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Cruising the Shiant Islands in ‘Sheila’, 1910

Originally published in ‘Yachting Monthly’, May 1933, this extract is from a series of articles by Robert E. Groves, regular contributor to the Magazine, yachtsman, soldier and artist. He recalls a most enjoyable sail to the Shiant Islands in perfect weather conditions across the challenging waters of the Minch around 1910. Robert E. Groves sails single-handed in ‘Sheila I’, the little yawl of four tons built for him at Port St. Mary from the design by Albert Strange. She’s a fine seaboat, as was often proved on many a strenuous cruise in the wild waters on the west coast of Scotland. Here he paints a beautiful picture of the wildlife and dramatic cliffs of the Shiant Islands, off Lewis.

The Shiant Islands, Nah-Eileanan Sianta as they are called in the Gaelic tongue, are sometimes referred to by the alluring title ‘The Enchanted or Charmed Isles’ and well do they deserve that poetic name, for in their wild and lonely beauty they might, in reality, be the dwelling-place of mermaids, fairies, pixies and other delightful legendary beings. The weather conditions on this occasion were all that could be desired. The glass was high and steadily rising; but although there was, as yet, very little breeze at our anchorage one look aloft was sufficient to set the mind at rest on that score, for against a sky of the most heavenly blue, little wisps of delicately-traced, wind-swept clouds foretold the coming of that very necessary adjunct to a good day’s sail. A thin blanket of silvery mist lay like a silken shroud upon the waters of the bay, and through this occasional glimpses of the land were obtained, whenever a sudden puff of air set in motion the wool-like banks of vapour.

As the sun rose higher and gained in strength the rifts became more frequent; the mist was thinning rapidly, and presently, as if by the wave of some magic wand, it melted away, revealing a glorious picture of the heaving bosom of the Minch glittering like silver in the morning light. Away to the SW, remote in their ethereal loveliness, the hills and headlands of Eilean a Cheò, Skye, the Isle of Mist, completed a seascape of the most entrancing beauty. What joy to be afloat amid such scenes of earthly perfection! Eagerly spreading her snowy wings, ‘Sheila’, at 6.45, rounded the little islet of Vallay, guardian of the basin of Rodel Harbour, and with a light though steady breeze from the NW, headed for our islands of desire. Slowly we sailed along the sun-drenched coast of Harris over a sapphire sea just ruffled by light airs, until, when off the entrance to Loch Stockinish, it freshened considerably, and we bowled along in fine style with the wind on our beam. By this time every vestige of haze had dispersed, the sun was warm and cheering and our islands looked ethereal and attractive in the clear morning light, some sixteen miles away.

The passage through the Minch is dangerous in places on account of the strong tidal currents and numerous overfalls. As a matter of fact, nearly all that portion of the Little Minch which lies in a line between the north of Skye and Tarbert, Harris, is better avoided, except in really good weather; although when known, or under the pilotage of a man with local knowledge, the dangers, like a good many others on the much-maligned coasts of the Hebrides, are not nearly so bad as the Sailing Directions would imply. Still, caution is necessary! By 9 o’clock we were abreast of Sgeir Inoe, and ‘Sheila’ was walking along in grand style, with a breeze just sufficient to put her lee rail under. The mountain views of Harris on the one hand and of Skye on the other were magnificent: the glorious blue of the Minch, flecked with white crests, a feast for the eyes. Astern, the long, creamy wake testified to the speed we were making.

Talk of life, ye dwellers in stuffy cities? Until you have experienced the joys of sailing in your own little ship under such conditions as these, you have only existed! This freedom from care: this glorious independence: this absence of all the trivial worries of civilization: these are but a few of the joys awaiting the cruiser in the romantic seas of the distant Hebrides. The memory of such happy days lives again and again for us as we sit musing by our winter fires. Rounding Sgeir Inch, the wind was almost dead aft, giving us a clear run for the southern most point of Eilean Tighe. Following this course will carry the cruiser well clear of the overfalls to the south of the group. By this time there was a considerable cross sea running, which, but for the strength of the breeze, would would have made the going somewhat uncomfortable on account of excessive rolling. As it was we were glad to put on oilskins. Away in the direction of Skye, and a mile or so away, we were entertained by a large school of whales. They were making for the south, and it was interesting to watch the jets of spray from their blow-holes rising like puffs of steam at regular intervals.

When approaching the Shiant Islands for the first time, what will probably strike the newcomer is the apparent mist or film which seems to envelop them. At closer quarters this resolves itself into nothing more nor less than countless thousands of seabirds constantly wheeling about them. The air is literally packed with them, a truly amazing and unforgetable sight, and one cannot help marvelling at the prodigious powers of reproduction among the finny denizens of the deep, by which the enormous toll levied by this vast concourse of birds is efficiently compensated. On entering the sound or strait which separates the two main islands, the scene is more than ordinarily impressive in its grandeur. Vast colonnades of basaltic pillars, similar to those seen at Staffa, rise majestically from the ocean; and wherever there happens to be a patch of turf it is riddled with the burrows of the puffins. Every available ledge is also occupied by row upon row of quaint little black and white uniforms. Guillemots, razorbills, shags and cormorants add their quota to this mighty army: and as if there were not already sufficient numbers, a further reinforcement is supplied by hosts of kittiwakes, herring gulls, black-backed gulls, both less and greater: all finished off with a touch of delicacy, the delightful sea-swallows or terns.

The tides run very strongly between the islands, and even in the calmest weather there is a mighty, heaving swell. The westerly, and larger, of the two main islands, lies north and south, and is all but divided into two separate portions by a narrow shingle neck. So nearly so, that for purposes of nomenclature, it is treated as two islands; the northern portion going by the name of Garbh Eilean, or Rough Island, while the southern portion is called Eilean Tighe, or the Island of the House. The overfall to the south is nearly a mile from Eilean Tighe, so there is plenty of room for manoeuvring between it and that island. It may not be convenient for the cruiser to approach the Shiants from the Harris shore, and if on the Skye side of the little Minch, a good course to take is one nearly midway between the island of Fladdachuan and Sgeir nam Maol beacon. Here the water is deep and clear of hidden danger. A word of warning with regard to Sgeir Gratich! In its immediate neighbourhood the overfalls are of such a character that even large vessels become unmanageable if they get within their clutches so keep at least four or five cables’ lengths away, and the danger will be avoided. I have deliberately painted as lurid a picture as possible of the dangers attendant on a visit to these islands: although, bearing in mind the old saying that ‘discretion is the better part of valour’, I have avoided the necessity of describing them as a result of personal experiences, by giving such dangers a wide berth in anything like bad weather.

At 10.15 ‘Sheila’ entered the channel, and, as if to give us welcome, quite a number of seals came to meet us, their shiny black heads looking for all the world like the buoys on a fishing-net. Once in the shelter of Eilean Tighe the wind fell to the merest air, just sufficient to give steerage way, while a long, heaving swell of black waters was passing through the channel. Running into the anchorage, the hook was dropped in 3 fathoms, opposite the shingle neck. The rattle of the cable startled a grand peregrine falcon which had apparently been dozing on the cliffs, and we had a good view of it as it fell with a graceful swoop and then glided over the heights. There was rather more wind at the anchorage, but still it was quite comfortable.

Robert E. Groves, Yachting Monthly, May 1933

Robert E. Groves Published with permission: Yachting Monthly May 1933