The Shiant Isles
The Shiant Isles (or Shiants) is a small group of islands in the Outer Hebrides, in North West Scotland, four miles or so off the coast of Lewis and 12 from the northern tip of Skye, which lies almost due south of them.
Just 600 acres in size, they are home to a million sea birds and represent one of the most important environmental hubs in the United Kingdom and Europe. Nearly a decade ago the RSPB launched a successful campaign to fund The Shiants Seabird Recovery Project (see below) and, a decade on, seabird life is now flourishing.
The islands are uninhabited; with the last resident leaving early last century. The only remaining structure is a 150-year-old bothy that keeps the island open to visitors wanting to stay on the Shiants.
Over the many years the majority of groups that stay camp in tents, keeping the bothy as a separate communal space for meeting, cooking and playing games.
The bothy structure itself, once described as no more than “a shed in a storm” is divided into two sides: on the left-hand side are some bunkbeds which a seldom-used but are necessary in case of emergencies and rough weather. And on the right-hand side (which features in the video) is the kitchen and main dining area where nearly all one’s time is spent. It is a space comparable to a local countryside pub.
Despite the lack of amenities, no electricity, no running water shower or bathroom they are visited by hundreds of people every year by those with a passion to be in the wild, escape or quench their thirst for exploration and discovery. The islands attract groups from all walks of life and backgrounds, families with young children to groups of friends, to researchers and archaeologists.
Now, looking forward over the next 40 to 50 years this crowdfunding campaign will fund both the restructuring of the existing bothy and to build two small artists bothies just behind for sleeping and sanctuary.
The Shiants Seabird Recovery Project (and how the Shiant Bothy Project idea was born)
With many seabird populations facing a multitude of threats and severe declines in Scotland and around the globe, the Shiants have become a vital piece in a global puzzle to safeguard their survival.
To preserve and sustain the population an operation to eradicate the black rat over the winter of 2015-16 was led by a New Zealand-based company Wildlife Management International Limited (WMIL), with the help of fifteen volunteers.
The Shiants Seabird Recovery Project was funded by EU LIFE+ in partnership with the Nicolson family, custodians of the islands for three generations, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland. It has also benefited from the help of many volunteers, and significant private donations nearing £1m.
It was a huge success and played an important role in developing future island restoration and biosecurity work in the UK.
Since the project puffins, razorbills, and guillemots saw improved breeding successes which have led to an increase in the population of these seabirds on the Shiants.
Just three years ago the Shiants recorded its first storm petrel and now offers a suitable nesting habitat for and Manx shearwaters: species of seabirds that were not generally found on islands previously.
To this day, private and publicly funded researchers visit and stay on the island collecting important data to monitor the changes thanks to the changing environment.
It wasn’t until the project flew in two portacabins to be used as sleeping and storage hubs by its volunteers that the idea of building more bothies was ever taken seriously.
They were very popular with visitors when they were available; regularly preferred over tents providing beds, mattresses, privacy and overall gave sense of wellbeing on the island. They provided true shelter that tents, which can at times feel exposed on rainy or windy nights, could not.
Overall they opened up the Shiants allowing the islands to become more accessible.
Despite all their obvious advantages, the green metallic portacabins were not in keeping with the island and so were removed. The idea, however, of having a new set of “Shiant Bothies” remained.
The challenge of finding something that would work was not easy.
Two years after the portacabins left that architect Iain MacLeod, who co-founded “The Bothy Project’ with his schoolfriend Bobby Niven, had a potential answer to a challenging list of criteria that work for the Shiants.
The pair had produced a concept for bothies that were quaint, practical, fit with the general feel of the island and importantly could be built on a remote island.
Their business, already a national media story, was to build bothies on the mainland and then assemble them on-site in less than a week.
Both artist bothies will have a double bed; with room for two extra beds under the gable. It is ideal for a family or group of friends. They are spacious and yet do not dominate. Soft and yet robust.
With new sleeping bothies for visitors in place it would also mean that we could modify the existing bothy to turn the bothy into one large room by knocking through the central wall. In keeping with its old traditions will retain all of its existing charm, but be a more practical day and evening use where large groups can organise and plan by day and enjoy glasses of wine and dinner parties by evening.
The other new addition will be a new porch; to throw wet hats and boots into without letting a draft into the bothy. New windows on the north and south side will make the place lighter.
The local economy, community and engagement
The Shiants is also used as an important piece of land for grazing (see photo below), some of the most fertile land in the entirety of Scotland. The bothies will afford accommodation for the crofters and their young families that spend an unbroken three weeks in April and early May looking after the lambs vastly improving the conditions of the day to day work. It is a part of an operational micro economy which exists on the Shiants:
This summer they will have their first full lambing season and intend on supplying their produce to some of the best restaurants in the Hebrides as well as leading restaurants further afield such as Edinburgh and London as early the Autumn of 2021. Sparing no wastage the wool-clip, shorn from the sheep, will be taken back to Scalpay for processing – the closest island on the mainland, where it will be made into a local tweed (Clò Hearach).
And the boat which takes the crofters ashore run a small sustainable shellfish business "Scalpay Shellfish" every summer catching fresh lobster and brown crab all in the Shiant Isles bay.
Wider afield the build itself will support a number of economies in marine tourism and retail (boat operators including Sea Harris and Sea Lewis can also drop people off on chartered voyages from Stornoway and Tarbet) – . It is hoped that over time; the Shiant Isles Bothy Project will be a microcosm of what the Outer Hebrides can become – a thriving multi-layered society, nature and the environment and engagement.
Long term, we will ask people will carry on donating to the Shiants should people want to stay. It is a donation; in other words people will not have to; but a residual fund can then carry on this campaign indefinitely.
The monies, aside from maintaining the bothies, will be reinvested back into local communities. Charities; foundations; but even budding entrepreneurs who have an idea and would like an investment.
Rewards: Staying on the island
The Rewards - Stay on the Shiants Isles. Individual bothies (up to four people) 2022, 2023, 2024 & 2025
- This will a first come and first serve basis per year
- An artist bothy is perfect for a family (two adults – two children) or for a group of four friends. Please no more!
- If we reach our stretch target you want to book both bothies (ie. for larger groups), please book two bothies and make note of this.
- It is important to visit www.shiantisles.net/visit to get a list of suggested food and drink items
- Boat trips to and from the island are not included in the price, but email [email protected] and he can introduce you to the boat operators directly
- Please be aware that there are no plumbing or toilet facilities on the islands.
- The Shiants are an important nesting ground. When observing the birds please keep your distance so that they're not disturbed. You must not touch their nests or eggs.