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Tea traditions of the Scottish islands

Tea traditions are something the UK does well. In Edinburgh, I grew up in a house where there was always tea in the pot. Both my parents are fueled by an almost constant supply of tea.

But, I think the tea traditions of the Scottish islands win hands down!

One of my earliest tea memories are cups of tea when we stayed with my Gran in Tiree… They were dark brown, with floaty bits I now know were limescale, and a good splash of UHT – the ever present standby. The smell of UHT makes me shudder these days.

When I moved back to Tiree, and started visiting I realised that a cup of tea and a biscuit were regulation no matter how big the meal you had just eaten was.

I wondered what other island tea traditions were out there… So I asked Twitter.

You’ll have your tea!

It became quickly apparent that almost every island has the rule which means if you so much as set foot in a house, the kettle will go on.

Anytime anyone walks in the door, any time of day, any person, any house – kettle on. Biscuits out! (Minnie Mo, Uist)

It’s considered rude not to also offer a spread of biscuits and cake. Bonus points for girdle scones or pancakes – homemade of course. My Gran did a great line in those! She did like to make sure the pancakes were “well fired” which is not my cup of tea but it was a great excuse for extra butter.

She would be horrified at me these days, rootling around in the cupboard for a stray biscuit and asking hopefully whether guests have “brought their own milk”?

I always felt sorry for visitors to my Granny and other Aunties and neighbours. They would cause great offence if they didn’t have tea and pancakes in every house. Best china cups too. (John, Lochbuie, Mull).

My father was adamant that you cannot have a cup of tea, or offer someone a cup, without there being something to eat with it. Usually a girdle scone for visitors. (Another Rhoda)

It should be noted that it is equally rude not to eat the cake and biscuits, and drink the tea you are offered. Someone noted that the first and second time the tray comes round, you should indulge, but refuse on the third occasion. Although apparently that also depends on what is on offer!

Anyway, Twitter did of course deliver a smorgasbord of additional tea traditions and related tidbits. Enjoy!

16 Tea Traditions of the Scottish islands

Hotter than the sun

“I always associate the smell of stewed tea with the house where my Granny’s siblings – lived. They’d have a huge pot bubbling away on the stove all day. It was served in china cups and hotter than the sun.” – Catrìona, Isle of Lewis

The constant teapot

“I was always wary of the constant tea pot. What I mean is tea is made in the morning , put on the stove and added to during the day. By 3 pm onwards you could stand a teaspoon up in it.” – Rona, Isle of Lewis

The secret cup

“My father says that when tea first came to Harris, it was drunk in secret. Women, especially, would not be seen taking it – almost as bad as openly consuming alcohol!” – Mòrag Anna, Isle of Harris

Sugar or sugarless?

“The practice of lashing out tea & fancies at the end of a dance or other community function. The hospitality of the home on a grand scale. The (much stronger than they look) ladies circulated with enormous double-handled aluminium teapots, crying “sugar or sugarless” – Martin, Orkney

Brùchd a’ Ghuga

This is exceedingly niche. To fully understand the implications of this one, you may need to read up on Guga.

“A cup of tea is critical after eating guga, to fend off the evil that is brùchd a ghuga.” – Sandra, Isle of Lewis

Loosely translated, brùchd a ghuga is “the salty belch as I digest the greasy gannet I have just eaten”. Where else but the lovely Isle of Lewis? Personally, I’d need a church tea urn’s worth of the good stuff for that affliction.

Drinking from the saucer

“My Mam was saying last week that her father always drank his tea from a saucer and not the cup. Hearach born and bred, passed away in the mid-50’s.” – NicIlleMhoire, Isle of Lewis

Not as daft as it sounds, this one. The tea will cool quicker and be drinkable faster.

