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Shiant Isles

Shiant Isles


Postby John Doh » Mon Aug 01, 2016 3:36 pm

Date walked: 01/08/2016

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I had been fascinated by the Shiants (I believe it's ok to call them that, as opposed to Orkneys or Shetlands which is a no-no) ever since I had first seen them from the Ullapool ferry back in 2010 on my first visit to the Outer Hebrides.

I have since read Sea Room, the book by the owner of islands, Adam Nicolson. Actually, it appears that Adam's son Tom is now the owner. Adam and the Shiants recently featured in the BBC4 two part documentary "The Last Seabird Summer?" which is available on the iPlayer and well worth watching.

To get to the Shiants is not so easy as there are no scheduled trips. Sometimes some of the St Kilda tour operators on the Western Isles do a trip but they are not regular and appear to be rather "Ersatz"-trips when the weather is too bad for St Kilda. At least that is what I understood from the only Shiant -report available on this great site. The photos to the report in question are sadly missing but I intend to make up for that with this here report.

After a bit of googling I found that there are a few possibilities to charter boats on the Western Isles and I opted for a fishing trip operator based on the east coast of Lewis and thus, near the Shiants. I contacted Lewis Mackenzie some weeks prior to our trip and luckily, he had a few available slots to attempt the trip. We had scheduled it to take place on the 13 July but the weather was foul that day on Lewis (even if it was brilliant on Harris) so we had to wait another day as the forecast was favorable for the 14 July.

On 14 July, the weather was good if overcast but more importantly, the sea was flat calm in the Minch. We met Lewis at Keose Pier in South Lochs, a rugged part of the Isle of Lewis. He gave us some waterproofs and off we went on his motorised fishing boat. About 75 minutes later, we were approaching the Shiants from the north. Below is Garbh Eilean, the Rough Island.

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At first you don't notice there are two islands in front of you but upon approaching from the east side, you realise that two islands are separated by a boulder beach. The island in the south (on the left in the picture) is Eilean an Taighe, the House Island.

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In a short distance to the east lies the third island in the archipelago, Eilean Mhuire (island of the Virgin Mary).

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From the (sometimes) sheltered bay in the east, and looking north, you can see the bird "cliffs" or rather boulders on Garbh Eilean and the sea cave of Toll a' Roimh.

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Our skipper suggested to have a look at the birds first, so we went close to the sea bird colonies on the east side of Eilean Garbh. These are truly spectacular and therefore, I let the pictures speak. However, it is not the same experience without the noise and the smell...

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The main species are puffin, guillemot and razorbill but there are also shags and fulmars etc. The birds are not only on the boulders but in the air and on the water as well. An impressive experience! If you look close on the below image you will not only see birds but also some humans wandering around the beach and the grass. They were passengers of the ship anchored next to the sea cave.

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After this bird overdose, it was time to attempt a landing. The skipper warned me that there was quite a swell and a surf and that it would be hard to land without getting wet feet. It dawned on me that he meant me to row out to the beach with my wife in the smallest dinghy I had ever seen. Lewis quickly understood that I was a landlubber and kindly offered to take us to the beach one by one.

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There we were at last, on the Shiants! It was time to see the house on House Island, where Adam Nicolson had stayed (and probably still stays from time to time) and written Sea Room. It is a short scramble up some slippery rocks to get to the high ground of House Island. On the way, a sign (visible on the below picture on the left) informs you that the Shiants are now hopefully rat free. As a matter of fact, the islands were rat infested for long years with the black rat, the plague rat of old. The rat is itself a protected species but as it preyed on the puffins, it has been exterminated just lately and some of the rat terminators were still on the island, or so told us Lewis. Anyway, soon enough we caught a glimpse of the house.

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I peeped inside to find that some of the four bunk beds had been used lately and there was some food in the kitchen too. There were two tents on the island as well so it might be true that these were the rat catchers.

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Soon we found the only sweet water well on House Island. It is covered to prevent contamination and there is a pot on it that you can use to take out water. The water is peaty and according to Nicolson you should only use the top layer of water.

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We went a little bit further on House Island but soon had seen enough as, safe for the views, there were no spectacular features nearby. And I still had other fish to fry.

House Island with house and Garbh Eilean in the back.

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I intended to climb Garbh Eilean by taking the so-called "Eiger Pass". If you look at the steep and rocky island, it is not immediately obvious where to start the climb.

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If you get close enough to the rocks, you will see a wee wooden stick some meters above you and you understand that you are supposed to climb up there. It's not difficult as the rocks are like a stair and soon enough you reach the grassy part of the island. Below on the first picture in the middle you can see the first wooden marker. On the next picture you can see a metal gate. This is where you pass to reach the grassy bit.

