The Escape: 37 days on the Shiant Isles

Skye artist and Ordnance Survey champion Katie Tunn shares her experience of being castaway on the uninhabited and remote Shiant Isles in the Hebrides for 37 days as part of a project to immerse herself in nature

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As much as I love living on Skye, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to escape the stresses of everyday life. Life on Skye can be surprisingly busy (often busier than my previous London life!) and I found I was still searching for a closer connection to nature; a desire to live with the environment, not just in it.

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A view of the Shiant Isles, Scotland © Copyright <a href=”https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/19712″>JJM</a> for Geograph

I started making plans for a solitary adventure somewhere truly remote.  After meeting the private owner of the islands Tom Nicolson, I settled on visiting the Shiant Isles, a rocky archipelago between Skye and the Outer Hebrides. From my home on Skye I can see them across the water silhouetted in the distance. My aim was to have no human contact for 40 days and 40 nights and immerse myself in the natural environment.

Heading to Eden

Soon after my plans had been agreed, I was given the opportunity to take part in a year-long off-grid reality TV project run by Channel 4 called Eden. The concept sounded similar to my own island plans, albeit for longer and as part of a group. Unfortunately, this experience was a stark contrast to the Utopia I had hoped for and so I returned to Skye without having fulfilled my yearning to live wild and resumed my initial plans.

After returning to Skye, I resumed my planning and by 31st March this year I was packed and ready to go. After catching the ferry to Tarbet, I travelled by RIB boat to my new temporary home of the Shiant Islands.

On arrival I was quick to set up a basic shelter before the inevitable rain came (this is an important first job to do). I had brought a bag of food, clothes, sleeping gear and practical kit, including items such as a hammer and saw. In a world where we accumulate and dispose of so much unnecessary stuff it was interesting to see how little I really needed. Living so simply is a contrast to our throwaway lifestyles, but even on these remote shores I couldn’t escape the tide of plastic created by modern convenience. Although the marine litter wasn’t as bad as it often is on nearby islands I found it particularly shocking juxtaposed next to such spectacular wildlife. Even these ‘wild’ places are not safe from human pollution.’

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Katie collected plastic waste along the shorelines of the Shiant Isles/Credit: Katie Tunn

I quickly became familiar with the songbirds I shared a home with. After a while I recognised the calls of the seabirds and knew when to expect to hear the drumming wings of snipe. Seals would often watch me from the shallows and I felt a strange bond with the tiny wrens that boldly sat with me as I cooked breakfast.

The author Nan Shepherd wrote ‘The Living Mountain‘ about her lifelong relationship with the Cairngorms and how deeply she came to know them and found joy in the natural environment. I felt a similar way about the Shiant Islands, as spending each waking minute alone in a place you begin to learn about it in a unique way.

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Cooking over an open fire/Credit: Katie Tunn

Each day the landscape shows you something new, such as a perfect miniature fossil, a new sound or a rare orchid. As time went on, living alongside rain, gales and frosts became second nature. I washed my pans, my clothes and myself in an icy stream. I chopped kindling on icy mornings to warm my numb fingers. I collected nettles and seaweeds when I missed eating veg. I also built a more substantial structure with a drystone wall and turf roof and I made a ‘house’ sign for it: The Hermit’s Nest. I wondered what it would be like to live like this permanently.

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Katie’s new home  – The Hermit’s Nest, Shiant Islands/Credit: Katie Tunn

After almost six weeks of soaring highs, a couple of disappointing lows and a great deal of time hiding from roaring gales and seemingly endless rain, I found that solitude helped me to find a peace I’d never experienced before. I felt creative and strong as I discovered a clarity of thought that was exhilarating. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel any sense of loneliness as I found the characters of the local wildlife provided enough entertainment.

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Katie braved the harsh climate of the Shiant Isles/Credit: Katie Tunn
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Frustratingly, I didn’t quite achieve my goal as an injury partway (Katie suffered a concussion following a fall) meant temporarily breaking the bubble for a short stay in hospital. However, the 37 days living as an island hermit were one of the most extraordinary times of my life – and came to an end far too quickly.  On reflection, I’m almost pleased I didn’t complete my planned 40 days on the island as it means I have the excuse to go back and do it all over again!

Watch Katie’s Shiant Isles video ‘The Escape’ 

Plastic pollution on the Shiant Isles