The “all in one” and “the fear”

“Tea, milk, sugar and water all boiled in a milk pan on the stove together. Personally I can’t stand tea but if an old auntie said ‘you’ll have a cup of tea’ you had one! Always served with solid fruit cake.” – Ceitidh, Raasay

“As a child visiting older relatives in Ness (Lewis) always got v strong tea in a cup with pancakes, crowdie & marmalade – no orange squash kept for children in those days. Put me off strong tea for life! Also – share the fear of teapot boiled directly on the stove or gas ring!” – Rhona, Isle of Lewis

The “Fly”

“My Granny (from Carloway) spoke of a “fly cup”: a cup of tea consumed at any time, often on the hoof, a fortification before you disappear out the door. She consumed many and lived to 90. Following her teaching and consuming many, many fly cups myself.” – Angela, Isle of Lewis

The “Sly”

A cup of tea drunk in Lewis around the 4pm – 4.30pm mark. “What about a wee sly?” – Murdo

The “Proper biscuits”

“If you were a “visitor” you got tea in a china cup and the sandwich tray thingy, with “proper” (bought) biscuits… the day you got the pancake and crowdie and the mug like everyone else, ace.” – Ros, Bernera

The “Proper Cup”

“My grandmother (Bragar) always had strong tea on the go. And it had to be a china cup. She despaired of us wanting a mug.” – Christina, Lewis

“On the booze”

“I don’t know if I can speak for all of Shetland but I certainly like to have a cup of tea with breakfast and lunch and after dinner (even if I’ve been on the booze all day like a wedding – still got to be a cuppa to round off the meal) and between all meals as well.” – Hannah, Shetland

I have personally witnessed more than one occasion where an individual is happily holding a cup of tea in one hand, a whisky in the other, and alternating between them. They shall remain nameless.

The Minster’s cup

“After every meal, non optional. Must always be served with a biscuit, also non optional. Fancy cups reserved for the minister who also got cake as well as a plated plethora of biscuits.” – Louise, Isle of Skye

The Naked Cup

Forcing food on people with a cup of tea is so much part of of island tea traditions that we actually had to create a way of asking for a cup of tea WITHOUT an accompanying feast. And so the “bald”, “empty” or “naked” cup was coined. It has fallen out of use but I reckon it should be reinstated!

“Used to be much hilarity in our house when very ceart (proper) granny asked for ‘cupan teatha lomnochd’ (A naked cup of tea). Cupan teatha falamh (an empty cup of tea) is much less Benny Hill. Speaks volumes that Gaelic developed an entire lexicon for fending off scones & cakes from over-generous hostesses.” – Catriona, Lewis

“Ah yes, ‘cupan teatha falamh’. An empty cup of tea. Just the tea without the biscuits, cake, scones etc.” – Harris

The best cup of all?

The tea you had whilst at the peats.

“At the peats. Open fire rather than flask to keep the flies off. Ancient old kettle kept out on the bank. Nothing tastes as nice, or parches a thirst like it. Proper peaty water. Delicious.” – Sarah, Harris

“I still remember the wonderful taste of the tea brewed in the old tin kettle at Loch Langabhat – the water having been drawn from the burn!” – Catrìona, Harris

A slab of strong cheddar

And finally, the advice below would serve us all well today. If nothing else, a strong slab of something is often needed when listening to the news at the moment!

“Always at 8:45 the kettle went on for the 9 o’clock news. Served to visitors all day with pancakes, scones, and biscuits. Served at the news with digestive biscuits, butter, and a slab of strong cheddar.” – Sami


That was 16 Tea traditions of the Scottish islands. It would be remiss of me not to tell you at this juncture that many an old-timer and tea-jennie has said that Crofter Breakfast tea is a “proper cup of tea”. I’d be delighted if you tried it out!

Please enjoy the full Twitter thread here:

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Meet the real Isle of Tiree

Gott Bay - Isle of Tiree

The Isle of Tiree is a small island in the southern part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

It has a long and fascinating history – and an equally fascinating present!

Tiree is often described in breathless terms as “hidden gem” or “secret island”. That’s lovely, but the reality is that far from being a remote, wild destination, Tiree has been home to communities stretching back through the millennia. The island was the very centre of their world.

Remote is as remote does. The Isle of Tiree is the centre of my world and that of its 650 permanent residents (opinions on numbers differ. Let’s see what the census says next year.)

Tiree facts and figures

You will hear stats about wind, and sun – and yes, Tiree is one of the the windiest and sunniest places in the UK.

