Tiree is an island of many moods.

On some days, the flaxen light and tender fluting of swans drip like mead over a patchwork of croft fields.

At other times, the wind drives white horses high onto the beaches. For half a mile out to sea, they fling themselves desperately towards the dunes in a plunging wall of foam.

It’s very hard to convey the true size of waves on Tiree in a photograph. This scene is from Balephuil Beach.

The latter are the kind of conditions that fulmar like.

Sporting forget-me-not feathers and Beetlejuice eyes, these handsome birds leave their hangers on Ben Hynish and Ben Hough for the open ocean.

They are a portent of stormy weather.

With wings held stiffly horizontal, fulmars fly like Aces.

Each has the appearance of being freshly washed and pressed, filled to the beak on expensive martinis and ready to give a spirited cry of “Chocks Away!”

This is a Fulmar, photographed in the Sound of Mull. Notice the “tube shaped” nostrils which help these birds to locate food items using scent.  

Their ability to aggressively project foul-smelling vomit is, arguably, another shared heritage with the armed forces.

However, rather than being deployed after a heavy night in the officers’ mess, this charming party trick is saved for deterring predators. These include white-tailed eagles, which occasionally pop over from neighbouring islands for a seabird shopping trip.

Unsurprisingly, stomach contents are an effective deterrent. Only foolish young eagles will attempt to snatch a sitting bird from its nest – at risk of death if the oil coats their plumage.

Far better to catch them in flight from above.

I’m not the first to make a martial association with the fulmar. The Fairy Fulmar was a WWII fighter plane, specially designed to land at sea on aircraft carriers. Its sleek but robust build is reminiscent of the birds as they skim along wave crests.

The presence of the military on Tiree is evident all over the island. The impact on the landscape has been striking: Stern breeze block bunkers and buildings sit incongruously among the lilting flowers and grazing livestock.

The Ministry of War arrived on the island in 1940. Irish navvies were brought in to assist with the creation of infrastructure using rock blasted from quarries at Baugh and Balephetrish.

Activity centred on flat ground at the heart of the island known as The Reef. This was to be the main base and landing strip.

Today (as well as hosting the island’s current airport) The Reef is a haven for breeding waders, wildflowers and machair minibeasts.

It is managed as a nature reserve by the RSPB – though due to the presence of the airfield and the site’s sensitive ecology, it is not fully accessible to the public.

Like Fulmars, Gannets are at their best in stormy weather. These magnificent animals are our largest seabird, with a wingspan of up to 2m.

RAF Tiree opened officially in November 1941 (becoming fully operational by April 1942, when the first squadron arrived). It hosted over 2,000 airmen and support staff – which must have been something of a culture shock to the residents.

That said, I imagine that for the young ladies of the island, this influx of intriguing strangers was not entirely unwelcome…

The primary functions of the base were threefold: To protect Allied naval convoys from submarine attack during the infamous Battle of the Atlantic supply blockades, to facilitate air-sea rescue of survivors – and finally – to gather information in the North Atlantic Weather War.

The view down to Hynish from Traigh Shorobaidh.

Meteorological data collection was vital for military planning. Both the Germans and the Allies sought to gain monopoly over this information; thus placing the opposition at a strategic disadvantage.

Patrols were conducted daily over pre-determined routes, with readings being taken at set intervals between 50 – 18,000ft.

Sadly, more than a dozen aircraft and their personnel were lost. In that time of conflict, operations still had to be conducted despite poor conditions. This was not without cost – especially for the 518 Handley Page Halifax squadron.

I have only been on Tiree for three weeks. In that short time, there have been occasions when I’ve struggled to get into my car; never mind a four-engine heavy bomber. It’s chilling to think of this as you watch the waves gouge and bite at Tiree’s sandy complexion.

Walking up from Traigh Shorobaidh in the evenings, gentle-eyed cattle now occupy the frowning concrete relics.

Their institutional grey roofs are peppered with the bawdy swaggering of starlings. In summer, their bland interiors will provide a welcome nursery for one of nature’s most gifted aviators – the barn swallow.

A palimpsest emerges as the present “air force” whistles, hops, twitters and swoops cheerfully over the silent remains of its predecessor.

Kittiwakes [above] and Fulmars often nest in close proximity. Both are heavily maritime in their habits; providing much enjoyment when watching birds at sea. 

Clambering back into my car and driving home for tea, I can’t help but think that this is a fitting memorial.

Stephanie Cope

Tiree Ranger

If you are interested in finding out more on Wartime Tiree, a wealth of information and expertise can be found at An Iodhlann – the island’s Historical Centre in Scarinish.

To visit their website and browse artifacts online, go to: www.aniodhlann.org.uk

Steel Birds
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