The Monachs – at last!

The Monach Islands lighthouse seen from Ceann Iar

After the success of the trip to the Flannan Isles in late May (see previous post), there was only one thing that could have made it the best week for bagging those hard-to-get to lighthouses so far and that was a successful trip to the Monach Islands. Which is exactly what occurred the following day!

The Monachs, also known as Heisker, is a group of six islands to the west of North Uist. Three of the islands (Ceann Ear, Shivinish and Ceann Ear) are connected by beaches at low tide. The main attraction for me though was reaching Shillay, which boasts not one, but two lighthouses.

The Mission Hall on Ceann Ear, which now houses an exhibition

However, we first stopped off at the three adjoining islands to make the most of the low tide time. The shallow waters that surround the island and the points available to land make it a bit tricky in anything but calm weather. This was why we have not been able to reach these islands for the past few years. Ceann Ear is home to the Mission Hall Exhibition, which is in the building formerly used as the islands’ place of worship. The exhibition contains really interesting details of life on the Monachs and the people who lived there, including the first and last residents of each of the croft houses. The content is, in part, based on the experiences of the last two men to leave the island.

More than 100 people lived on the islands in the past, mainly working in agriculture. However, the effects of the weather and erosion with the constantly shifting sands made it a very difficult place to live. A number of residents were driven away and the last two families left in 1942 when the lighthouse was discontinued. From 1945-49 the Morrison family attempted to resettle on Ceann Ear, but had to leave when no other families joined them. The school closed in 1942, although since the 1950s (when it was purchased by three Cambridge scholars) it has been used for nature study and research as well as, more recently, training in vocational skills in the repair of the building.

The exhibition features information about and pictures of the boat formerly known as the Pacaid (now known as Morning Star), which serviced the lighthouse as well as having a contract with Royal Mail to deliver the post to the islands.

The information on display at the exhibition relating to the loss of the lighthouse keepers

Interestingly, the exhibition contains a news article about two of the lighthouse keepers who, while heading across the stretch between Shillay and Ceann Iar, went missing in their rowing boat. Their boat was later seen floating upside down. There are no details of the outcome of this at the exhibition, but the Northern Lighthouse Board website gives a bit more information. The men went missing on 15th November 1936 while sailing across from Shillay to collect the post from Ceann Iar. The weather deteriorated while they were gone and their boat was driven off course on the return journey. Their bodies were washed up on one of the main islands on 7th and 8th December that year. It is strange to visit an island one day (Eilean Mor in the Flannan Isles) from which three lighthouse keepers went missing which resulted in such a well-known story turned into films etc. Then the following day visiting islands from which two keepers disappeared (albeit under slightly less mysterious circumstances) and very little is known of it.

Once we had finished on the main islands we set off for Shillay. The old red brick lighthouse had been visible from a fair distance away due to the flat islands and elevation of the building. We obviously needed to get closer though. Landing on the island wasn’t too bad, although seaweed-covered rocks made it a little tricky. Once landed it was just a very short stroll to the old lighthouse and the modern lighthouse next to it.

The Stevenson and modern lighthouses on the island of Shillay

Now, the lighthouses here tell a very interesting story. On initial inspection you might think that the old lighthouse was replaced by the modern “flat-pack” lighthouse, and in a way you might be correct, but there’s more to it than that. The old lighthouse, which stands at 133ft, was first lit in February 1864 and operated until 1942 when it ceased to be used during the War. Once the war had ended a decision was taken that the light was no longer required and therefore it was not relit.

In 1997, alongside the lighthouses on nearby Haskeir (more to follow in the next post on that one) and Gasker off of North Harris, the new lighthouse was erected. However, in 2005, it was agreed that the new lighthouse did not offer the focal range required to safely guides ships in the area. As a result it was decided that the old light should be reinstated. The old lighthouse has been in use again since 2008.

It is fascinating to see the changing face of lighthouse structures in one location. Of course the old Stevenson structure is significantly more impressive and there is really no competition when it comes to the architecture. I, for one, am delighted that the old building is still being used and showing that those Stevensons really did know what they were talking about! 🙂

3 thoughts on “The Monachs – at last!

  1. I find this all very interesting and I would love to walk on this island!! The lighthouse is magnificent as it stands so very tall and represents itself in the finest display!! As you can see my interest, my maiden name is Monach!! I so enjoy any history that reflects the Monach name!! Thank you so very much for this impressive information…

    1. Thanks so much Charlotte, and what a great surname!
      All of the Monach Isles are beautiful and fascinating to visit. Not easy to get to as the sea needs to be calm, but we’ll worth it if you can. I think there might be a boat operator in South Uist who is going to start running trips there.

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