Thursday, 14 July 2016

Island 312 - Eilean an Taighe, Shiant Isles, Outer Hebrides

Eilean an Tighe is one of the 3 islands and half a dozen or so named rocks, (which are collectively known as Galtachan), which make up the Shiant Isles.  Shiant is pronounced "Shant".  Eilean an Tighe (House Island) is joined to Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) by a pebble beach at all but the highest spring tides.  The third island in the group is Eilean Mhuire (Mary's Island).  It is not connected to the other two islands at any state of the tide.

The Shiants are located 5 miles south east of the Pairc area of the Isle of Lewis and 11 miles east north east of Eilean Glas Lighthouse on the island of Scalpay In Gaelic the Shiants are called Na h-Eileanan Seunta, which means holy or enchanted islands.

I visited the Shiant Isles on a special day trip arranged by The Islands Book Trust in mid June 2016.  We sailed on the Enchanted Isle from Caolas Scalpaigh with Sea Harris and the trip across to the islands only took about 20 minutes.  We then sailed around Garbh Eilean and between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Mhuire to look at the sea birds nesting on the cliffs and flying around (mainly puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes).  We then landed on the rocks near the house on Eilean an Tighe.  We had about 2.75 hours ashore, which was just enough time to explore Eilean an Tighe but didn't allow any "stand and stare" time.  

There is no jetty on Eilean an Tighe, so we had to get from the Enchanted Isle into a dinghy and then we had to scramble over the rocks to the shore.  This wasn't a problem when we arrived, as the tide was high and there was only a short section of slippery seaweed to negotiate. However when we came to leave 3 hours later the tide had gone out and we had to pick our way across about 30 metres of seaweed covered rocks and rock pools to reach the dinghyWe all made it safely back to the dinghy, even the man who was carrying an enormous rucksack, having camped near Caolas Scalpaigh the night before.

The weather on the day I visited was nearly perfect - a light breeze and bright sunshine.  This was the only perfect weather day of my fortnight on the Outer Hebrides.  I climbed to the top of Eilean an Tighe dodging the beautiful but dive bombing great skuas, who presumably had a nest close by.   

The Shiants were inhabited intermittently in the past.  There were possibly 40 people in 5 families living on Eilean an Tighe in the mid 18th century.  They were uninhabited from around 1770 until the 1820s when a shepherd and his wife lived there.  Eilean an Tighe was called Eilean na Cille (Church Island) until the mid 19th century. From c1842-1862 the islands were again uninhabited but another shepherd and his wife and daughters then lived on Eilean an Tighe.  They were uninhabited again after 1901.

The Shiant Isles were bought by the writer Compton Mackenzie in 1925.  He sold them in 1936 to a Colonel Macdonald in 1936.  He in turn sold them to the publisher Nigel Nicholson in 1937 for £1,400.  He gave them to his son Adam on his 21st birthday.   Adam Nicholson wrote an excellent book Sea Room: An Island Life, which was first published in 2001Adam Nicolson describes Sea Room as "an attempt to tell the whole story, as I now understand it, of a tiny place in as many dimensions as possible: geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically and personally."  Adam has subsequently given the Shiants to his son Tom.

I had never seen the Shiant Isles on television and then just two weeks after my visit I spotted a documentary called The Last Seabird Summer? which was made by Adam Nicholson, being shown on BBC4.  Although he also travels to Iceland and Norway, much of the programme is set on the Shiants.

The Shiants were infested with non-native black rats, which originally arrived via a ship, which was wrecked on the islands in the 18th century.  In 2012 there were estimated to be a population of 3,600 of them in the winter with many more in the summer when food was more abundant.  The rats feasted on seabird eggs and chicks.  However in the winter of 2015-16 the RSPB undertook a rat eradication programme using poison bait.  The aim is to encourage storm petrels and Manx shearwaters to breed on the islands.  When we visited in June 2016 some of the people involved in the rat eradication programme were still on the island.  The Shiants are home to about 10% of the UK's puffins and 2% of the world's total.  As we arrived on Eilean Tighe we spotted a couple of seals watching us from the safety of the sea.  In addition to the seabirds, skylarks were singing during our visit and I saw a few white butterflies.

The Shiant Isles are made of sills of igneous rocks, mainly dolerite. There are 2 kinds of dolerite present on the islands: crinanite and teschenite.  The most distinctive feature is the columnar jointing, which can clearly be seen on the cliffs of the islands.

When I visited in mid June 2016 a great many wildflowers were in bloom, including tormentil, yellow iris, at least 2 kinds of orchids, butterwort, milkwort, lousewort, ragged robin, buttercups, cotton-grass, meadowsweet, cuckoo flower, wild thyme and heather.  The island is grazed by sheep, although I didn't see any during my visit. 

It was a day out that I will remember for the rest of my life and which was well worth the expense and effort of getting there. 

More information about the archaeology, natural history and geology of the Shiant Isles can be found on their official website:

 The only house on Eilean an Tighe 
It has 2 main rooms - a bedroom and a living room but no electricity, telephone, running water, bathroom or toilet - visitors are instructed to go to the loo in the inter-tidal zone!

 A former residence

 Precipitous Cliffs on the eastern side of Eilean an Taighe
 The southern end of Eilean an Taighe looking down the spine of the island

 Eilean Mhuire from the east coast of Eilean an Taighe

 Garbh Eilean from the summit of Eilean an Taighe

 Cairn at the northern edge of Eilean an Taighe
 Looking west towards Galtachan
 Orchid - I'm not sure which sort
A different orchid - no idea what sort this is either

 I'm not sure if this hollow is significant

 House looking towards Galtachan

 House ruins

Well - I'm not sure I'd want to drink the water in it though!

 The Enchanted Isle on its way back to collect us

 The Enchanted Isle approaching Eilean an Taighe

Dinghy ride back to the Enchanted Isle

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