THE MONACH ISLES AND HEISGEIR ROCKS
THE MONACH ISLES
THE Monach group of low-lying islands is some 8 miles south-west of Hougharry Point in North Uist. Though they are relatively near the large island-mass of North Uist, the islands are somewhat inaccessible and are truly oceanic islands, being completely exposed to the full advances of the Atlantic. The group consists of five islands, three of which are joined together at low tide, like Siamese triplets, by exposed,shallow, sandy beaches. The three main islands are Ceann Ear (East Head), Shivinish, and Ceann lar (West Head). The two other smaller islands are Sillay, the site of a now-deserted light-house, and Stogay. The total area is some 600 acres, most of which is now used for grazing sheep.
The islands are less than 50 ft above sea level, and in this respect they differ from other island subjects of this book. They are basically Lewisian gneiss covered with sand-dunes or machar and protected by reefs. Despite the lack of adequate protection,
usually offered by high hills and cliffs on other islands, the Monach Isles have a long history of human settlement.
The plant life on these islands is typical of the sandy-soil covering or machar associated with much of the Outer Hebrides. This soil, based on fertile shell-sand, generates a thick, springy turf which supports a wide variety of flowers. These include stone-crop, kidney-vetch, thyme, heartsease and bird's-foot trefoil. Marram grass is a particular feature, being used to keep the sand dunes in control by stabilising them. Otherwise, as occurred in 1810, the sand becomes exposed to high winds and generations of work to keep the topsoil intact disappear overnight. Seabirds are not so plentiful on these islands because of the lack of cliff-shelter. Some birds, however, like arctic terns, make their nests in scoops in the sand.
“Be aucht mile of sea from this Ile (Uist) towards the west lyis and Ile four mile lang, half mile braid, laich mane lane, callit Helsker na Caillach, pertaining to the Nunnis of Colmkill,gude corn land not well fyrit.”
Thus Dean Monro describes, c 1549, the Monach Isles group.But long before the dean visited the Outer Hebrides, the isles were well-known. As far back in history as 1263, the year of the Battle of Largs, the islands were significant as places which
yielded a good living for a large number of people. The early visiting Norsemen gave many of the island's reefs and skerries Norse-derived names; the Gaelic element in the placenames of these islands is small.
One of the earliest references to the islands is in connection with the establishment of a nunnery attached to lona. The nunnery was set up on Ceann Ear, the most easterly island of the interconnected group. It is said of these nuns that they were so strong as to be able to handle large boats which they rowed across the Sound of Monach to North Uist, returning with loads of peat for fuel, which the island-group has always lacked.
The Norse name for the island-group was Heisgeir. But the association of the islands with a male monastery set up on Sillay, the westerly isolated island of the group, caused the name to be changed to Monach. It was part of the monks' duties to maintain a light on Sillay to act as a navigational guide to mariners sailing in the nearby western Atlantic waters. This light is supposed to have been sited on a rock, or altar. The religious associations came to an end after the Reformation.
The first recorded owner of the Monach group was Ailean MacRuairi 'ic Shomhairle, who also possessed Uist. He had connections with the dynasty of the Lords of the Isles. Much later (1644) the ownership fell into the hands of Lord James MacDonald of Sleat in Skye. In 1856 these MacDonalds sold Uist and the
Monach Islands to Major lain P. Orde who passed over his property to the Duke of Hamilton in 1944. The present owner is Lord Granville, the Queen's cousin.
In 1595 the islands were said to be able to raise twenty men of military age, suggesting a total population of some hundred people. In 1764 John Walker recorded a population of seventy.That the islands were surprisingly fertile is indicated in records of c 1800 which estimated that some 1,000 cattle were being carried.
Six years earlier the Rev Allan MacQueen had written: 'The soil is sandy, yields very little grass at any time, and is only valuable on account of its kelp shores and a small quantity of grain it produces.' But, despite MacQueen's report, there must have been sufficient produce to feed a large community with some to spare. For, a century before, in 1692, a shipload of meal was sent from Heisgeir to Ballachulish for the islanders' kinsmen, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, soon after that clan had suffered the
dreadful atrocity known as the Massacre of Glencoe.
In 1810 or thereabouts, however, the population of the islands was almost entirely removed. The reason for the sudden exodus was the complete failure of the soil. The records point to over-grazing, which exposed large areas of sand. This erosion was
coupled with a great storm which tore up the turf and covered the islands with still more sand. In an attempt to reclaim the land, sea-bent or marram grass was planted and in time the land recovered sufficiently to support a population again. By 1841 there were two farmers with their families, a female weaver and a herd, totalling 19 people. By 1861 this number had increased to 127,which included some visiting lobster fishermen from Ireland and Islay. In 1891 the maximum population of 135 was recorded. This figure included the native residents, twelve lighthouse keepers
and their families and some twelve visiting fishermen.
There were ten crofts sharing 141 acres of runrig arable land and about 400 acres of pasture. These crofts also had a share of the common grazing grounds on North Uist where they also held a common croft; this gave them the necessary elegibility qualification to participate in the North Uist land.
After the turn of this century the population began to fall. In 1914 there were twelve families, probably about eighty persons;in 1921 the population numbered sixty-six. Ten years later it was thirty-three. The following year saw only two families on the
Monach Isles and they left in 1942. The 1951 census showed the islands deserted.
