibly damaging influence, and off-road access must be managed to ensure sustainability. Machair plains provide essential winter grazing for the crofting sector, so any damage represents a loss to small-scale agriculture and a loss to our threatened wildlife.
On Tiree, we ask our guests to use marked parking areas to access beaches; rather than driving freely over unfenced land. We also ask that our guests use approved overnight camping pitches instead of camping informally from their vehicles (see: here). Both actions have mitigated damage and improved outcomes for crofting and conservation. Historically, this management of vehicle access proved controversial - though a good level of understanding and acceptance has now taken root, thanks to engagement and education. The main issue, in my view, is a lack of clarity in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
For the casual traveller (and, it has to be said, particularly for my fellow Englishmen and women) the distinction between true Wild Camping and camping informally from a vehicle is not sufficiently clear. A significant proportion of guests genuinely and innocently believe that Wild Camping includes the use of a vehicle; that Wild Camping rights therefore extend to vehicle users; and that they have a right under Scottish law to access open land, with a vehicle, for the purpose of camping. This includes the use of roadside locations such as old stone quarries or unmarked pull-in points. These guests are naturally surprised when asked to adhere to the requests above - either through Tiree’s visitor guidance or in person. I am regularly assured that such access is ‘allowed everywhere else’. It isn’t, and this is an awkward conversation to have for all parties. Guests may be left feeling a little unsure or even put out; and I must intrude on their holiday to request a change in behaviour. Not something I enjoy.
Because Tiree has taken measures to promote compliance with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, there is a perception that a ‘right’ to camp informally with vehicles is being withheld. In fact, the above restrictions apply across Scotland; it’s just that in many communities, informal camping is tolerated because it hasn’t reached damaging levels. Informal camping is not sustainable on Tiree and we have had to take steps to manage it; in part because of this lack of clarity. Therefore, I argue that this distinction needs to be made more explicit in Scottish Outdoor Access Code guidance. We welcome more than twenty thousand guests per year (and remember, the island is less than 80km2). Our machair simply cannot withstand that kind of unchecked vehicle pressure. Or at least, not without squashing quite a few lapwing chicks.
The good news is, when fully informed about the reasons and rational behind this management, guests are incredibly supportive. They engage readily with the ethos of our community, and visitor behaviour is almost universally excellent. If any of our guests are reading, I would like to thank them warmly for this.
Like so much of Scotland, Tiree is breathtakingly lovely. Guests are a very welcome part of our remote rural economy - and we can offer a unique setting in which to enjoy a sense of remoteness and escape; sublime wildlife; quality family time on the beach; activities such as SUP, surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing; plus, the chance to explore Scottish ancestry and archaeology. Contemporary events like Tiree Music Festival (see: here) have opened up our island and our culture to new audiences - representing a fabulous opportunity to engage young people with all that the Hebridean environment and way of life has to offer. It’s what we’re all about. It’s what I’m all about.
We only ask that you #RoamResponsibly when you visit.
Tiree Ranger Service