Lots gets written about beaches and surfing and windsurfing.

Lapwing and Otters and Spotted Orchids and Great Yellow Bumble Bees are covered in detail.

A busy community

But there are a few things you are far less likely to hear. For example, the working population of Tiree (not forgetting the many many volunteers) run;

  • A 2-18 school
  • GP surgery and Dental surgery
  • Fire service and Ambulance
  • Airport and Pier
  • Fishing harbour and Moorings
  • Garages
  • Bank, Post offices and Co-op
  • Coast Guard
  • Development Trust
  • Community Broadband
  • Community Wind turbine
  • An entire Music Festival
  • and are soon to add a fuel station and community garden to the list.

That’s before we get to the dozens of small businesses, the many incredible musicians and the thousands of lambs and hundreds of calves raised every year. No wonder we may look tired sometimes, or be in a bit of a rush on the road!

Future questions

On the less positive front, all of that is made harder because;

  • Tiree boasts an eye-watering stat of approximately 40% second-home ownership.
  • It has an ageing population and the indigenous Gaelic language is on its knees.
  • Long term rental accommodation is almost impossible to find.
  • House prices are so inflated that many folk living and working here cannot afford to buy.

That’s not to put you off coming – not at all! Tiree is an incredible place, full of history and stories, music and nature, with stunning beaches and beautiful vistas. There is no doubt about that. Please come and visit!

But when you do visit, come to discover the community and the businesses, the people and music and history as well as the waves and the views. We want to make sure that there is still a thriving resident community here for generations to come.

If you are looking for Tiree businesses to support before, during, or after your visit – have a look at the Isle of Tiree on the isle20.com shopping site. It is chock full of brilliant shops, gifts and products.

Isle of Tiree Accommodation

When you are looking for accommodation, the new isleHoliday.com website is a good place to start. It was set up to try and re-balance the scales of second home ownership and short term letting and is in the very early stages.

Much of the Tiree accommodation available in the Summer is owned by people who do not live here. That means that a large part of the revenue from short term lets leaves the island. Please visit, and please enjoy the places you book, but if you can I would ask you to consider seeing if something is available on isleholiday.com before looking on Airbnb!

isleHoliday lists holiday accommodation that you can book across the Scottish islands and the commission goes back into the Isle Develop CIC social enterprise and ALL surplus is reinvested in the islands – specifically to support small businesses and affordable housing projects.

For bonus points, if the house you end up staying in is NOT listed on isleHoliday, please suggest that it is 😉

If you’re still reading, and have got past my preaching, congratulations! As a reward, I’ve taken some of the most asked questions on Google about the Isle of Tiree, and answered them for you – I hope it’s helpful!

Is Tiree the sunniest place in the UK?

It is one of them! The stats vary from year to year.

What is Tiree known for?

Wind, windsurfing, the shipping forecast, and a good beef cow.

Is Tiree a secret destination?

No. It’s really not. It’s actually quite busy!

Do you need a car in Tiree?

Unless you enjoy cycling in a 40mph headwind, a car is advisable. We have 2 car hire companies available if you fly in.

Can I visit Tiree?

Yes, you can visit Tiree. Please do!

Can I buy Tiree wool?

Great question! I sell wool – you can buy it right here at The Angry Triangle.

Who owns the island of Tiree?

Tiree is still in Feudal ownership. The Duke of Argyll owns the island. The family are Campbells. I am a MacDonald. We will leave that there.

Does Tiree have a cash machine?

No. But you can get cash back in the Co-op, and Buth a’ Bhaile and the Post Office will let you withdraw cash.

Do Cattle grids bite?

Cattle grids do not bite. Please drive over them at the same speed as the tarmac, or the person behind you might bite.

Does Tiree have a mobile signal?

Generally, yes. Until it doesn’t. It usually returns eventually.

What is the wind turbine called?

She is called Tilley. I named the Peppermint and Nettle Infusion after her.

Where can I find out more about visiting Tiree?

I recommend the excellent, community run website isleoftiree.com. It is full of useful information, including all the necessary facts about travel, campervans, camping and more that you need to know before you visit Tiree.

