Way back in the mists of time – in October 2005, to be precise – I interviewed a somewhat exasperated Andy Groom, then head honcho of the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing contest, about the state of junior watersports on the island.
In spite of being one of the most idyllic surfing and windsurfing locations anywhere in the British Isles, Groom felt that Tiree’s potential as a training ground for future champions was nowhere near being realised.
“We’re trying desperately to get more of the local kids involved,” he told me, “but they have an inbuilt fear of water. There’s no swimming pool on Tiree, their parents don’t swim and they don’t take them down to the beach. The guys who windsurf here [in the Wave Classic] should be getting their arses kicked by [local] 12-year-old rippers, but they’re not.”
The windsurfing scene on the island is certainly looking a lot healthier now than it did then, thanks largely to the efforts of local windsurfer Willy Angus Maclean, who owns the island’s Wild Diamond watersports school and has also taken over the running of the Wave Classic from Groom.
In recent months, however, it’s the island’s junior surf scene rather than its junior windsurfing scene that has been making people sit up and take notice. Last October, at the annual Gathering of the Clans surf contest at Thurso, in which teams of surfers from all over the country compete in various different disciplines and age categories, the star of the show was a young surfer from Tiree called Ben Larg. Aged just ten, he pulled off the incredible feat of a second place finish in the under-18s category. (The first place finisher, 17-year-old Andrew Robertson, had previously represented Scotland at international level, so there was hardly any shame in losing to him.) This wasn’t just a flash in the pan either – at the Scottish Surfing Championships at Thurso earlier this month, Larg and fellow Tiree surfer Finn MacDonald dominated the junior divisions, MacDonald winning the under-18s category and Larg (now a veteran at age 11) winning the under-14s.
For MacDonald, 15, it was a remarkable result given that this was the first time he’d ever surfed at Thurso, and Larg surfed so well that Andy Bennetts, one of the first people ever to surf in Scotland back in the mid-1960s, described him as “an amazing talent with a bright future” – praise indeed from someone who, when it comes to Scottish surfing, has literally seen it all.
A few days after the contest, I catch up with Larg and MacDonald, both of them obviously still buzzing from their big wins. “It was a wee bit windy,” says Larg of the final day of the contest, which saw howling offshore winds, “and it was quite big as well, maybe about five-foot. In the final it died down a wee bit, but it still wasn’t an easy wave.”
MacDonald says he took a while to adapt to surfing a new spot: “In the first couple of heats I didn’t think I’d done very well, but by the finals I was doing a wee bit better – I was getting to know the break a bit better. In the final there was one really good wave – I got a nice long ride and did a few sweeping turns on it.”
Surf instructor Craig “Suds” Sutherland helps run the Tiree Surf Club during the summer. “Finn and Ben have been surfing on Tiree for so long now I think it would have been an upset for them not to have done well,” he laughs. “They started at a young age and they’re pretty much in the water the whole time. They’re in the water for six hours a day easy in the summertime when it’s good.”
“I think there will be loads more [good young surfers from Tiree] after these guys too,” he adds. “On the club days we’ll maybe get about 15 in the water and they get good so fast it’s just ridiculous. Initially it was just Ben and Finn and then a few more kids started coming and then all of a sudden the interest started spiking. If I’m doing lessons in the summer, those guys will be out the back absolutely tearing it up and you can tell that all the kids in the lessons are looking at them and just want to emulate them.”
Following their wins at the Scottish Championships, it came as a surprise to precisely no-one to find that the Scottish Surfing Federation had selected both Larg and MacDonald to represent Scotland at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships in the Azores in September and at the European Juniors in Morocco in December. The SSF are now seeking sponsorship to support the athletes travelling to these events – to find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org