In the right light, the islands appear as a smudge on the watery horizon, grey marks on a pastel canvas.
In other, darker, moments, the islands disappear altogether, leaving you to wonder if they were ever really there at all.
I had seen these islands from the car window on the drive to Stornoway for most of my life, and yet it had never occurred to me to visit the Shiant Isles, these vanishing marks in the Minch. All I knew of the islands, occasionally visible where the sea meets the sky, was that they were home to both black rats, and the sheep transported there by crofters for fresh grazing.
As it turned out, even that sliver of information wasn’t entirely accurate.
The Shiants – known as Na h-Eileanan Seunta, or “the Enchanted Isles” in Gaelic – lie roughly four miles south east of the Isle of Lewis in the Minch, the waters that separate the Outer Hebrides from the Scottish mainland.
Over the course of twelve hundred years, the islands have been through the hands of multiple landlords, from the Vikings to author Sir Compton Mackenzie and beyond. And while the three islands and their skerries may be empty of people now, they were “continuously inhabited” until the start of the 20th century.
I knew none of this, of course, when I arrived at Tarbert harbour for an afternoon of sailing around the islands with local boat tour company, Sea Harris. In fact, my presence on the maiden voyage of their new RIB, Pabbay, was almost accidental. I had initially hoped to visit Scarp or Taransay off the west coast; the Shiants weren’t on my rader at all until Sea Harris got in touch to say they had space on the boat for this particular journey.
Did I want to join them? Of course!
The Minch is one of the wildest stretches of water in the British Isles, but you wouldn’t have known that on the July day we set sail. The harbour at Tarbert was like glass, smooth and glinting in the afternoon light as our crew, Seamus and Iain Angus, outlined the safety procedures and lifejacket instructions.
There were about eight of us on the RIB – my Mum and I from Lewis, a few couples from England, another couple from France – all claiming a spot at the open rear of the boat in an attempt to get the best views, and in my case, feel the sea breeze on my face. With Seamus at the helm and Iain Angus assisting, we sailed under the Scalpay Bridge a few miles from Tarbert and out into the open water beyond.
To our left were the hills of Harris, where I could make out the road to Rhenigidale, sharp and steep on the hillside. After about half an hour, with the Shiants still on the horizon, we detoured into Bhalamus Bay, at the edge of the Eishken Estate on Lewis.
A sea eagle was nesting nearby, but we failed to spot her. I wasn’t too disappointed, as we were also treated to views of the remains of the oldest settlement in Lewis. As Pabbay slowed to a stop, I let my mind wander. Would Bhalamus have been this remote in days gone by, or would it have been part of a thriving community connected by the sea? Now, at least, it felt a long way from anywhere, isolated and peaceful.
Leaving Bhalamus, we sped towards the Shiants, the islands hazy in the near distance between us and the mainland mountains.
And then all of a sudden – or so it seemed – we had arrived, easing past the Galtas, “the most sculptural of all the columnar formations in the Shiants… like a giant’s causeway that has been set adrift, afloat on the tide.”
This giant’s causeway reference, made by the former owner of the Shiants, Adam Nicolson, is not accidental. As Iain Angus explained to us as we sailed past the odd outcrops, the strain of rock found here in the Shiants is the same that rears its head above sea level at Fingal’s Cave in Staffa, off the west coast of Scotland, and again at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
The geological evidence was there on the north side of Garbh Eilean too, the largest of the three Shiant islands. I had to crane my neck skyward to see the top of these black basalt cliffs, columned walls that reach heights of five hundred feet. Further on there was a break in the cliff wall, known as the “Doorway of the Seals.” Seamus brought us halfway through the archway that framed our view of Eilean an Taigh across the water, and gave us a close-up of the dolerite rock itself.
The Shiants may be privately owned, but that doesn’t mean they are off limits to the public.
This is largely because of Scotland’s laws about the right to roam, but it’s also reflective of the owner’s attitudes. Adam Nicolson, who owned the Shiants before passing them on to his son, writes in the Sea Room that “Land – particularly land that is out on the edge of things, and particularly land that is a rich concentration of the marvels of the natural world – is to be shared.”
We saw the results of this in action as the RIB slowly moved alongside the dark basalt cliffs, where the heads of campers appeared above us at their edge, and again as we sailed around Eilean an Taigh, where yachts were moored in spots of shelter, and a tent was set up near the shore. I felt a strange sense of intrigue as I glimpsed these strangers getting to know the islands on foot – and made a mental note to return one day to do the same.
The islands themselves were mesmerizing – the basalt columns in rows, the natural arches that offered glimpses through the rock, the smooth grass of Eilean Mhuire – but it was the wildlife that made my jaw drop in amazement.
