Coming Off the Cultural Fence
Seven years after moving back to my family croft in the Isle of Tiree, Scotland— and having silently watched the increasingly swift decimation of our indigenous culture — I can’t keep quiet any longer.
2019 was the year I finally snapped — in a cultural sense. It has been a slow burn.
I moved “home” to Tiree almost 7 years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream. A native Gaelic speaker who grew up in the big city of Edinburgh and spent her summers running wild in Tiree, I have long considered it to be the place I belong. It’s the only place in the world where I feel like I am able to breathe.
But I walk a fine line. Neither one thing nor the other — not island born and bred, but inextricably connected to the place. A city girl who was somehow hefted, be it by nature or nurture, to the land her ancestors had worked for over 400 years.
I inhabit two worlds. On one hand, I croft and Gaelic is my first language. I live in the house my great great grandfather built, I know my land — I’ve explored and adventured over it thousands of times. Tiree, and the crofts I share with my father in Caolas are home in every sense of the word.
On the other hand, I grew up in a different world. I moved to Tiree as an adult, seeking a different life. I work for an American based tech company and travel regularly, slipping in and out of identities with a strange ease. From wellies in the morning, to a transatlantic flight in the afternoon.
I don’t fit perfectly into either world. And I’m ok with that. I’ve never quite fitted anywhere. I’ve always kind of prided myself on keeping the peace, and sitting on fences til my arse was sore, for fear of causing offence.
But I have found myself growing increasingly uneasy. I have watched lights go out in my township of Caolas over the last 7 years — their inhabitants, histories and family connections erased. If it affects me, which it does – deeply, I can’t imagine how it affects people like my father who have witnessed even greater change.
From the Caolas boundary, and including Milton, Harbour, Urbhaig and Miodar, there are only 12 houses permanently occupied. From Tullymet, the “Pink House” at the fork which takes you towards the most eastern part of Tiree (which includes Caolas) there are 4 of us under 50 crofting. A culture is slipping away despite our best efforts.
This summer I watched as helicopters and private planes arrived. As houses filled with holiday makers complaining to me about creels on the beach. I stood in the co-op and listened to people mocking the shopping options and pushing to the front of the line. Someone commented how sad it was that the local people didn’t seem to go and appreciate the beaches (spoiler: they’re working their socks off cleaning your holiday house).
And someone who had recently arrived lamented how there was so much potential in the place, and they didn’t understand why local people didn’t harness it…
And my attempt to sit on a fence and hold a party line started to crack. By the time I had reached the end of the summer I had snapped. I threw caution to the wind, opened my mouth and let my belly rumble all over Twitter. It was intended to be satire, it wasn’t nuanced, and it most certainly did not cover all the possible angles, whys, wherefores and whatevers about life in the islands today, but what it did do was strike a chord. My experience seemed to ring true across the highlands, islands and beyond.
So you’ve moved to the Scottish Islands and are contemplating your first Instagram post congratulating yourselves on living the good life. Here’s a handy guide to living in the islands.
— Rhoda Meek (@wodieskodie) December 9, 2019
I was thoroughly freaked out by how my rant blew up — to the extent that I spent an entire morning shaking uncontrollably. I was blown away by how much support I received, and sadly unsurprised by the abuse I got — although I got less than I anticipated.
The main outcome of that terrifying and unintended 15 minutes of notoriety was something I didn’t expect — a desire to keep at it. The culture I love is dying. It is being actively erased through ignorance, through greed and through a complete lack of cultural respect. I can’t stop it, but I can shout about it. And I’m going to. Fuck the fence.
Being called racist, unwelcoming, sad, horrible and “epitomising everything wrong with these islands” earlier this week really ground my gears. Actually, as Gaels, we are a long oppressed minority, who have a right to some cultural respect. [thread]
— Rhoda Meek (@wodieskodie) December 15, 2019