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‘Tiree is known as tìr bàrr fo thuinn – ‘the island whose peaks lie below the waves’’

The Island Below The Waves
By Jay Armstrong
Excerpt from Elementum Edition Two

The Isle of Tiree (Gaelic – Eilean Tiriodh) is the most westerly of the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It is about ten miles long, five miles wide and mostly flat, with only three sizeable hills. Sail a few miles from its shores, from where only these hilltops are visible, and you can see why Tiree is known as tìr bàrr fo thuinn – ‘the island whose peaks lie below the waves’. In the winter months there are ferocious Atlantic storms, and with no woodland to buffer the gales, winds sweep across the island unchecked. These winds and waves however, have shaped the island’s history as much as its inhabitants and their dwellings.

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A flint arrowhead, found in the dunes near Balevullin on the north-west coast of the island, suggests that hunter-gatherers arrived on Tiree as early as 12,000 years ago. They were seasonal visitors, however, and it would be another 6,000 years until the island was settled by Neolithic farmers, drawn to its fertile grasslands. This soft dune pasture, formed from the white windblown sand and rotted seaweed, stretches inland to the ‘blackland’ (where sand reaches the peat) and is known as machair, Gaelic for ‘low-lying, fertile plain’.

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One of the rarest habitats in Europe, machair is found in northern and western coastal areas of Britain and Ireland. On Tiree, the machair is managed by the crofters who rotate cultivation and grazing. This style of farming encourages rare species of orchid to flourish and preserves the habitat of the migratory Corncrake (Crex crex). Careful and collaborative stewardship of the island maintains these diverse habitats and there have been over 270 species of birds recorded on Tiree, among them 6,000 pairs of waders. Offshore, orcas and basking sharks can be seen in the summer months while inshore, otter and seal populations flourish.

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In the late sixth century, St Columba established the first Christian monastery on the island. In the eighth to ninth centuries, marauding Norse raiders turned peaceful settlers, naming the island Tyrvist, the Land of Barley, from which it gets its name today. The population grew steadily to almost 4,500 by the mid-nineteenth century, but Tiree was not exempt from the potato famine and many families emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Patagonia. Today the population is around 650, although it is estimated that there are over two million people of Tiree descent in the world today.

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To mark the new millennium, An Turas (the journey) was built at Gott pier. This open structure leading to a covered aperture is designed to represent various aspects of the island, from its vernacular architecture and heritage to the geology and landscape.

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On the north coast, near Balephetrish, stands the Ringing Stone (Clach a’Choire), a boulder carved with Neolithic cup-markings. The stone is a glacial erratic, carried to Tiree from Rùm during the last ice age. Folklore, however, says that a giant threw the stone across the water from Mull and should it ever be broken, or taken from Tiree, then the island will be lost to the waves.

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All images and words © Elementum Journal.


Elementum is a collectable coffee-table journal that explores our connection to the natural world. It is for the curious and questioning, for lovers of art and story, for those as open to understanding the world told through ancient myth as explained through scientific research. Guided by a different theme for each edition, Elementum is published twice a year.

If you enjoy reading about the natural world and its associated folklore, appreciate exquisite artwork, informed writing, clean design, and highest quality print then Elementum is a perfect new addition to your library.

Editions One and Two of Elementum: A Journal of Nature and Story are out now priced £15.00.

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