Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Monach Islands

There are still a few spots available for the May 21 cruise. If the weather and sea cooperate, one of our stops will be the Monach Islands. They lie five miles off the coast of North Uist, which they were once linked to by a sandbar. The sandbar was destroyed by a tsunami in 1607, but the three main islands of Ceann Iar, Shivinish, and Ceann Ear are still linked together at low tide.

The Monachs (The Monk's Isles) are also known as Heiskeir, and were once called Heisgeir nan Cailleach (Nun's rock), as there was said to be a nunnery on the east island in the 13th or 14th century. Small Shillay, the westernmost island, was said to have had a monastery. But if there was one, it would have been small, for the island is tiny (200 metres across).

After Kilda was evacuated in the 30s, the Monachs were the most westerly occupied part of Scotland for a while. They had a population of over 100 at one point, but were abandoned in 1947. The usual anchorage here is Croic Harbour, between Shivinish and Ceann Iar. Croic, per Dwelly's Gaelic dictionary, can mean 'abounding in cast seaweed', which it certainly is. Another definition I came across says that Croic simply means 'harbour'. I remember my first time anchoring there, watching the seals surf the tide as it rolled over the sandbar between Shivinish and Ceann Iar.

Looking across the sandbar to Shivinish from Ceann Iar
I'd been to the Monachs several times before I managed to set foot on Shillay. The landing there is more difficult, as the old lighthouse jetty is very exposed to the swell. Shillay lighthouse, said to be built on the site of the monk's beacon, started operating in 1864. It was decommissioned in 1942, and re-commissioned in 2008.

Ceann Ear (East End) has a freshwater loch, Loch nam Buadh (loch of the virtues). Named, perhaps, in honor of the nuns who once lived here. Next to the loch is the site of the village, with some 30 buildings, including a school, post office and church. A kilometre to the NE is Cladh na Bleide, an old burial ground, and the possible site of the nunnery.

The School
Mission Hall?
On my last visit to the  Monachs I managed to cross over to Shivinish from Ceann Iar just before the tide covered the sandbar. Someday, maybe this coming May if the tide is right, I hope to see if I can cross between all three islands. The Monachs are a special place, the abode of hundreds of seals and birds, only occasionally disrupted by the occasional boatload of appreciative island hoppers. There is not a lot of literature on the Monachs, but Alasdair Alpin Macgregor did dedicate a chapter to them in his book The Farthest Hebrides, which you can read here. If islands like these interest you, consider joining our cruise this May.

Looking to Shivinish from Ceann Iar as the tide rises

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