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The Crofter Collection

Tiree Tea - perfect gifts for farmers

Gifts for farmers can be hard to find. If you ask a farmer, the dream gift will usually be very expensive replacements for things they spend a lot of time fixing. For example, I would very much like a turnover crate but sadly no-one will buy one for me.

When it comes to gift ideas for farmers, there are a few things to remember which will make the search much easier.

  • A hot drink will never go a miss
  • Tractors are many farmers’ first love
  • A vintage tractor will often create the same effect as when Mr Toad saw a motor car for the first time <3

Q: What do you get if you cross a tractor with a nice hot cuppa?

A: The Tiree Tea Crofter Collection!

Choose from tea, a mug, a coaster, a tin, a combination, or a full gift set. I am of course very biased, but as gifts for farmers go, I think this is right up there!

The Crofter collection was inspired by a 1947 Little Grey Fergie. It has lived on the Tiree Tea croft since it rolled off the production line. The tractor belongs to my Dad and is his pride and joy!

It is a pure petrol TEA20 which has been restored at various points over the years. It is still a working tractor – although it just has light duties these days.

Crofter is the the flagship tea from Tiree Tea. Crofter Breakfast Tea works hard all day round – just like the Little Grey Fergie and every farmer I have ever met.

The beautiful illustration was done by Catriona Black of Black Prints, and shows our own Fergie sitting on the Machair. The Gunna Sound is in the background.

Congratulations! You have found the perfect gift for a farmer and are now free to search for what ever you like. If you are sending the present direct to the recipient, leave a message at the checkout and I’ll be sure to include a wee note in the parcel.

If you are not from around these parts (Scottish highlands), “Crofter” might be a new word. A Crofter is what a small scale farmer is called in parts of Scotland. Crofting refers to a particular type of land ownership.

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One experiment at a time – the story of Tiree Tea so far…

Tiree tea logo

If you had asked me a decade ago whether I would be growing Tiree Tea into a business, I would have thought you were mad! But here we are.

The first experiment

When I dreamed up Tiree Tea a few years ago, it was a pie in the sky idea. I thought the name had a nice ring to it, and then I filed it away under the “daft ideas” heading in my brain and let it marinate.

I finally decided to put my veg growing sideline on ice in 2019 (long story), and started throwing about the idea of tea again. In September 2019, when I came up with a 4 month experiment in order to test the market, the name still had a nice ring to it, and the idea was taking a clearer shape.

I decided to throw mself in at the deep end and figure out how to produce a product, market it and shift a designated amount of it between September and Christmas. If I hit my goals I would consider moving from an experiment (real though it looked), to an actual “thing”.

The first blends

I started with two blends – Crofter Breakfast Tea and Tilley Mint and Nettle Herbal Infusion.

If the tea was going to work as a product, I knew that it would be really important to get the branding right. I had a rough idea of what I want to acheive and I worked with the brilliant Catriona Black of Black Prints to design a logo and the labels. The artwork is a huge part of the brand now, and I am still working with Catriona!

I learnt a lot in that initial experiment – about producing a product, branding and marketing it, as well as actually selling it – never mind the intricacies of shipping things (the patience of Barbara in the Post Office cannot be understated.)

I set what felt like a scary target, and I opened pre-orders on November 1st. Before I left for a Christmas break on the 18th of December, I mailed my last order. I hit 150% of my goal in 7 weeks. I didn’t expect it, but it made for a fantastic Christmas present.

The 2019 Tiree Xmas Craft Fayre
The first stall at the Tiree Christmas Craft Fayre in 2019

Growing Tiree Tea (the business, not the plant!)

Returning in the New Year of 2020 I decided I would give it a shot and turn Tiree Tea into a fledgling business.

I added Gneiss Earl Grey and Machair Herbal Infusion to the existing Crofter Breakfast Tea and Tilley Mint and Nettle. And I spent ages trying to calculate how many tea bags I could sell to tourists. The expected season was from Easter to the Tiree Wave Classic in October.