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From there, the path is easy if sometimes a bit exposed and obviously you have to watch your step. The experience is enhanced by the odd puffin passing you in flight really close until it realises that you are there and abruptly changes its direction. The path crosses the south face of island from the east to the west side and then goes into a couloir that takes you up to a sub platform. Couloir:

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Views from the platform. Eilean Mhuire and House Island.

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On top of House Island I detected another tent in what seems to be remains of old dwellings.

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On the way to the top you can look down the impressive cliffs. I saw Lewis passing in his boat below me, and I believe he also saw me.

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After a short climb I was on top of the island, where I found no trig point but only a small cairn. It dawned on me that this was not the highest point and when I looked north, I saw that on the north side of the island, the ground seemed a wee bit higher indeed. Looking north to the high ground.

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Indeed, the highest point of Garbh is on the north side. It is Mullach Buidhe, a Marilyn. It was also a few hundred meters away from me and a few bonxies had started to circle above me. Otherwise the area is not really spectacular and the views from the platform were better. I am not a hill bagger but an island lover and therefore, getting to Mullach Buidhe was not a priority. I decided to get back down to the beach where my wife was waiting and to use our time for other things. The climb down was mostly as easy as the way up, even if at one point I overlooked a marker and found myself in steep territory. I had to turn back and seek out the marker or I would have been stuck soon enough.

Wife waiting at the beach, unzoomed and zoomed. Smile and waive.

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Soon enough I was back at the beach. I think the exercise took me less than an hour. Invigorating and rewarding. Back on the boulders, we hailed Lewis who came to pick us up with the dinghy. I then asked him to take us to the basalt cliffs on the other side of Garbh. Which he did. But first we were going to nip into the sea cave!

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On the other side you can clearly see the boulder beach and the sky teeming with birds.

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Approaching the West side of Garbh, where only few birds nest.

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The cliffs are made of basalt columns similar to those at Staffa and the Giant's Causeway, but far higher, reaching over 120 metres in the north east of Garbh.

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Less high but even more beautiful are the columns on the north west side of Garbh.

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It might sound cheesy but it is an emotional and almost religious experience to admire these columns from the boat in calm water. You can almost see figures and faces depending on your angle of view. Lewis took us out of our reverie by asking whether we fancied to catch our dinner for tonight as this was a good spot for pollock. I had not planned on fishing (matter of fact I have never fished before) and feared this might turn out to be boring. However, as soon as he had put the bait into the water, he handed the rod to my wife and only seconds later, two good sized pollocks had bitten.

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After this high speed catch we quit the Shiants and started to cross over the Minch to the Lewis coast. Luckily, the sea was still calm and there was no trace of the Blue Men of the Minch, as my Gaelic is not up to speed to reply to their poems... Anyway, once on the Lewis coast, Lewis asked us if we fancied some mackerels as this was a good spot to catch them and we might also see the Sea Eagle who was nesting nearby. Of course we were happy to do that and again, a few minutes later, several mackerels were caught - my wife got three at once. :clap:

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Shortly afterwards, Lewis pointed out the Sea Eagle to us who was sitting on the rocks looking for prey.

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This was the last highlight of a long and eventful afternoon. Lewis kindly gutted the fish for us and we had two delicious fish meals in the coming days. One of the best days in the Hebrides I had so far!

Here are a few movies Google photos created.

https://goo.gl/photos/VuYtS6NiYa5CKZ7o7

https://goo.gl/photos/g1uHa9GEiqJdXmBT6

https://goo.gl/photos/v21Vapj1oX8axGSv7
Last edited by John Doh on Tue Aug 02, 2016 11:41 am, edited 1 time in total.
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John Doh
 
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Re: Shiant Isles

Postby Sunset tripper » Tue Aug 02, 2016 3:06 am

Brilliant stuff John. Fantastic photos. You fairly get about the islands. These columns look amazing. Where to next? :D
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Re: Shiant Isles

Postby malky_c » Tue Aug 02, 2016 7:18 am

Enjoyed that - I always look out for the Shiants when I go past on the ferry :) . I've seen a report before but it was nowhere near as detailed as this one. Must visit someday.
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Re: Shiant Isles

Postby larry groo » Tue Aug 02, 2016 8:27 am

Fine report and pics... what a place!!

I agree, the documentary on iPlayer is well worth a watch. Incredible.

:clap: :clap: :clap:
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Re: Shiant Isles

Postby John Doh » Tue Aug 02, 2016 8:45 pm

Thanks guys.

At Sunset Tripper - don't know where I will go next but I have two more reports to write from the Hebrides... stay tuned 8)
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