Sea Room: An Island Life

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9780002571647: Sea Room: An Island Life

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to own your own set of islands?

20 years ago it happened to Adam Nicolson. His father had answered a newspaper advertisement in the ‘30s. ‘Uninhabited islands for sale’, it said. ‘Outer Hebrides. 600 acres. 500 ft basaltic cliffs. Puffins and seals. Cabin. Apply Col. Kenneth Macdonald, Portree, Skye.’ These were the Shiants, three of the loneliest of the British Isles, set in a dangerous sea, with no more than a stone-built, rat-ridden bothy as accommodation, five miles or so off the coast of Lewis. They cost £1400 and for that he bought one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Adam Nicolson inherited the islands when he was 21, an astonishing gift, and they became in many ways the core of his life. This is the first time he has told the full story of his own experiences there, amid the dazzling concentration of birds, crowds guillemots, razorbills, great skuas and 240,000 puffins coming in every spring out of the North Atlantic to breed; the violence and danger of the surrounding seas; the songs and poems which cluster around the islands; the accounts of attemped murder, witchcraft and catastophe; the treasured place which the Shiants still hold in the Hebridean mind

Sea Room describes the Shiants as a microcosm of richness, their long and at times painful history combined with a natural world at its most potent: Bronze Age gold and the memory of sea eagles, an 8th-century hermit and his carved pillow stone, 18th-century memories soaked into the landscape and stories passed down from generation to generation. This is not the account of a castaway on a deserted rock but its opposite, a celebration of life which an extraordinary island enshrines.

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Review:

Biographies are supposed to deal with people, not places, but Adam Nicolson's lyrical new book, Sea Room, is best seen as a biography. Dealing with the geology, history, natural history, sociology, and emotional resonance of the Shiants--a trio of Hebridean Islands between Skye and Harris --Nicolson's book is an all-encompassing characterisation of this remote corner of the British Isles.

Nicolson begins by describing how, inheriting the islands from his father as a young man, the islands have come to have an unusually deep meaning for him. This comes out in his painstaking reconstruction of the geological formation of the islands, of their ancient bronze and iron age settlements, and of the harsh lives of the families that lived here until large-scale economies destroyed traditional Hebridean life.

There is much sadness and anger in Nicolson's account of these changes, but also joy--joy at the richness of life in such a place, and joy that these changes have allowed Nicolson himself to experience the Shiants' beauty. The precision with which almost every inch of the islands' physical and historical identities are described is, literally, marvellous; Nicolson eschews generalities, and writes with a love of detail that is increasingly rare. Although the book is a little maudlin at times, this is only the reflection of Nicolson's own sensitivity to the place. The Shiants are anthropomorphised, becoming a character in their own right, proof that the tiniest place can reflect the passage of time. --Toby Green

Review:

Praise for Adam Nicolson's Perch Hill:

'A delight, beautifully written, acutely observed and laced with self-mockery' Jonathan Dimbleby in the The Times

'By turns ecstatic, elegant, subtle and philosophical' Richard Mabey

'A timely reminder that the very best writing starts at home.' Robert McCrum in The Observer

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