In the old tradition of the monks who lived on Sillay, and who had felt it part of their duty to their fellow-men to warn sailors of the dangerous reefs round the islands, a lighthouse was erected on Sillay in 1864. It was 135 ft high and had a range of
18 miles. Tradition has it that this light was built on the same spot as the ancient altar which was provided with a continuous fire beacon. However, sea disasters did occur despite the Sillay light, which often failed to penetrate through the dense sea fogs.
In 1894 the Inflexible from Sunderland was wrecked on the reef of Sgeir Mhor Shithinis. This was an ill wind which blew good for the islanders for the wreck provided them with some necessary and much-needed materials. In 1903 the Vanstable of Dunkirk struck the hard teeth of the Diurabergs, six miles north of the
Sillay light. Again, the islanders found cause to bless the storms which brought such bounty to their shores.
The Gulf Stream also brought the islanders wealth. In fact, records indicate that the amount of wreckage thrown up on the shores of the Monach Isles was so great and such a source ofprofit that the islanders were relatively rich.
The Sillay light was extinguished in 1942, during the Second World War, and has been permanently discontinued. The lighthouse keepers and their families were the last residents of the Monach Isles. In the winter months of 1936, two of the lighthouse keepers were drowned when the small boat in which they were returning from Ceann Ear to Sillay with mails was overtaken by heavy seas. A third keeper watched the tragedy from the lighthouse helpless to do anything for his fellow keepers.
The island community was well served with amenities provided by various agencies. There was a Post Office, though no shop. A Ladies' Highland Association school was provided on the island. Later the Free Church manned the school. After 1874
the school was operated by the School Board. For many years there was in addition a missionary and mision-church of the Glasgow and West Coast Mission. In 1876, a formal missionary appointment was made, the appointee having already devoted twenty-eight years to the satisfaction of the spiritual needs of the Monach community. His official recognition meant full employment for three days each week for a salary of £20 per annum. He held the post for another thirty years after which he was succeeded by his son.
The Monach Isles are now only occasionally populated by
lobster fishermen who visit the islands and lodge in the houses
which still remain in a reasonable state of repair.
THE HEISGEIR ROCKS
About twelve miles to the north of the Monach Isles lie the Heisgeir Rocks. Heisgeir Eagach has no vegetation. The main islet, Heisgeir Mhor, has about 4 acres of coarse grass and vegetation.
Dean Monro, 1549, says :
“To the north-west of the Keantuach of Vyist lyis ane Ile be 12 mile of sea callit Haifsker, quhairin infinite slauchter of selchis is maid at certane times in the zeir .. .”
Martin Martin, 1695, says of the islets :
“About three leagues and a half to the West, lie the small Islands called Hawsker-Rocks, and Hawsker-Eggath, and Hawsker-Nimannich, id est, Monk's-Rock, which hath an Altar in it, the first so called from the Ocean as being near to it, for Haw
or Thau in the Ancient Language signifies the Ocean : the more Southerly Rocks are six or seven big ones, nicked or indented, for Eggath signifies so much. The largest island, which is Northward, is near half a mile in Circumference, and it is covered with long Grass. Only small Vessels can pass between this and the Southern Rocks, being nearest to St Kilda of all the West Islands; both of 'em abound with Fowls, as much as any Isles of their extent in St Kilda. The Coulterneb, Guillemot, and Scarts are most numerous here, the Seals likewise abound very much in and about these rocks.”
As Martin says, these rocks have ever been a favourite haunt of the Atlantic seals. The islets have never supported a human population, but, because of the economic value of the seals, have been a significant factor in the economy of neighbouring Uist.
The slaughter of the seals on Heisgeir has attracted much comment over the years. Visits were paid to the breeding grounds shortly after the cow seals had calved and indiscriminate clubbing took place. There was a complete lack of any sense of conservation. By an Act of Parliament, passed in 1931, the killing of grey seals at any season of the year at this island group is illegal. Heisgeir is now their sanctuary.
Heisgeir Eagach really consists of five distinct islets or stacks which rise close together with deep-water channels of the Atlantic flowing between them. On Heisgeir Mhor, the lowest land lies at the centre of the islet. At the north is the high sea cliff known locally as the Castle, which rises to some 120 ft and is pierced by an arch at sea level. To the south rises a rounded hill.
The Sailing Directions for the West Coast of Scotland published in 1874 gives the following description :
“ Haskeir islands, two in number, are distant from each other one mile in an E by N ¼ N and W by S ¼ S direction, The easternmost and highest, which lies NW ? N, 6½ miles from Griminish Point, North Uist, and NNE ½ E, 10? miles from Monach Lighthouse, is one mile in circumference, and rises at the West end to 120 feet; the East end is nearly as high, and between the two the land is very low and nearly divided by a remarkable cave or basin, 140 feet long and 34 feet broad, so that from a distance of 5 or 6 miles the island shews two flattish lumps. Towards the West end are 3 or four acres of rich soil and coarse grass, but in winter the waves cast their spray over the whole surface; no springs could be found, but there are several pools with brackish water, where the Seals resort in autumn with their young. Rocks dry half a cable off the West and South-West points, but the East side is bold-to : the best landing is on the North and South side of the East lump according to the wind, but it can only be effected with safety during fine weather.
Haskeir Aag, the western of the two islands, may be said to be composed of five bare rocks, with deep water channels between; they are without a blade of grass or any fresh water, and can only be landed on in fine weather. The highest is 83 feet above the sea.”
Other sundry reefs and rocks are indicated on the admiralty chart for the area. There is no anchorage in the vicinity.
St Kilda and other Hebridean Outliers
Francis Thompson 1970