01 Sep The Shiant Isles with Katie Tunn
Towards the end of summer, I made my way up through the highlands on my way to Skye, to catch a boat to the Shiant Isles. I was about to spend six days on a remote, uninhabited island with no infrastructure, in the company of eleven women I had never met.
Tom Nicolson owns the Shiant isles, and you can read his father’s book The Sea Room about the isles to understand more about their history. Tom and his family kindly open the islands to be visited, thus allowing Katie to share her experience of the Shiants with us. This was Katie’s first experiment in hosting a trip to an island with people she didn’t know, so in some ways it was an instinctive and exquisite experiment.
If you’d like to learn more about Katie, I would recommend you visit her website, as it is not my place to tell her beautiful story. But I will tell you how I experienced this life changing week with Katie and ten other inspiring women.
The reasons I booked it:
One evening, at dusk, we had just put the boys to sleep, and I was sat on the end of our bed, crying. Jon was sat across from me, recovering from the bedtime gauntlet. He was faced with a 37 year old women feeling like her life was escaping her grasp. I cried, and I bawled. About so many things. Ageing, my body changing, figuring out who I am as I approach 40, releasing the past, understanding who I am right now instead of trying to get back to someone I once was.
Jon listened, and once I had spoken he said ‘I think you need to do this.’
He showed me Katie’s instagram account and the adventure she was planning. I read the list of activities: camping, swimming, snorkelling, cooking, seaweed searching, whiskey tasting. I burst into tears, all over again. After years of batting off suggestions of yoga treats as a way of disconnecting from the world, this felt like the ultimate tonic. I felt so inspired by what Katie had laid out, and the way she was presenting it, I was trembling with excitement. It felt like a leap. To leave the boys, to journey so far and to be by the sea for an entire week with a group of women I didn’t know.
One of the brilliant things that Katie did was put us in touch with each other before we got there. We created a WhatsApp group where we could organise our trips and share the cost of petrol. I was so bloody lucky to get Claire: a dairy farmer, horse breeder and outdoors enthusiast. She collected me in Cumbria where we were staying with friends, greeting me with the most gorgeous joy, both her and her French bull dog Edmund. I was hungover from too much wine with our Cumbrian friends, dehydrated and nervous. Yet Claire was warm and open, a perfect companion for the twelve hour road trip that lay ahead of us.
After many pit stops, including swimming in waterfalls in Glencoe, stopping at every beautiful spot to take a million photos that will ultimately end up on a hard drive, offering Edmund plenty of poo spots and a gourmet take away meal from Morrsion’s at Fort William, we found our way to the Isle of Skye.
As we drove onto Skye, Claire screamed ‘Java!!! Look at the sky!! Look!!’ as she kept her eye on the road and barely dared to turn her head, I looked out her window and saw a ginormous, golden, low hanging full moon. Like a medallion around the belt of Skye. It was the night of the Blue Moon and it felt significant. When I retired to bed in Katie’s beautiful home, my room was flooded with moonlight, a beautiful invitation for the week ahead.
We gathered at The Stein Inn.
Charlie was so lovely that she offered us teas, coffees and two huge pots of mushroom risotto (locally sourced obvs) and a pot of tomato Dahl. We sat on the grass and tried to get to know each other as we assembled. I guess this is how The Avengers must feel. So many super powers in one space, it can be intimidating.
The thoughts that ran through my head: I want to know as much as I can about these incredible women, but I’m a bit scared of them, so I will ask as many questions as I can to try and hide this.
On the Shiants:
We arrived on the Shiants with the team from St Kilda. An incredible team who made us feel safe and indulged our and their love of sea wildlife by turning the boat in every possible way to catch sight of a whale or a dolphin.
On our first evening, Calum and Miguel created, probably the most exquisite meal I have seen or tasted. We ate seaweed crisps, wild shoreline vegetables, pickled carrots, pollock caught on the boat we had travelled across on, then barbecued on the fire, and chanterelles found on Skye. The menu was mainly vegan with a bit of space for non vegan friends. That night we sat by the fire and after many wines I poured out my story about losing our daughter Alma, immediately felt self conscious that I had burdened the gentle listeners, and stumbled back to my tent.
The next morning, I woke up and peered out over the water. In the distance, stood atop a rock, I could see the silhouette of a figure in what looked like a sea weed dress, spaghetti strings swishing like 1920’s tassels. A walking mermaid.
Feeling slightly embarrassed about my outpouring the night before, I took myself off for a swim. The stones were delicate tones of grey, pink and blue, with round edges that hurt my feet. The water was silken and clear, I wanted to continue swimming but felt a strange sense of time limit. I still couldn’t understand that I had time to simply be. So I returned to my tent and I cried. I felt such intense discomfort, having to sit with myself, confront myself. No ‘To Do List’. Simply myself and eleven women I felt slightly intimidated by.
But it felt cathartic and necessary. I had intended on spending the week alone, drawing and writing. But all I could do was cry and grieve. For our daughter, for my former self. And when I had cried enough, I realised that I couldn’t help but be drawn to these women. Maybe this trip wasn’t about drawing and writing. Maybe this trip was about connection, with myself and with others.
And so I decided to embrace this unexpected shift in focus. I spent most of my days sat in or around the bothy, in company, listening and talking. We shared our stories, our insecurities, our fears, our loves. We went on walks, we watched the sea and the sunset, we swam and foraged, snorkelled (this was my first time), cooked vats of pasta and paella, baked seaweed bread, poured each other drinks. It felt like we were holding each other while the bothy held us. Katie shared her vast knowledge about the island and the wildlife, and with her gentle, open nature she allowed us all to feel at ease in our new environment and with each other.
On the Saturday morning, with four hours sleep and a myriad of gin cocktails still dancing through my veins, I faced the sea and skyline I had woken up to each morning. I thanked her for the light, the birds, the mist, the the colours, the glow. It was time to pack up our belongings and leave the haven we had created for six days. As the boat left the island waters, yet more salty tears met the salty sea. Sleep deprived and overwhelmed by the experience, I sat silently in the boat’s cabin, trying to process what I was feeling. And then the dolphins appeared, a swim of maybe five dolphins, diving, jumping, twirling, playing. Everyone ran to the side to see them accompany us away from the Shiant Isles. Our leaving party.
We had a final meal at the Stein Inn, no longer strangers but friends. We hugged and cried and hugged again, endlessly thanking each other and Katie for this magnificent experience.
There is so much I have learned and taken away from this time, but here are a few things that feel particularly strong:
- We can connect with ourselves in solitude, but we can also reconnect with ourselves through listening and sharing with others.
- Be patient, try not to judge, the things we may find intimidating about people are often an accumulation of barriers we all build up around ourselves.
- In friendship lies true magic. It is also most definitely found in the sea and on the Scottish isles.
As I said to Sarah as we walked away from the Stein Inn and towards our journey home , ‘Who knew you could go to an uninhabited island and find some of your favourite people?’