Priest Island is the most exposed and southerly island of the Summer Isles. It is currently owned by the RSPB as it is an important breeding ground for Seabirds, particularly the Storm Petrel. It has good fertile ground which gets its enrichment from salt spray and bird guano, which enables more species-rich maritime heath and cliff communities to exist around the coast. The island is home to one of the largest storm petrel colonies in the UK.
The island has an intriguing history with evidence of settlements at different times in its history. According to the Gazetteer for Scotland the island was an “early Christian retreat”, hence its name. The naturalist Havie Brown visited the island in the 1880s and describes, “the remains of old crofts, and a curious and perfect circle of stones, lying flat on their sides with the smaller ends towards a common centre, and sunk flush with the surface of the short green sward”. Brown returned to the island several times to search and sketch his findings.
Perhaps the most notorious tale is of Sidney ‘Jim’ Miller, 56, and John Bellord, 48, two men on the run from the law, aided and abetted by Geoff Green. They hid on Priest Island for 262 days from September 1975 until the summer of 1976. They lived between three tents, carefully positioned within the ruins of a croft house.
Their story made front-page headlines and was the subject of two television documentaries. Police and Interpol investigated sightings across Europe, Australia, South Africa and the UK, however, Miller and Bellord were to remain undetected on Priest Island for 10 months. Eventually the pair were found in the Roselea bed and Breakfast in Ullapool after coming to the mainland for supplies. They were each imprisoned for 6 years for their crimes.
On one such occasion a near tragedy happened. Four crofters and the boatman went out to Priest Island to recover the wintered lambs in the spring at some point in the early 1960s. A rope got caught in the propeller of the boat. Three of the men had managed to make it onto the island and two of the men remained on the boat trying to cut the rope. However, the wind got up and they drifted further out to sea. Finally they managed to free the propeller, but as the boat didn’t have navigation lights, they had to spend the night sheltering in a cave. In the days before modern communication families were distraught with worry that they had been lost.
Crofters from the mainland have had grazing rights on most of the Summer Isles for generations. The island’s relatively mild winters are largely free from snow and frost which allows lambs to thrive during the winter. However, transporting the sheep was not an easy task. The Island has few suitable landing places, as most of the island is rocky and steep. Many crofters felt that the risks to land the sheep were worth it to ensure the flocks had a good secure pasture for the winter.
Header Image: General oblique aerial view of Priest Island, looking to the S: 19/7/2012, RCAHMS Aerial Photography Digital, Catalogue Number DP 139199, Copyright: RCAHMS
Jim Miller and John Belord: The Scotsman, 13th June 2017.
Forrest, William (fl. 1799-1832), Plan of the Summer Isles Copied from the Original by Wm Forrest Ld Surveyor, Edinburgh 1805. https://maps.nls.uk/view/215339056 Copyright: NLS ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’