The best part of 70,000 tea bags were ordered. I even started writing a funding application for a wee catering trailer. The ideas was to use it to pack the tea in, and to sell from. I had a cashflow forecast and everything. It was all going so well.

If this was a video, there would be that big onimous zipping sound right about now.

2020. The year of Covid.

As Covid struck it dawned on me that selling tea to tourists was going to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated… I pivoted to selling online and trying to find ways to build the brand. One of those ways was to build a network of other people in the same boat and see if we could drive traffic to each other’s online shops. And so isle20.com was born. It is an ecommerce platform selling products and listing businesses from across the Scottish islands. It has grown in leaps and bounds and was the inspiration for Isle Develop CIC. Isle Develop is a social enterprise. It’s a home for isle20 and an opprtunity to develop new ideas. Ideas like the fledgling isleHoliday.com.

Ok, where was I? Covid. Well, buy the end of the summer trade was doing ok online, and tourists were back in limited numbers. The tea was selling and people seemed to like it.

In October 2020 I brought out a limited edition Ferry Berry blend. Ferry Berry is a mulled, spiced, chilli infused delight that looks and smells like Christmas. Another wee experiment! This winter it came back and due to being so popular, earned itself a place in the main range!

Growing the Tiree Tea brand

In 2021 I focused on growing both retail and catering sales. The goal was to break-even despite larger bulk orders to suppliers! I posted my last 2021 order on the 21st of December, and hit my goals.

So what next? Well, subscription boxes have arrived. These are a great way to get regular deliveries of your favourite tea! I am definitely hoping to bring out another blend this year AND there is an expansion on the horizon.

I’m not giving away any secrets yet, but it is exciting!

Does Tiree Tea grow in Tiree?

The short answer is no. It’s a bit like Yorkshire Tea in that regard!

Will there ever be a Tiree-grown ingredient in the tea? I really hope so. Tea is legally a food. That means that there are huge costs associated with growing, harvesting, drying and incorporating local ingredients. I’ve got a lot more to learn before I can think about it reaching that stage.

In the meantime, I will label and pack all the products in Tiree. The blends and their labels have been inspired and developed with the language, stories, culture, plants and animals of the Hebrides in mind – particularly those of Tiree. I very much hope you will taste that authenticity in every cup.

Rx

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Minty, flowery and spicy – our trio of herbal blends

Machair Herbal infusion - inspired by the Great Yellow Bumble Bee

Herbal teas and herbal infusions are increasingly popular. Because they are caffeine free, they are a great choice at any time of the day or night. Soothing and calming, herbal blends are my first choice when I need to take a moment and breathe.

A herbal infusion is so called because it relies on brewing to bring out the flavours in the blend. We recommend that you use boiling water and brew your Tiree Tea for at least 3 minutes. That will bring out the very best of them!

Our three herbal blends each have distinct qualities.

Tilley Mint and Nettle Infusion

This herbal tea is an absolute delight. I have to confess that it is my favourite! The nettle means it is not over-poweringly minty, but it has exactly enough mint to make it sing. It is 70% mint and 30% nettle.

Named after a community wind turbine in the Isle of Tiree, Tilley Nettle and Mint Infusion can be bought in packets of 10 or 20 plastic free tea bags and is available here – buy Tilley Mint and Nettle Infusion.

Tilley peppermint and nettle tea from Tiree Tea

Machair Herbal Infusion

This is a sweet and fragrant herbal tea which we hope evokes the feeling of an island summer. The flavour is inspired by the plants of the Scottish machair and so are the colours in the cheerful tea bags. It’s an infusion I enjoy when I need to calm myself and remember that the sun will return!

You can find out about the Scottish Machair here and if you fancy a wee try, the Machair Herbal Infusion is also available in packets of 10 or 2 plastic free tea bags.

machair herbal infusion

Ferry Berry Spiced Berry Blend

Ferry Berry is a flavoured blend packed with taste! Because it is flavoured, it is not technically a herbal tea or a herbal infusion but that doesn’t stop us loving it! If you have a moment, you should read the story of the inspiration behind Ferry Berry. It is great fun and involves a Ferry and a Gaelic language broadcaster.

