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Issue 85 - The Shiant Islands

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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The Shiant Islands

Enchanted isles of the Hebrides

Across the Sound of Shiant, four miles to the east of the Isle of Lewis and north of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye, lie the Shiant Islands: Garbj Eilean (Rough Island), Eilean an Taighe (House Island) and Eilean Mhuire (island of the Virgin Mary), with a line of rocks to the west. In the Gaelic language, Na h-Eileanan Seunta means the enchanted isles. They have been uninhabited for over a century, but are nevertheless still used for the grazing of sheep.

Two centuries ago, only a single shepherd and his mother lived on Eilean an Taighe. The son was deaf and dumb and when the old lady died the only way he could summon help was to light a large bonfire on the headland in the hope that it would be seen from the Lewis mainland, which it was and help was sent.

Five hundred acres of grass and rock jutting out from the sea, the Shiant Islands have enjoyed a mixed ownership, being sold when his Lewis estates were being dispersed in 1924 by the soap tycoon Lord Leverhulme to the novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie. Sold on to a Colonel Macdonald in 1936, they were acquired for £1,200 in 1937 by Nigel Nicholson, son of the politician and diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson and his novelist wife, Vita Sackville-West. Nigel passed them on to his son Adam and likewise Adam to his eldest son.

The Shiants are a popular location for the West Coast yachting community and according to Adam Nicolson, all are welcome to set foot on Elean-an-taighe, where there is a rustic weather-beaten hut. However, visitors are advised to take care. Over the centuries, passing ships have discarded large quantities of stowaway black rats, which in the intervening years have grown dramatically in size.

Apart from similar colonies on islands in the Firth of Forth, the Shiants are the only place in the United Kingdom where these “ship rats” appear to have thrived and the current population, feeding off sea birds, is estimated at around 3,500, sufficient for the RSPB to launch a rat control project.

Similar to those which can be seen at Fingal's Cave on Staffa, off the isle of Mull, there are sturdy Dolerite columns on the north side of Garbh Eilean which cascade over 120 metres into the water. The cliffs are a breeding ground for Atlantic puffins, common guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags and great skuas.

An old nautical legend prevails that on stormy nights green men rise up from the surrounding waves to drag passing sailors from their boasts into the depths of the Sound of Shiant. In his book
Sea Room, Adam Nicolson reflected that it is here in the mythical land of the Spirit, which the Celtic seers long ago called 'Tir nan Og', that “the deep past is more nakedly present than in any other place he knows.” Something in our primal conditioning makes such places inexplicably compelling. We see them from the prow of a boat, or from a clifftop on the mainland and we yearn to possess them. In the end, they possess us.