Sea Room by Adam Nicolson was first published in 2001 and it is very curate’s eggish – that is good in parts, however the good parts will probably be different for everyone that reads it, so it should be of interest and entertaining to various types of readers. Having said that – although I’m really interested in geology – that part didn’t work well for me because I think you really need good photographs to illustrate geology and the small black and white photos in the book don’t show any detail at all. On the book cover it says “the story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins” which are probably the most well-loved of birds, but in this book they are only mentioned as a means of the inhabitants of the past being able to survive by eating them, and nowadays they are eaten by the thousands of black rats that infest the islands. Nicolson does write poetically about the islands which he is obviously in love with. The Shiants were owned by the author Compton Mackenzie in the past.
Adam Nicolson, who is Vita Sackville-West’s grandson was given the three islands 5 miles off the coast of Lewis in north-west Scotland as a 21st birthday present from his father. The Shiants (Shants) as the islands are called had been used in recent years by a sheep farmer who rented the pasture and left the sheep to get on with it until they were big enough for market. The only habitable house is lived in now and again by Adam Nicolson, although at the end of the book he claims that anyone who wants to visit the place can have the key to it! But this book is like a love letter to the wild place and its atmosphere and he covers it from all angles, history, geography, geology, the wildlife, the people who inhabited the place in the past. There’s quite a lot of humour from the real locals who live on the bigger islands and who generously enable Nicolson to live on his islands for a short time each year – and clean him up at the end of his sojourn. I suspect that it is their very good manners which guide them as I can’t imagine that an old Etonian landowner such as Nicolson goes down all that well locally.
For me it was the social history parts which were most interesting, the desperate struggle that people in the past had to keep body and soul together, living on puffins, sea bird eggs and large amounts of limpets.
Adam Nicolson sees the islands as a place for men, well neither of his wives took to the place at all and who can blame them, having to camp out in a tent as it seems safer than being in the house due to the rat population there. It seems like Nicolson has taken to the nth degree that shed bolt-hole idea that so many men cling to. He plans to hand the islands on to his eldest son eventually, whom he hopes will hang on to them and love them as much as he does. Apparently if they ever do come onto the market again there will be a chance of a community buy out, something which the Scottish Government has instituted for areas such as the islands.
One thing that the puffins have to thank Nicolson for is his refusal to turn the islands over to the RSPB who wanted to turn the whole place into a destination for birdwatchers, with all the necessary paths, cafe, toilets and such which go with large amounts of galumphing human beings.
You can see images of the islands here.