Tigh Na Mara's Story
Taste of Place Trails Stories
It just so happened that when Paula Smalley’s mum was retiring from her role running Tigh Na Mara and its owners were looking for someone new to manage the guest house, Paula was ready for a change. She was invited to discuss it over a cup of coffee, and said yes before she’d even consulted her husband. “I was ready for a challenge”, she says, managing to persuade her husband to join her, and they moved to the Isle of Coll to give that change a go. It was a big adjustment for a self-professed “Lancashire lass” but Paula’s family knew the island well, so the move to the Hebrides wasn’t as big a shock to the system as it might have been.
Always evolving to enhance the experience
Since taking over Tigh Na Mara more than a decade ago, Paula has changed things up and put her own stamp on the guest house. “My problem is I get bored easily, so I need to constantly do things,” she says. ”Things are constantly evolving and changing here.” That evolution has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with restrictions across the island affecting Paula’s business in countless different ways. The first big change came with her guests struggling to find places to eat, with the island cafe being shut and the hotel only serving food to its own guests. Paula spoke to environmental health, who she says were extremely helpful, and got the necessary permissions to serve food, as well as the licensing authorities so that she could serve alcohol with meals, and began offering meals to her guests. She also added a deck to Tigh Na Mara’s exterior, so that people could enjoy their meals outdoors when the weather was nice. News of her new offerings quickly spread across the island, and led to the owners of local self-catering properties asking if Paula could provide their guests with cooked seafood to take away, and so that was soon added to her list of services, too. Not only do these new facets of the business keep Paula and her team at Tigh Na Mara busy, they also benefit the wider community, with the seafood she serves being caught by two local men in their boats who are in turn able to better support their young families. “Coll needs this place,” Paula says, pointing out that the guest house hosts 22 people, so if it weren’t there that would be 22 people not contributing to the island’s economy.
Making it personal
It’s not all about seafood at Tigh Na Mara, Paula makes sure she caters to everyone. She speaks with pride about her vegan French toast, which was shortlisted for the Best Breakfast in Britain. She says “I like switching things up because I get bored. I don’t want to do fry ups, and actually people don’t want fry ups!” She doesn’t like to put things in boxes, she prefers to allow her menu to be adaptable – she’ll happily grant a request for some bacon on the vegan French toast if a customer asks for it!
It is evident that Paula places a lot of value on the interactions she has with her guests, and the relationships she builds with returning visitors. “Having Tigh Na Mara means I'm meeting new people all the time,” she says. “We’re having different conversations, and different points of view, and it keeps you in touch with the real world.” She says she is “exceptionally lucky” with the regular clientele who support the guest house, some of whom have been returning annually for years. She gives a lot of credit to her team, too, saying “I have the best staff team I could ever wish for … nothing happens in Tigh Na Mara without me discussing it with all of them.”
The reality of island life
Life on the island isn’t always easy, Paula admits, with the winter being particularly challenging. She has a pragmatic attitude, though, telling me “we’re a rock in the middle of nowhere, off the West Coast of Scotland, and it’s February. What do we expect?” She’s quick to add that things are a lot better now than they used to be, with ferries arriving on the island every day during the summer, and five days a week in the winter. As Paula says of island life, “you’ve got to be quite self-sufficient and a little bit resilient, but that makes us what we are, and I think that’s the spirit of Coll. We just get on with it.”
Despite being at the whim of rapidly changing weather and last-minute ferry cancellations, Paula is looking forward to a busy summer, with her bookings almost full already at the end of February. There’s no doubt she’ll have some surprises up her sleeve, she likes to make sure returning guests have new experiences to enjoy and new dishes to try on the menu. She says of Coll, “it’s a great little place”, and she’s clearly looking forward to spending another year sharing it with visitors, both new and returning.