‘YOU’RE so brave to live somewhere like this,” she intoned, as I sat speechless in front of the house.

“It’s beautiful, but there’s nothing to do all winter and I’d miss culture.”

Sadly, before I or my companion could muster a coherent response (which was most likely for the best), she jumped back in her van and headed off to her job freezer-filling ahead of some well-heeled second homeowners arriving for a break.

“What do you do in the winter?” is such a common question from visitors that there is an island podcast about that exact topic. What We Do In The Winter by Alasdair Satchel, who is based in Mull, interviews residents in a heroic attempt to redress the balance. It’s one man’s effort to counter the prevailing narrative about island idylls and put the ­focus back onto those residents in the place.

That narrative of “get away from it all before returning to proper life”, is insidious and damaging, and all too often foisted on communities. It’s a very tired trope. But it sells. It sells ferry tickets and ­experiences and holidays and brings tourists. PR ­campaigns kick off in the spring, ­cracking through winter’s shell like a freshly hatched chick. “An island winter” is a campaign I’d love to see run somewhere.

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So, whatever do we do in the ­winter? It’s a good question, and easy to ­answer. We do what everyone else does ­everywhere else. We work and pick up the kids from school, we watch box sets and enjoy ­having time to go to friends for dinner. On that note, if you do move to an island, make sure that you make friends with an excellent cook. I hit the jackpot!

It’s not all food. Sometimes we search Companies House to verify rumours and most of us indulge in a little idle ­gossip from time to time. We go on ­holiday too. Tiree almost in its entirety ­empties for the February half term – partly in the knowledge that for lots of people their next holiday opportunity won’t be till the season calms down in October, and ­partly because even for the most ­die-hard, by the time you get to February, the wind is ­getting a little wearing and our own noisy and at times undoubtedly ­thoughtless ­pilgrimages to islands with a warm climate and an all inclusive deal are required.

Regardless of how you spend it, winter can be hard. I once managed to go viral on Scottish Island Twitter (niche, I know) with a thread about what you should and should not do when moving to an ­island. Some of my more memorable takes ­related to the winter realities: “Those sunny summer days that convinced you to move were just that, summer. Summer doesn’t last long. The rest of us manage just fine in the winter. Put on some weight, get a good waterproof and wheesht”, and “You haven’t moved to Disneyland. It’s not a museum. It’s a living, working, messy, hard, cold, wet, windy and often ­frustrating place to live. It’s not for everyone. If it’s not for you, please don’t make our lives miserable too.”

It’s been a few years, but it covers most of the bases.

The National: A winter on A winter on

The perceived wisdom in the islands is “I give it two years, maybe three”, otherwise the jury is out on your staying power. And it’s not meant in a bad way; it’s based on the very real understanding that an ­island winter is very much not for ­everyone. Some people enjoy being blown sideways on a daily basis, others – my mother among them – are not such fans.

This winter has felt like a particularly long one. It’s hard to put a finger on why. It’s been wet and it’s been cold. Transport has felt particularly difficult this year. All credit to CalMac – things could have been a lot worse for Tiree during the overhaul period for the Clansman, but the never-ending worry of whether you will actually get away in January and February is tiring for even the most upbeat of creatures.

It’s not just ferries – the planes have been on a shooglier peg than usual. On more than one occasion this winter, a ­single plane has been left ­attempting twice daily flights to Tiree, Barra and Campbeltown. Unsurprisingly, the ­logistics required there were often a little optimistic …

I’m increasingly hearing from people that Tiree feels like it is getting ever ­harder to live in. Even people who are normally very sanguine about upheaval (boats will be boats and islands are islands) are ­starting to get frustrated and worn down.

Whilst we might bristle when people question what we do in the winter, there is a grain of truth in that bristle that most of us don’t often address directly. Because there are things we can’t do in the winter.

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For example, we don’t go to cafes. They can’t open during the winter. Putting the heating on would probably cost more than the few coffees sold. Much as many would like to stay open through the winter, it makes no logical sense. Only one hotel is open, with a skeleton staff – because if you think it’s hard to get staff in the summer, you should try it in the winter!

Our local fish and chip shop and our takeaway coffee shop buck that trend. Friday and Saturday nights in Tiree are a highlight of many weeks. The prospect of my Friday night takeaway has got me through a lot of difficult weeks and a freshly made espresso feels like the ­mother of all treats on a dreadful day.

Treats are important because it does ­often feel like the place shuts down come October. Lights go out in houses island-wide – almost 46% of them to be exact. Those left make their own coffees and do the accounts to see if what they made in the summer will get them through the ­winter.

Then they do the ­calculations about what they need to make this ­summer to get through next winter. Then they look at the boats, and chat to people about the trends around bookings and ­occupancy ... And then? Then they hope.

Most tourist businesses were down on their takings in 2023. As this winter creeps to an end, and we face this year’s season, no-one is entirely sure which way it will swing.

The National:

VisitScotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance are reporting that bookings are down across Scotland and that people have less spending money – both things we saw here last year. Time will tell how much damage has been done by the ­reality – or perception – of ferry issues. Hopefully, the majority are not put off ­because the Scottish islands do need their support.

The best way to do that is to be intentional about how you travel – try and stay in property owned by local residents, buy local, take that Sea Tour or visit a loom shed with the intention of actually buying something.

We need to find a way to make sure that the majority of the income generated by island tourism stays local. Otherwise, the fear for some of us – and others across the islands who find themselves in a ­similar situation – is that the hibernation will just get deeper until one year, there will be nothing to do in the winter because ­no-one will live here in the dark months.

And then, in spring, like the return of the sun, a pop-up community would ­arrive to cater to the tourists before ­leaving again, quietly and without fuss.

And then culture really would be missing.