Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eilean Mhuire of the Shiants

One of the many Islands I hope to return to in the next year or two is Eilean Mhuire of the Shiants.

Eilean Mhuire seen from Garbh Eilean
Of the three Shiant islands, Eilean Mhuire is probably the least visited. Most people are set ashore on the stone isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Garbh Eilean, and then make their way up onto Eilean Tighe. But to get onto Eilean Mhuire is a little more challenging. It requires being set ashore at the base of a small, rocky inlet. And if there is any swell, or wind, it can be a difficult landing.

If you do manage to get ashore, you then have to climb 160 feet up a steep hillside. When I made the climb in 2003, there was a handy rope dangling down the hill to grab hold of. (I do not know if the rope is still there.) It was worth the climb, for the top of the island is a beautiful, and relatively flat plateau, covered in verdant grass and dotted with a several ponds. 

For me, Eilean Mhuire has two attractive features: its massive colony of puffins, and the ruin of an old chapel. The name of the chapel, and the island, are usually said to refer to Mary. But I've always wondered if they actually refer to St Maelrubha. An old name for the Shiants is Na Eileanan Mòra: which usually translates to the Big Isles, and these islands are certainly not big. So it's possible the Eilean Mhuire name may be a corruption of 'Island Mor', and many 'Mòr' place names in the Hebrides are dedications to St Maelrubha.

Chapel Ruin - embedded in what may have been an old burial mound
Another clue that the dedication may be to Maelrubha is that he would have certainly visited the Shiants, as they lie on a direct route from his monastery at Applecross to Maruig, a small settlement 15 miles to the west on Lewis, and Teampull Mor, a chapel near the Butt of Lewis. Both of those places are said to be dedicated to Maelrubha. 

The next two photos show some of the acres of old cultivation ridges that cover the island. Eilean Mhuire was fertile in its time. Of the 500 acres of land that make up the three Shiant isles, only 30 were arable, and half of that was on Eilean Mhuire.

Crisscross cultivation ridges on Eilean Mhuire

Eastern tip of Eilean Mhuire
The few dwellings on Eilean Mhuire were basic, turf covered structures, visible today only as grass-grown mounds.

Old turf-covered structures
In May and June the puffins on the Shiants are a sight to behold - truly amazing. At times the sky is filled with tens of thousands flying back and forth between the sea and their burrows in the scree of Garbh Eilean, and the steep slopes of Eilean Mhuire. 

Puffin burrows on Eilean Mhuire - Garbh Eilean in the distance
Getting off the island is as exciting as getting on to it, as you have to descend the near vertical hillside. To do that I held the rope in one hand, and slowly slid down on my side, every now and then digging my boots into the little grassy ledges created by grazing sheep.

Descending the rope - Eilean Mhuire
I hope to return to Eilean Mhuire. Its tricky landing, especially if there is any swell, followed by the rope climb, make for an exhilarating island visit.

Eilean Mhuire departure


  1. Hi Marc - I guess you have read Sea Room by Adam Nicholson on The Shiants? I have not yet been there. Hope to make it some time. Thanks for continuing posts and best wishes,

  2. Hi David - Sea Room is amazing. It's the best resource on the Shiants, and a must read for anyone planning a visit there.