Non-Fiction November: ‘Sea Room: An Island Life’ by Adam Nicolson ****

I received a copy of Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room: An Island Life (2001) for Christmas. Sea Room is a non-fiction account of a series of three remote Scottish islands – collectively known as the Shiants, found five miles away from the larger island of Lewis and Harris – which the author was given by his father on the occasion of his 21st birthday. I settled down with Sea Room during the third lockdown, wishing more than anything that I still had the freedom to travel, and to explore places as uninhabited as the Shiants.

Interestingly, Sea Room provides the first instance in which anyone has written at length about the islands. Early on, Nicolson pronounces that this book forms ‘an attempt to tell the whole story, as I now understand it, of a tiny place in as many dimensions as possible: geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically and personally.’ Suffice to say, he has not left much out, and the history which he provides feels thorough and complex.

In his introduction, Nicolson writes at length about the perception others have of the Shiants. He comments: ‘The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out, and if their five hundred and fifty acres of grass and rock were buried deep in the mainland of Scotland as some unconsidered slice of moor on which a few sheep grazed, no one would ever have noticed them… [But] they stand out high and undoubtable…with black cliffs five hundred feet tall chopping into a cold, dark, peppermint sea, with seals lounging at their feet…’.

These islands offered only a single rustic bothy for accommodation, without either heating or water. The last permanent inhabitants of the Shiants left in 1901, the way of life no longer sustainable. He looks into how the very small community would have lived upon the islands; how they would have relied on a diet of fish and seabirds, and how difficult it was to grow fresh food. There is a focus upon migratory patterns of both birds and humans, and a real emphasis upon the anthropological.

The Shiants have made an enormous impression upon Nicolson: ‘I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have had no distance apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them.’ He writes beautifully about the islands, commenting: ‘The sea makes islands significant. They are defined by it, both wedded to it and implacably set against it, both a creation and a rejection of the element which makes them what they are.’

There is a lovely, circular feel to the Shiants. Nicolson’s father, Nigel – the son of Vita Sackville-West – purchased the islands for £1,400 during the 1930s, from novelist Compton Mackenzie, no less, and was adamant that they would form Nicolson’s 21st birthday present. The author writes that he is going to be passing the islands onto his own son, a teenager at the time of writing.

Sea Room was a wonderful diversion from the world, and whilst I did not love it as much as Nicolson’s focused account The Seabird’s Cry, I still got an awful lot out of it. Sea Room is a love letter to a place and space which many have not encountered before. It is a thoughtful, almost meditative account of what a place can mean, and its precise and lyrical prose is a real joy to escape with.