Seals lounged on outcrops of rock, appearing to all intents and purposes as if they were sunbathing. Cormorants, their wings outstretched, balanced nearby. And in the air around us, puffins, guillemots, and razorbills soared, flocks of them so dense they could have been strange moving clouds.
From the edge of Garbh Eilean, we rounded a corner into the shelter of the space between the three islands.
Seamus cut the engine at the base of a shattered cliff, where the birds were nesting in the cracks and hollows in their thousands; the chatter of their birdsong conversations reached us in Pabbay. Ten percent of the UK’s puffin population can be found in the Shiants, which the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB) calls “one of the most important breeding colonies in Europe.”
I lowered myself onto the floor of the RIB, almost at eye level with the surface of the water, and watched in silent awe as the birds swam, flew, and dived deep into the clear waters. The razorbills and chocolate-headed guillemots stayed close, unperturbed by our presence, but the puffins took to the skies, their fat, round bellies skimming the water’s surface as they tried to get airborne. I could have stayed there all day.
We sailed around the green slopes of Eilean Mhuire next, so-called because rumour has it a temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary once stood here. Then it was on to Eilean an Taigh, home to a small house with whitewashed walls and a red corrugated iron roof. The writer Compton Mackenzie of Whisky Galore fame refurbished the bothy in the 1920s, and while it’s now free to use for those who wish to make the journey here, there is no running water or electricity.
As we sailed past the sole place of human habitation, I finally learned the truth about those black rats I had heard of in passing, one of my only previous pieces of knowledge on the Shiants. The invasive rats had been here since a shipwreck in the 18th century, Iain Angus explained, and to stop them damaging the bird population, the RSPB set up the Shiant Isles Recovery Project in 2015 in an attempt to eliminate them.
It’s hoped that with the rats gone – none have been seen since last year – not only will the current bird population thrive, but storm petrels and Manx shearwaters will want to breed in the islands too.
Leaving the birds behind, it was time to sail back to Harris.
Everyone seemed satisfied and quietly contemplative. Maybe (like me) they were also thinking of what was waiting for dinner ashore in Harris. Then one of the tourists let out an exclamation that caught our attention – a dolphin! At first there was one, then two, then eventually five or six of them breaking through the waves again and again as Seamus turned the boat around to give us a better view.
The dolphins swam alongside us, diving under the bow, and switching back and forth to show off their skills. Despite my many years living on Lewis, and the many hundreds of times I must have crossed the Minch, it was my first sighting of a dolphin.
Despite all the excitement, our adventure wasn’t quite over, as Seamus steered Pabbay around Eilean Glas Lighthouse, on the Isle of Scalpay, before returning to port. The original lighthouse, built in 1788, was the first in the Hebrides, while the current tower, eye-catching in its red-and-white stripes, dates back to 1824.
Back in Tarbert my hair was matted, my skin was salty from the sea breeze, and my nose was red from the sunshine, but I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better day. I talked about the boat trip all the way back to Stornoway in the car, and to anyone who would listen in the weeks afterwards. The Shiants stayed on my mind, and I found myself reading about them, watching documentaries about them, and mentally planning my eventual return.
Maybe it was the unexpectedness of it all that meant the islands made a strong impression on me.
I had set sail for the Shiants knowing nothing and expecting little, and ended up having one of the best travel afternoons of the year – and quite possibly my life. For me, the Shiants had transformed from vanishing marks on the edge of a watery horizon to a living, breathing place bursting with wildlife, history, and character. The next time I glance out of the car window and spot them in the distance, I’ll send out a silent hello to the enchanted isles of the Minch.
NEED TO KNOW
How do I get there? I’ve now sailed with Sea Harris on two trips (to the Shiants and St Kilda), and can highly recommend them. Not only will you have an incredible experience, but you’ll get a good laugh, too! Sea Harris have recently started boat trips to the Shiants on their new RIB, Pabbay. Costs vary, depending on the time at sea and whether you land on the islands or not, but for the 2017 season, Shiant trips will cost you £55 at the most.
When is the best time to go? While there is never any guarantee of good weather in the Outer Hebrides (there can be sunshine in February and rain in June!), Sea Harris tours operate between April and September.
What essentials do I need to bring? Take a waterproof jacket, in case it gets cold or wet, but keep in mind that most of the RIB is enclosed, with plenty of seats inside, if you want more protection from the elements. Snacks are a good idea too (although that may just be me and my chocolate addiction…).
Where can I find out more about the Shiants? Check out the Sea Harris website, where you’ll find information as well as contact details for booking trips. The RSPB website offers plenty of information on the regeneration project, and for more in-depth reads on the islands, I’d also recommend Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.