Wednesday 29 February 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No 6 - Shiant Islands

Shiant Islands, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

We couldn't get to St Kilda, so we settled for the Shiant Islands. Second best, or so we thought at the time. A short boat trip with Sea Harris carried us to this tiny archipelago that lies to the east of Tarbert, Lewis and Harris. 

A row of jagged islets, called the Galtachean, point the way to the two main islands. The largest is split in two, but joined by a ridge of pebbles occasionally breached by extreme high tides or storms. Garbh Eilean (Rough Island), to the north, is dauntingly steep and perilous to climb. We heeded our guide's warning and stuck to the more accessible Eilean an Tigh (House Island). As the name suggests, one small dwelling stands upon it, providing temporary shelter for the Shiant's owner and the occasional plucky visitor, as well as being a permanent home for the black rats that inhabit the island. The second island, Eilean Mhuir (Mary's Island), stands apart, yet remains close enough to form a bay that was filled with puffins when we visited in June.

The Shiant Islands receive less visitors than Staffa and St Kilda, yet boast some spectacular geological features of their own: columnar basalt sea cliffs, made from the same type of rock that forms Staffa, rear vertically upwards to a height of 120m above the sea. Various seabirds nest on the exposed ledges like ornaments on a shelf, while Great skuas and Great black-backed gulls circle the rim of the cliff in anticipation of an easy meal. It's an inspiring sight whether you're at the bottom looking up or at the top looking down. 

The Shiant Islands is in the top 10... for their magnificent 120m sea cliffs.

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