The Shiant Isles
January 6, 2017
The Shiants are a small group of islands in the Hebrides, four miles or so off the coast of Lewis and twelve miles from the northern tip of Skye, which lies almost due south of them.
Compton Mackenzie, owned them in the 1920s and 30s. He described them as ‘three specks of black pepper in that uncomfortable stretch of sea called the Minch.’ Since 1937 they have been owned by the Nicolson family.
The main islands are Garbh Eilean (rough island) and Eilean an Taighe (house island), which are joined by a narrow isthmus, and Eilean Mhuire (island of the Virgin Mary) to the east. The impressive sea cliffs on the north side of Garbh Eilean give rise to the description of the islands as a “mini St.Kilda”.
Getting ashore on the Shiants is not the easiest of landings, with steep cobbled beaches and an ever present swell, but it is well worth the effort. The islands are recognised as one of the most important seabird sites in Europe and at the peak of the breeding season they are home to hundreds of thousands of birds including 7 per cent of the UK population of razorbills and 10 per cent of puffins. In July 2009 Europe’s oldest puffin, aged 34, was discovered here, beating the previous record holder (an Icelandic bird) by a year.
The islands are also home to non-native black rats, whose ancestors were thought to have come ashore from shipwrecks in the 1900s. Studies suggest that these rats eat seabird eggs and young chicks, harming the success of breeding seasons on the islands. An EU funded project is currently underway to eradicate the rats using poisoned bait and monitor the recovery of the islands wildlife.