Andrew Robertson and I are sitting in the new surf hut on the beach at Balevullin, on the west coast of Tiree, sheltering from a sudden, heavy rain shower.
Out in the bay, the swell that’s been lighting up the island for several days is still in the healthy 4-6-foot range, but it’s being made lumpy and unpredictable by a stiff cross-shore breeze.
By the time I paddle out there are already three Scottish surfing champions in the water
Every now and then a good-looking wave hits the outside sandbar and rumbles through with something resembling a rideable wall to it, but on the whole it’s a bit of a mess. None of which seems to have put even the tiniest dent in Robertson’s infectious enthusiasm.
“On a good day, when the wind’s offshore and the swell’s from the right direction, you can sometimes get amazing barrels over there by the rocks,” he says, pointing through the hut’s rain-streaked window towards the far corner of the bay. He smiles at the thought of it – it’s the smile of somebody who knows that the next time the waves out here get really good, he’ll almost certainly be around to take full advantage.
Robertson, you see, has perhaps the best summer job in Scotland. Working for Tiree’s Blackhouse Watersports, his daily grind consists of giving surf lessons to tourists, welcoming all-comers to the hut and generally keeping it neat and tidy. Then, in his down-time, he’s free to surf his brains out.
He has, he says, been drinking a lot of coffee, presumably to keep him going through multiple surfs each day. At the start of the summer he was staying at the island’s hostel and working as a cleaner. He quite liked meeting all the different people passing through to begin with, he says, but after a while having the same conversations over and over again got to be a bit of a chore.
Now he’s living in a caravan within sight of the surf at Balevullin and he’s much happier – as you would be, if you were based within spitting distance of one of the best surf spots in Scotland, were still in your teens, and still had a whole summer stretching out in front of you, promising nothing but waves, waves and more waves. If I sound jealous, it’s probably because I am.
To describe Robertson, who hails from St Andrews, as a prodigious talent is probably under-selling it. He blew minds in the Scottish surfing world at the Gathering of the Clans event at Thurso last October when, still aged just 17, he didn’t just take home the junior title but the men’s open title as well, defeating big-hitters Mark Boyd and Chris Clarke in the process. What’s even more remarkable is that by then he’d already represented his country at senior level, travelling to Punta Rocas, Peru in 2014 to compete for Team Scotland at the ISA World Surfing Games.
This year, however, he’s been unlucky – before landing the dream job on Tiree, that is. First, a bout of pneumonia meant he couldn’t compete in the Scottish Surfing Championships in April, where national team selections are made; then, to make matters worse, he broke his arm while skateboarding – a nasty injury at the elbow that took a lengthy and frustrating period of rehab to put right. Not that the smashed elbow has put him off skateboarding – he still talks animatedly about his high-speed downhill adventures, particularly at Rest and Be Thankful (not on the A-road itself, dodging traffic, but on an equally steep private road nearby).
Later in the afternoon the rain stops, the wind dies down and the surf begins to sort itself out again. By the time I get my act together and paddle out there are already three Scottish surfing champions in the water – Tiree residents Ben Larg and Finn MacDonald (profiled in last week’s column) plus Robertson, who seems to be picking off long, winding lefts at the rate of about one every couple of minutes. Then, as if things weren’t already intimidating enough for any mere mortals in the line-up, Olympic snowboarder Lesley McKenna comes powering out to join us, expertly duckdiving through one of the larger sets of the day. I decide it’s time to leave the sideways sliding to the pros, so I ride a wave back to shore, grab my camera and point it out to sea, just in time to see Robertson drop into a picture-perfect left. He darts down the line, carefully building speed as the wave walls up in front of him; then, as he reaches the end section, he banks hard at the bottom and powers off the top, throwing the tail of his board through a graceful, spray-flinging arc. This year’s Gathering of the Clans is due to be held on Tiree in late August; if Robertson doesn’t do well – on what will by then be as good as home turf – I’ll eat my wax.