Crossing The Minch - flat seas and foul tides

In April 2011, Tim, Chris, Mike and I enjoyed two exceptional weeks among the islands of the Outer Hebrides - remarkable for the exceptionally dry, stable weather as well as the relatively calm seas, though we had to wait a while for a 17ft swell on the west coast to drop sufficiently to make our plans to paddle the islands west of Loch Roag viable, it was one of the best trips, ending with a crossing (by ferry) from Lochmaddy to Uig on Skye. Standing on deck, watching Uist, Harris and Lewis slip away, my attention was drawn to the many small islands off the north coast of Skye, notably Fladda-Chúain, and the Shiants. From that moment, a crossing of The Minch, taking in these remote and enigmatic islands was inevitable. Five years later, the opportunity took me by surprise - remarkable what can be accomplished on a bank-holiday weekend when the weather is kind.
Arriving at Uig late the previous evening, there had just been time to throw up the tents before last orders at the bar by the pier. Greeted by a commendably enthusiastic, diverse and committed group of drinkers, I had a suspicion last orders would be called more than once that night, though we left before any real damage was done, keen to make an early start. 
Still, it was an hour so later than planned by the time we launched from the slip just east of the pier, quickly leaving the wide expanse of Uig Bay to head north, bound first for An t-Iasgair, a prominent rock more than an island, some 4km north of the low headland, Rúbh á Cháirn Léith. A short crossing by way of a warm up for the two that would follow that day.
Mirror calm seas - the tide for now in our favour though it would turn against us well before reaching the Shiant Islands - on the approach to Lord Macdonald's Table (on the left of the image above) and Fladda-Chúain. Harris and Lewis are visible on the horizon, our destination for tomorrow.
But first, a little time to enjoy the remarkable group of islands immediately south of Fladda-Chúain, including the arch through which the tide was flowing rapidly, flushing me through...
...and on past The Cleats where I paused, looking back toward Skye, the air full of birds - razorbills, guillemots, puffins, gannets, fulmars and the bonxies which will always remind me of the Northern Isles and the crossing of St Magnus bay on our trip around Shetland Mainland in particular.
We rested in the sun awhile on the southern shore of Fladda-Chúain, before rounding the north-west tip watched by the seals...
...turning the corner to leave these wonderful islands and Skye beyond, far behind.
Once again the seas turned to glass as we pulled north, small rafts of puffins giving an excuse to pause every so often...
...the Shiant Islands clearly visible now (far right in the frame above), but still a long way off.
Porpoises too gave reason to pause though their presence was almost continuous on every crossing of the trip, so that I soon stopped taking photos and simply enjoyed their proximity: never have I seen so many, so close and so often.
To sit in the sun, so far off shore on seas like these is a rare privilege - and with The Shiants now in reach we debated heading east of Eilean an Taighe, to go around Eilean Mhuire, the most north-easterly of the three. As we did, the tide turned and the last 6km took rather longer than anticipated...
...prompting a direct route in towards the narrow isthmus which joins Eilean an Taighe to Garbh Eilean. It is worth noting that the eastern side offers a significantly easier landing and carry after a long crossing.
Despite the late start and foul tide, we had arrived in good time and spent awhile exploring before setting camp. As we cooked, one of a small group staying in the hut approached - it turned out to be the remaining members of a team who had been on the island since September, completing a programme to rid the islands of black rats which came ashore in the 1800s when a ship was wrecked nearby. The Shiants are now rat free.
Looking down on the tents later that evening, and out towards the distinctive islands of Galta Beag and Galta Mór, Harris beyond, with Scalpay just discernible towards the left of the frame.
A similar view from the lower summit of Eilean an Taighe - in this shot Scalpay is almost directly in line with myself - a crossing of approx 20km due east and the first leg of tomorrow's paddle, our goal being Lochmaddy on North Uist, nearly 70km distant.
I fell asleep that night with the tent unzipped, lost in thought as dusk fell on shimmering seas below the Shiant Islands. Would our luck hold?


Ian Johnston said…
Good effort Will, and what lovely conditions for the crossing!

Interesting to hear that the Shiants are now free of rats, and hopefully since there aren't any rabbits the follow-on problem of rabbit population explosion won't be the issue it's been on Canna.

Looking forward to the next instalment :o)
Will Herman said…
Thanks Ian - it was a remarkable day - the second no less so which I'll post shortly. As for the rats - I'm not sure there's much room left for any more birds on the Shiants! Incredible place and perfect weather.