A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Shiants, pronounced Shants, are three little tiny specks of islands. Two of them Eilean Garbh (Rough Island) and Eilean an Tighe (the Isle of the House) are joined by the narrowest neck of strand, the other Eilean Mhuire (Mary’s Island) detached and curving into the shape they make. They are located in The Minch, the sound between the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and close as they are to Harris and Lewis they cause another obstacle in that notoriously hazardous stretch of water, and squeeze the tides into an even more turbulent channel. They are full of paradoxes – hard to access, wild, home to colonies of innumerable seabirds, yet hospitable to human existence, fertile and lush. They have been continuously inhabited and farmed since prehistory, the last human habitation just about clinging on because sheep thrive so well on the islands. There is one house (on Eilean an Tighe, naturally), more of a bothy, with clean water from streams, wells and pools.
Since the early 20th century they have been in the ownership of the Nicolson family, first bought by Harold Nicolson, the husband of Vita Sackville-West, who made a gift of them to their son Nigel Nicolson when he was 21, who in turn did the same for his son Adam. This book was written by Adam Nicolson just as he contemplated the gift of the islands to his son Tom in 2005. It is an intriguing family tradition, to own and absorb the islands for a limited time, to know how long you have got in which to live with them as you wish. Adam Nicolson’s love for them is profound, and marked by an intense curiosity that informs this book, his biography of the Shiants. Way back in medieval times, the Lords of these islands were briefly the Nicolsons, so there is a sense of return. In it he takes a little time to explore what it means to be the possessor of a piece of the earth, not entirely a comfortable thought, and makes a passing reference to the fact that he is aligned with the ‘Lairds’, which is not pleasing to all Hebrideans.
The first sense we get of the islands is of how well they protect themselves from the rest of the world by danger. Nicolson has a boat built of traditional pattern, and sails single-handed for the first time across the sound from Harris. Even on a well-chosen day of relatively fair weather, the journey is full of fear and hazard, and is a good introduction to the respect these tiny islands should command. As with so many islands, the landmass under the sea is far larger than the visible land above it, and this further constricts the tide and adds to the hidden obstacles. A reef of rocks and islets, the Galtas, is also a magnet for the unwary. This journey establishes the structure of the book: the story of Nicolson’s involvement with the Shiants, interwoven with their own story, which is of geology, natural history, human history and place in the life of their surroundings. He explores what it means to ‘own’ a place on the earth like this, and his response is to learn as much as possible about it and record it so that it is not lost.
The islands sit in a curve formed by North Harris, Scalpay and a remote part of Lewis called Pairc, and the people who know it and form Nicolson’s community are scattered around this mainland. The care of the sheep on the island passes from one shepherd to another. The traditional boat-builder knows what boat will weather best the particular sea conditions of the Minch. Others have family memories that help build a picture of the place of the Shiants in the story of the Hebrides. All these people are voices in the book.
The story of the islands is as old as the hills. It shares geology with other outcrops of that distinctive columnar dolerite rock that outcrops on Staffa and ends at the Giant’s Causeway. The description of the geological forces that formed it is told in a truly gripping fashion, and there is a note of terror in the knowledge of how treacherous it can be – the columns shift and break apart, making climbing dangerous. Everything about these islands has vivid life about it. The cliffs are home to colonies of seabirds, in their thousands and even hundreds of thousands, and Nicolson tells us about their life cycles – kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars and especially puffins, of which there are hundreds of thousands (or were – in the ten years or more since the book was written populations have crashed, owing to climate change and over-exploitation of their food sources). The shores are covered in season by migrating barnacle geese. Everything about the shoreline is profusion. The signs of continuous human habitation lie buried, and Nicolson invites archaeologist Patrick Foster and his team to peel back the layers, finding evidence of prehistoric and medieval habitation. But the history of the islands in recorded time is a microcosm of what happened to the Scottish Highlands and islands since the 16th century: fertile land, agriculture, thriving communities, rapacious landlords, clearances, and sheep, with the added danger of the surrounding sea.
This book explores the islands in all four dimensions: length, breadth, depth and through time, in lyrical and passionate prose. My paperback edition is copiously illustrated in black and white, though many of the photos are uncaptioned and a little grainy. I must see what the original hardback looked like. The maps on the other hand are crystal-clear, informative and fascinating.
I love islands, and I love the west of Scotland, so this is a book that I devoured with deep appreciation. I wondered aloud in an earlier review if I would ever be able to read a piece of nature writing again without needing to know what the writer is running from. This book is different: there is introspection and autobiography, but essentially it a story of someone running towards something – a growing love and a growing attachment to a beautiful, wild, dangerous place, along with the knowledge that, by his own volition, one day he would let it go and pass on the privilege of learning to love it.
Adam Nicolson: Sea Room. An Island Life. Paperback ed. London: Harper Collins, 2004. 256pp
ISBN 13: 9780006532019
(My paperback edition of 2002 has 391pp. I cannot trace an ebook version)