• Patrick Phillips

Forgotten village of Tirai (Glen Lochay)

Updated: Jun 24

On maps today, these ruins are simply known as shielings. Without roofs, they can't be considered as bothies either. A shieling is defined as 'a mountain hut used as a shelter by shepherds', or from another perspective, 'a summer pasture in the mountains'. In our culture a 'hut' would be considered a 'man-cave'. These are the ruins of a village, however. When you encounter such a place, you can sense that is has been a village and all you can do is wonder what happened to reduce it to a shieling. How did this highland village become deserted? Was it abandoned? If so, then why?

In the precise moment when the inhabitants had to leave their homes and animals, how did they feel? How long had they lived there? Did they have children? You see, when you begin to look at their homes, like I am now, you crucially realise that their stories are invisible to us, out of sight. This is fundamentally about the intrinsic values of village life, before anything else.

Instead, their stories are preserved around the stones of each wall they had built. How? Because they are still standing – shouldn't that be enough? Something of the village has survived and we must try not to ignore its existence – we must try to preserve its history in respect of the lives that once lived here. The walls of their homes are still standing. They have not fallen yet, nor are they in total ruin. This little civilisation was their life. This was how they sustained the land, animals and themselves ­– what freedom! It is not surprising that the Gaelic name given to the village – Tirai – means 'land of joy'.

Knowing their stories would mean living there, spending time sitting next to their homes, looking at how each home nestles into the landscape – measuring with your eyes, the walls of their homes with the mountains surrounding them, or how they used standing stones to become the central focal point of the village. Looking and listening, one can begin to see their stories unfold. Becoming intimate with the landscape is essential to knowing their struggles and joys. It's about going deeper. How did they live their lives?

How happy were they? How did they see life? How did they see their future? What would their reaction be if they were to see the world as it is today? Most importantly, would they have been satisfied with the quality of their lives, – would it have met their needs? In the modern world, the quality of a person's life is often measured by their mortality. But the actual quality of life in terms of experience and fulfilment may vary whether or not you have lived a short or a long life. And yes, essentially what I am stating is that the only way to measure the quality of a life is through people’s experience. Therefore, what was their daily experience of life? How good was it when compared to the way we live today?

Land is a place where our waking dreams are realised, where they begin and end. New settlements begin on open ground bringing the opportunity for new expressions of gratitude (in life being a gift). Therefore, representing a way of being in the world. Living.

The village may be deserted today, but we must remember that the original Inhabitants would not have abandoned their village without solid reasons. From the research I have done so far, a census of 1871 recorded that 'no one' remained 'living in Tirai'. And there are no other records of life existing there after that date. Tirai had come to an end. If we go back to trace the beginning of Tirai, the earliest and at present only record we have is the village being mentioned 'in 1451 in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland', meaning that Tirai had lasted as a village for 420 years up until 1871. I believe, however, that the village is much older. One can only imagine the culture (let alone the stories) stored up and passed on to generation after generation – where are they now?

In 1797 It was stated that 'there are eleven families on the farm' and that was 'considered to be too many'. Yet, they had each other, there was the family unit, and the village itself, a family – not made up of separated fragments, like today, with individuals being forced to become single units. It seems, from historical facts, that the collapse of the village was a gradual process - as opposed to a sudden, single event or crisis. Therefore, the end of Tirai, I believe, would have been made up of a series of critical events that would have led to its eventual collapse. An example of a critical event was 'in 1807 farming became difficult with tenants unable to meet their rents'. Big landowners, with a desire to increase their profits, once again forced the tenants to abandon their livelihoods and their lives for the sake of profit. Our current attitude to land ownership and the use of land remains the same.

The people of Tirai, therefore, did not abandon their village, they were forced to do so. The decision to abandon their village was not theirs –they could have continued to sustain their lives there by subsistence farming. The decision was a political one on the part of the landowners. The villagers were no longer considered profitable, because they could not meet the 'increase in rents', and yet as a village they had managed to survive for over four centuries. What the village of Tirai exemplifies is the effect of the profit motive which is in itself unsustainable, and persistently pushes out the needs of others. Where something is gained, elsewhere something is most definitely lost. In a new economic exchange without a profit, Tirai, when we consider its economic energy in the 420 years of its existence, would have been able to sustain itself and critically its culture too for well over 1,000 years.

Roles within the village were many – shepherd, ploughman, tack (carpenter), miller, general labourer, housekeeper and servant. Some of the inhabitants had to leave the village to earn a living as some of these job titles suggest. But before this transition, self-sufficient crofters were persistent in finding ways in which they could carve out their independent way of life in and around the village.

How amazing would it be if we could begin the process of weaving together ancient and modern roles of being in the world today? Wouldn't that be more modern?

There was also a lime kiln based in the village of Tirai, which we could consider part of a micro green industrial revolution. Can you believe it, Tirai was already being Modern and revolutionary, in the sense that the villagers managed economic survival through their existing connection with nature, knowing that they could transform Glen Lochay into something of a serious commercial limestone quarry. Their little lime kiln suggests that they had no desire to exploit nature, only to sustain and make the most of what resources they had available to them. Most certainly, there was no corporate dream as we see today.

Imagine if the village of Tirai could once again be brought back to life, becoming a Highland eco-village using renewable energy and sustainable agriculture methods. Isn't that how life is supposed to be – made for living, not just existing?

Standing as I often do in the village of Tirai, I see in my imagination the villagers sitting quietly, looking out towards mountain and sky, feeling and knowing through their senses the true meaning of life. Dreaming far and wide as they did, through the glen, past lochs, across oceans into the universe, and beyond..

By Patrick Phillips

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