My account of a memorable two day solo sea kayaking trip to the Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides. This article featured in Scottish Paddler magazine issue 123 (July 2019).
I found out about the Shiant Islands on my first visit to the Outer Hebrides in 2016. Four miles off the south east coast of Lewis, these three small islands and outlying rocks are inhabited only by seabirds and take the full brunt of southerly swells rolling up the Minch, making it an exciting proposition for a sea kayak trip.
I had recently returned to Harris having spent the winter off island. My plans to paddle up the east coast to Stornoway during the first week of April had been thwarted by strong North-Easterlies, so I was already psyched up for a decent paddle. A passing check of the weather forecast one Tuesday evening was all that I needed; the seed was planted for a solo two day trip the following day and all other commitments were put on hold. The prediction was for sunshine with F3 winds gusting to F4 mid-afternoon for the following two days; manageable, particularly with Harris in the way of any Atlantic swell. Tidal planning was straightforward and neaps were less than a week away, so it was with excitement and anticipation that I launched from the slip at Kyles Scalpay early on Wednesday morning. With a gentle SW nudging me along, I made good headway, jumping from headland to island to headland, and on reaching the southernmost headland of Lewis, I bore straight across the Sound of Shiant for Galtachan – a chain of rocks to the west of the three main islands.
The sky was overcast and the sea state a little more feisty than expected, making for a slightly ominous atmosphere as I crossed the sound. I was comforted by the occasional fulmar swooping down in front of my boat to examine me before playfully circling overhead. Sometimes mistaken for gulls, these birds have a stiffer wing and more rounded head, with beautiful white-grey markings across their body and wings. I hadn’t seen one before and instantly decided they were my favourite bird, trumping even the mighty gannet. On reaching the rocks 90 minutes later, I was greeted by hundreds of curious puffins that allowed me to pass closely by before comically attempting to fly away. Many were successful, but others would catch the top of a wave as they fought for altitude, sending them face first back into the water. I had to take care as the tide squeezed between the rocky islets, and after a few waves over the spraydeck, I was relieved to land on the short isthmus joining Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe. On the latter is a solitary bothy nestled on a grassy plateau above the rocks, and I was delighted to find it empty and ready for my occupation. I ferried my gear in from the kayak and smugly settled in for a spot of lunch, gazing west back to my launch point at Scalpay.
I wasted no time in putting the running shoes on and headed off for an exploration of Garbh Eilean. Trotting along the top of the basalt cliffs, I came over a knoll and surprised a sea eagle, which on noticing me lazily eased itself off its perch and glided gracefully below me in a big arc. At 149m, the highest point is modest even by Hebridean standards, but from the top is a compelling vista of the three islands, the rugged coast of Lewis tumbling into the waters of the Minch in the distance. It was quite different from anywhere I had been before, and I could not contain my glee (nor did I try to) as I skipped along the grassy cliff tops.
With the wind easing, I hopped back into the kayak for a circumnavigation of Eilean an Tighe. The grassy banks of the west side gave way to towering basalt columns as I rounded the southern tip, and large numbers of gulls could be seen nesting in the nooks and crannies. Tempted as I was to carry on to the next island, I pulled out on the other side of the isthmus as light was fading and retired to the bothy for the evening.
Next morning I was up early for a paddle around Eilean Mhuire. Heading north from the isthmus, the sky was teeming with guillemots and razorbills as they flew to and from their nests in the boulder field. Thousands of them sat in groups on the water enjoying the beautiful calm and sunny morning. These birds were even less shy than the puffins, and would wait until I was almost upon them before finally taking evasive action. North of the boulder field, I dipped through a small, yet deep and well formed arch in the rock, emerging into the swell of the Minch on the other side – I was surprised by the shelter afforded within the clasp of the three islands. Traversing in a clockwise direction, I marvelled at the towering cliffs lit up in the early morning light and laughed at the guillemots standing in perfect linear formation on high ledges. Rounding the eastern tip, I stirred a colony of seals that were lazing on the rock into frantic action, and was inquisitively followed all the way up to the beach where I landed. Swapping wetsuit shoes for runners, a sinister howling sound led me up a steep bank to investigate. Peering over the top, I looked down on well over a hundred seals huddled together on a small beach below, enclosed by vertical cliffs but for a small opening to the sea. I ran up to the top of the hill and watched golden eagles sitting on the updraft on the gentle southerly breeze, astonished at the concentration and diversity of life in such a small space. I didn’t really have time to develop expectations before the trip began but any preconceived notions that I had of the area were grossly surpassed. With such an expanse of water separating me from the next landmass, never mind the next person, I felt like I was firmly in the grip of nature. It was a real privilege to experience such wild beauty with nobody else around.
Back I went through the arch, this time struggling to keep my boat straight as a strong flow worked against me. With the SW-going tide starting back down the Sound of Shiant at 2 pm, I had a couple more hours to explore Eilean an Tighe on foot, sweep out the bothy and enjoy a few leisurely coffees in the sun. I managed to curb my obsession of covering each island end to end by both land and water, and instead took some time to sit back and soak up the solitude.
It was hard work on the way back with a SW F4 in my face. I frequently turned around to take note of my progress and it seemed like Galtachan was staying exactly where it was. This was exacerbated on both sides of the sound by the tide squeezing around headlands in the opposite direction to the wind, resulting in some bouts of short, sharp, boat slapping chop. As the afternoon went on the wind eased to almost nothing, and 5 hours later I landed back on the slip where I launched almost 36 hours ago, tired but elated.