These islands dominate the Minch. They have seen so much over the 60 million years of their history. They would have been occupied soon after the last ice of the ice age glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Perhaps the first dwellers on the heights were hermits, or monks. At one time, 400 years ago there were some five families living here, according to the archaeological evidence, perhaps fifty souls in all. There had been ups and downs in the numbers, and then suddenly there was a collapse around 1650 and only one family remained. The last family left in 1901.
There are three islands in the group.
- Garbh Eilean, Rough Island in translation from the Gaelic)
- Eilean an Tighe (House Island)
- Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island, hinting at a Holy Catholic past!)
They have had several owners, eight in all over a period of 1200 years, Compton Mackenzie, and Lord Leverhulme amongst them. They now belong to the Nicholson family, having been bought in 1937 for £1750, and are passed from father to the son when he attains the age of 21.
The islands are infested with the rarest of animals, the Black Rat, as distinct from the common Brown Rat. How they came to be here is unknown.
These islands are one of the great bird places of the world. Counting the birds is near impossible, but the best estimates of the teeming cliffs are:-
18,000 guillemots, 11,000 razorbills, 6000 fulmars, 2000 kittiwakes, 1500 shags, a few hundred gulls, 26 great skuas, and a quarter million puffins, 2% of all the puffins in the world. The puffins come suddenly in from the open ocean where they have wintered in early May, and then, just as suddenly, in August, they are gone! Later thousands of geese fly in from their Arctic nesting grounds.
On Garbh Eilean there is the plinth of an Iron Age House, and several Iron Age cairns and walls can still be seen on all the islands. Vikings left their traces also in the shape of “boat-shaped graves. Thereafter as animal husbandry and crop growing was established, several house sites have been identified, each with its hap-hazard parcel of grazing and crops. By the 17th century the land was increasingly influenced by a system of “run-rig farming and “lazy-bed tillage. Old Clan loyalties gradually gave way to tenancies and rental obligations until finally ownership of the islands came into the market in the 19th. Century.
The remains of several early black house sites can be identified. Very few artefacts have survived, some pottery shards only, reflecting the absolute poverty of existence in these times. One small metal brooch was unearthed by a homestead, and one stone, several layers down inside a walled ruin. This is known as the “Pillow Stone, and is of a different rock to the geology of the Shiants. It is similar in shape and size to a curling stone and is thought to have come from an outcrop of red sandstone in Torridon. On one surface a cross is delicately carved in relief.
Most remarkable of all is the discovery of an ancient gold “torc brought up in a fisherman’s trawl in the bay in 1991. This delicate and mysterious object, a relic of the Bronze Age, now lies in Edinburgh museum, posing more questions than answers about the mysteries of the “Shiant Isles.