Adam Nicolson was just twenty-one when he inherited the Shiants, a trio of wild and desolate islands in the North Sea, off the coast of Lewis, which had been bought by his father in the 1930s for £1,400. His grandmother, Vita Sackville-West, had spotted a classified advertisement in the Daily Telegraph, which now reads as if it was scripted for an old Ealing comedy: ‘Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides. 600 acres. 500 ft basaltic cliffs. Puffins and Seals. Cabin. Apply Col Kenneth Macdonald, Portree, Skye.’ Or perhaps this is really the prototype for the current spate of ‘survivor’ television programmes, such as Castaway, where people voluntarily leave their warm homes to enjoy nature at its harshest.
What soon becomes apparent in Sea Room is that the Nicolson family love life in this wind-blasted, rat-infested outpost of rock, turf and surf, which also happens to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Nigel Nicolson relished the unique chance to buy an island kingdom, a wild and romantic refuge where he could escape into what he felt was another dimension, away from anything remotely civilised or manufactured. After purchasing the Shiants (for the same price as he would then have had to pay for a Jacobean manor house) he described his joy to his brother Ben in 1937: ‘I would wake up the next morning to find the sun in a sky as pure as a Bavarian virgin,’ the then twenty-year-old Balliol undergraduate jested. ‘I would lie all morning with no clothes on, on a rock overlooking the sea, reading and annotating Hegel … The view from the top is such as only Greece could parallel,’ he gushed, before deflating his purple-prose moment: ‘One becomes very Golden Bough in these conditions, I’m afraid.’
Well, the bug for these islands has been passed on. Adam has caught it big time too, and he has poured his passion for these tiny specks of land, barely discernible on any map, into a 381-page paean to its wild and untameabl e crags. The result is lyrical, compelling, earthy, always readable, and often surprising. It is also a palpably exciting narrative as he tangles with nature at its Force Ten extreme. Sissinghurst may not have been completely ousted as the place primarily associated with the Nicolsons, but the Shiants (pronounced shant , as in rant) are now firmly on the literary map. And I say this having picked up Sea Room with some doubt as to whether l would enjoy it at all. Like Adam Nicolson, I own a remote and beautiful plot of ancient land in the north of Scotland, which I, too, inherited. But to write a book explaining and amplifying an atavistic love of ownership or stewardship ran the risk of being embarrassingly self-indulgent and sentimental. I did wonder if this talented travel writer had run out of places to go. I was wrong. Nicolson’s book is an adventure story with Hemingway highs and is also unselfconscious, wonderfully idiosyncratic, and, above all, beautifully written.
There are terrifying sea journeys, discoveries of Bronze Age gold, eighth-century legends, and recalcitrant laird-hating locals, all keenly observed and researched through an intensely personal lens. And I mean personal. We learn, for instance, that Nicolson uses seaweed instead of loo paper when he is staying on the Shiant Isles. Not only that, he gives handy tips for exactly what sort of seaweed is best for this purpose. Not laminaria (too leathery), not serrated wrack (too prickly) and not any red seaweed (disintegrates too easily). His seaweed of choice is the suitably named bladder wrack. And he brushes his teeth in a stream, using as a sort of natural alternative to toothpaste a sprig of the watermint that grows there.
Nicolson shares his passion with the reader, and cannot help but make us long for the beauty of the Shiants, whose allure is all the more potent because they are islands, cut off from any land. ‘Islands, because of their isolation, are revelatory, places where the boundaries are wafer-thin … something of this sense of holiness on islands comes, I think, from this strange elastic geography.’ Well, Adam too gets a little bit Golden Bough at times; but then paradise is a heady cocktail, even if it does come with puffins and sea spray.