There are two schools of thought on what to wear on a cycling summer day in which there is the possibility of a downpour, far from home…
The first (Plan A) says you should put up with the weight and pack a good set of waterproofs. Then, as soon as the heavens open, stop cycling and put them on. The second (Plan B) says that, as long as the underlying temperature is warm-ish, there’s only so wet you can get, and you’ll soon dry, so why bother…?
Which was why, at about three in the afternoon of our cycling day on Tiree, and as a proponent of Plan B, I was standing alongside my bike, skin and metal drenched, looking back down the climbing valley road at the other man in our party (a follower of Plan A) who was doing some sort of dance with what appeared to be a bright red ghost…
But, I digress…
The lone cow on the rocky outcrop as we were pedalling away from Hynish should have warned us. Still feeling euphoric from the previous two hours, I had dismissed the ‘You’ll be sorrrry’ cartoon that sprang to mind, Warner Brothers style, from my subconscious. Failing that, the vertical orientation of the seagull’s body in the photo above should have shouted a hint, but no… what looks obvious in hindsight, in the photos, was less so on the day.
So we pedalled on, and now, looking at the shots, I can see the blue sky ahead that we embraced and the darkening silver behind, that we ignored. The deluge wasn’t instant; those dark clouds took a while to arrive, while we cycled into the seeming blue. At least wary of the weather, we had a further destination in mind: Soroby. This hamlet is the site of a graveyard of considerable interest because it links the pilgrim island of Iona with Tiree.
Much of the graveyard is relatively modern, and many of the (well-tended) graves mark the tragic loss of life of a merchant ship in World War II. Many of the bodies were washed up on the beaches of Tiree and their identities never discovered. The beautiful epithet ‘Known to God’ marks their anonymous sacrifice.
But, a smaller and older part of the graveyard is believed to be the site of a monastery established by St Columba as an extension of the work of his first church on Iona, following his self-imposed exile from Ireland, where it is said he led a rebellion and started a war which resulted in ten thousand deaths. This was prior to his conversion to Christianity, which he then vowed to spread across the seas to Scotland. This man, loved and feared in equal measure it is said, also established a monastery on Tiree for ‘wayward monks’. If you’ll forgive the humour, it appears to have been a kind of early ‘Craggy Island’ as in the Father Ted series… This was known as Baithene’s Monastery, and was founded in 565 AD.
The ruins of that original monastery have never been found, though it is known that a church stood here from the 13th to the 19th centuries. However, one very important artefact remains: a double-faced stone cross from that early period of religious life on Tiree. It is known, now, as McLean’s cross, after the clan which ruled Tiree from 1390 to 1680, it is linked to the life of Anna McLean, who was the prioress of Iona from 1509 – 1543.
The cross has two sides: the first, with its raised boss at the centre of a ‘cross and spiral’ design, is Celtic. The reverse is in the form of a Latin Cross. It suggest an ancient piece, created when Christianity was well established, yet still in touch with its Celtic roots in these parts. One of the locals suggested it was 8th century, but we had no way of verifying this, and I can find no other reference to it.
Another artefact once shared this site: the cross of Anna McLean, herself, stood here (Illustration above). On it , she is shown ‘disembowelling death’; an action that merits scholarly and philosophical attention. Only the shaft of the cross is recorded, and the original was removed from the island long ago. The inscription reads ‘This is the cross of Michael, Archangel of God. Anna, Prioress of Iona‘. I would imagine no-one knows the full story of how she came to be interred on Tiree, possibly her original family home. She must have been quite a woman…
Quietly, and deep in thought, we left Soroby, intending to double-back on ourselves a short distance and take the direct road over the spine of the island and to Tiree’s north coast.
We had cycled away from the wonderful village of Hynish knowing that the best part of the day was likely over. The sheer mental adventure of discovering the story of the Shore Station and the Skerryvore Lighthouse had provided a kind of peace; a sense of a day well spent; and yet we were only a quarter of the way around the island of Tiree.
And then the dark clouds behind us caught up with the broken blue sky in front and the deluge hit. With a hissing of dark, low clouds, the threatened storm began. The rain was so intense that we abandoned any thought of climbing the hill towards the north coast. Instead, we fled back to the only point of refuge we knew – our morning cafe at Balemartine – and ran from the front car park into its inviting interior.
Henrietta had more sense than to be waiting for us, this time, and the staff of the Balemartine Cafe laughed in warm mirth as four wet cyclists abandoned their machines near the door and fled into the cafe’s warm interior.
“It can be verra unpredictable, the weather here,” said the lady owner of the cafe, studying our dripping state and clearly happy that the formal restaurant section was now full of decently-dressed weekend diners. She coughed gently and pointed to the coffee lounge where we had taken our late breakfast. “Will your usual table suffice?”
It did… and the humour helped; assisted by tea and cake, twice, as the building seemed to shake under the wrath of the storm god. You can feel very vulnerable in situations like this, when you’re thinly dressed, far from home, and more than slightly concerned whether the small plane from Glasgow could even get through the teeth of a highland storm like this…
And the figure jumping up and down in the red rain-suit. it was Paul, of course – the other husband in the party. After another hour in the cafe we felt duty bound to try again, despite the rain. Halfway up the road to the north coast, we abandoned any attempt at further travel. We were strung out in a line on the saturated hill. The ladies were a few hundred metres ahead of me. As group leader, and the most experienced cyclist, I was keeping a watchful eye on Paul, fighting a red ghost in the driving rain and not having the heart to tell him that the ladies had written the day off and decided we all needed to get back to the airport where we would at least be warm and, eventually, dry again.
It took us about thirty minutes to get back to Tiree Airport. We did, eventually dry off and get warm again. The plane, did get through. We did get back to Glasgow. None of the bad weather mattered, we had a wonderful day full of adventure.
It’s our turn to assemble one of these trips, next year. I’ll keep you posted… Thank you, Tiree.
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©Copyright Stephen Tanham, text and pictures. Re-use with permission.