The Shiant Isles

The morning is clear with only a dampness underfoot as reminder of the misty night before and we are lightly buffeted by a gusting breeze from the south west. In the distance is a narrow spit of blue-grey shingle across which we slithered our way this morning from Eilean an Taighe (House island) to Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) where the beach gives way to a looming cliffscape. Standing in the midst of a craggy boulder field below these cliffs, thousands upon thousands of seabirds jostle, preen and take flight in a great swirling mass, some coming to settle and form huge floating rafts in the bay. Underfoot a puffin emerges from its burrow among the boulders. Further around the coastline immature white-tailed sea-eagles soar on the updrafts, heath spotted orchids and butterwort nestle in the grass and the ragged line of the Galtas churns the sea to a white froth.

These are the Shiant Isles, lying in the Minch between Skye and Lewis, uninhabited and with the sole permanent habitable structure being a tiny two room cottage which is our bothy for the week.

Huge vistas range uninterrupted from the distant blue hazed Cape Wrath in the north to the unmistakable landforms of the Quirang and Neist Point on Skye. The jutting silhouettes of Fladda Chuain and the Galtas interrupt the expanse of the Minch, then the eye sweeps onward to the Uists, Scalpay with its lighthouse and the nearer coasts of Harris and Lewis before swinging out to sea once more.

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Exploring the islands they slowly begin to reveal some of their many facets. Rough, wind-scoured tops conceal nests and other treasures among a sea of browns from deepest sepia to palest bleached bone. These give way to lush pasture on the lower slopes where old run-rig field systems are still etched into the landscape. Sea thrift is abundant on the cliff edges, huge balls of it from the faintest pink hue to deep coral, providing a romantic if unappreciated bed for the mating razorbills. And the birds are our constant companions, whether the shrill unbroken song of a skylark high overhead, guttural call of great skuas or dull rasping and grumbling of razorbills and puffins. To be among such volumes of bird life, some almost within arms reach and unconcerned by our human presence is a breath-taking experience. As the sky suddenly fills with a flurry of beating wings it is almost overwhelming.

However, the islands have felt the impact of the introduction of a non-native species, a challenge which many islands face. The RSPB are currently in the process of a rat eradication programme, in conjunction with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Nicolson family who own the islands, aiming to help the recovery of seabird populations. The vegetation of the islands is also benefiting from the gradual decline of the grazing pressure by sheep. There is a strong hope that as the Shiants recover their natural ecological equilibrium they could go on to provide an even greater habitat, nesting sites and home to a huge variety of wildlife.


On our final morning the Shiants lie heavily wreathed in mist, a last walk onto the hill behind the cottage rewards us with two tiny snipe chicks huddled among the grasses. And when the mist blows clear enough to see the mass of Garbh Eilean, its towering cliffs and one last glimpse of the thronging seabird colony as we head out to sea, I know it is a place which will remain vivid in my mind's eye.