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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.
For his 21st birthday, Nicolson's father gave him some islands among the Scottish Outer Hebrides, 600 acres worth of land that the elder Nicolson had purchased on a whim in 1937. At various times, the Sussex-based writer recalls, the Shiant islands "have been the most important thing in my life," and he has produced a vivid, meticulously researched paean to his "heartland," examining its geology, its flora and fauna, and its history as he reminisces about his own idylls there. The islands, now uninhabited except by the Nicolsons, are outcroppings of grass and rock and stark black cliffs, surrounded by churning waters that are notoriously difficult to negotiate. Until 1901, they were continuously inhabited for thousands of years by an eighth-century hermit, medieval farmers, Irish Jacobite rebels and others documented by Nicolson. The islands are also an important breeding station for birds, and Nicolson observes the comings and goings of geese, puffins and razorbills. Throughout the book, Nicolson explores the troubling idea of ownership; Hebrideans view English landowners with a mix of resentment and derision, and Nicolson acknowledges that his rights to the islands, like those of previous landlords, are morally ambiguous. His mix of scholarship, reflection and lyrical description brings his beloved atolls to life, and the genre-bending book should win some fans among those interested in nature writing and memoir.