This tea will warm you up from the inside out and is steadily gaining popularity with wild swimmers and outdoor enthusiasts! You can find the berry infusion here.

ferry berry infusion
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Spiced tea – warm up from the inside out!

spiced chilli tea from tiree tea

Our spiced tea, Ferry Berry Herbal Infusion, started out as a limited edition Christmas blend in 2020. We have added it into the main range for 2022 because it became clear that people wanted the delights of a chilli tea all year round, and we can’t blame them!

Ferry Berry spiced tea is a unique infusion of berries, spices and chilli. Because it is so wonderfully warming, it is loved by water sports enthusiasts, wild swimmers and walkers amongst others.

A flask of Ferry Berry in your bag will warm you up from the inside out, which is exactly what you want if your activities have left you a wee bit, ahem, chilly.

Grab some chilli tea, or read on to find out more about it!

What ingredients are in the spiced tea, Ferry Berry?

The delicious infusion includes:

Cinnamon, Apple Pieces, Hibiscus, Elderberries (14%), Ginger, Allspice Berry (5%), Cloves, Red Peppercorns, Lemon Verbena, Rosehip, Chilli, Blackberry Leaves, Orange Peel, Freeze-dried Blackberry, Raspberry Pieces, Strawberry Pieces and Natural Flavouring.

What boat is on the label?

The label features a ferry in the CalMac fleet, called The Isle of Mull. So called because it sails to Mull from Oban multiple times each day.

Because the spiced tea was originally a Christmas blend, and has a hint of mulled wine about it, the pun was very pleasing!

Isle of Mull Source Youtube

Who is Cathy Bhàn?

Cathy Bhàn is a legend of Scottish Gaelic broadcasting. Her voice reads the safety announcement on every single CalMac ferry and so it felt only right to mention her on the label! Rumours that she is a fan of our chilli tea are currently unsubstantiated.

Cathy “Bhàn” MacDonald

If you fancy a wee warmer, you should grab a packet today. We don’t want you to miss the boat… (Sorry)

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The best peppermint and nettle tea might be from Tiree!

Tilley peppermint and nettle tea from Tiree Tea

The consensus among Tiree Tea drinkers seems to be that Tilley Mint and Nettle Herbal Infusion from Tiree Tea is the best peppermint and nettle tea around!

Tilley is a zingy blend of spearmint, peppermint and nettle. The infusion is a lovely pick-me-up works very well as a drink for just before bed!

Lovely after-dinner tea. It brews so strong that I can get a couple of brews out of each bag, which makes it excellent value for the quality of tea.

Laura

Delicious minty smell as soon as I opened the pack. This is a really good drink at night, with just a little honey in it. Tradition has it that mint aids digestion and promotes calm sleep. I certainly sleep well each time I drink it!

Elizabeth

Why is Tilley the mint infusion called TiIlley? Read on!

Why is Tilley peppermint and nettle tea called Tilley?

Tilley lamps once powered island homes. Now Tilley the turbine powers community projects in Tiree. The way she uses the fresh breeze made her the inspiration for the mint and nettle tea!

Initiated, implemented and managed by Tiree Renewable Energy Limited, Tilley has become a much loved and recognisable member of the Tiree Community.

She uses Tiree’s almost constant fresh breeze to generate funds which power the island “Windfall Fund”. That fund is used by the Tiree Community Development Trust to support a huge range of community projects and businesses.

Tilley is a 900kw Enercon E44 wind turbine installed on the Ruaig Sliabh at the east of Tiree. A sliabh is a boggy bit of inland ground – usually full of mint and nettle, just like the tea!

In October 2019, she generated enough to electricity to supply 89 average UK homes for a whole year.

I can see Tilley from the house and rely on her to tell me which way the wind is blowing when I wake up in the morning!

Tilley Mint and Nettle Infusion is available in bags of 10 or 20 tea bags – and those tea bags are plastic free. If you like peppermint and nettle tea, this is one worth trying. We’re pretty proud of it to be honest 🙂

Tempted? Grab a bag and try the best nettle and mint infusion this side of the Gunna Sound!