"She wanted to leave. She was unable to see the point in being out on a shelterless rock in a meaningless sea, under a muffled grey sky, where there are no loos and no baths, where there is not even a little copse or spinney in which one can sit down and read, where the house itself is little better than a shed, where the wind blows and blows and where your husband is for some reason obsessed with every fact and detail of this godforsaken nowhere."
Such is the enthusiasm for the Shiant Isles exhibited by the wife of Adam Nicolson, author of SEA ROOM. Adam is owner of these roughly six hundred acres distributed over three wave and wind ravaged islands in the Minch, that stretch of ocean lying between the Scottish island of Skye and the Outer Hebrides. Adam had inherited them from his father, who purchased them in 1937.
The author does indeed examine every fact and detail that can be known or surmised about this edge on civilization's margin: the art of getting there by small boat, the migratory bird life, its human history as revealed by archeology and public records, its geology, its successive native industries over the centuries (farming, fishing, kelping, sheepherding), and its weather. Occasionally, there's unintended humor, as when he describes the labors involved in transferring some cattle off the island by coastal steamer:
"The men waited below (the steamer) in the dinghy as the poor beast was lifted by its horns high into the air, bellowing at the indignity and with fear. Just as the animal was high above the gunwale, the men in the dinghy guiding it in by the tail, the bullock emptied the entire contents of its four stomachs over the men below. That was the last time any cattle were seen on the Shiants." Or, when he describes the equally valiant efforts of the rams (tups) sent to the islands to impregnate the resident ewes:
"The tups are put on in November, about eight or nine of them for the three hundred-odd ewes, and are taken off in February, knackered (exhausted)." Yes, well, that's the plight of us males everywhere regardless of species. It's a tough and thankless but necessary job.
Most of SEA ROOM is a sober narrative about ordinary life on, and the ecosystem of, the Shiants - ordinary with a capital "O". After all, through the centuries no more than perhaps thirty people have called the islands home at any one time. It was never the site of a great city, or the center of an empire, or the scene of heroic accomplishment beyond just making a life in a remote and inhospitable place. Indeed, the Shiants have lacked permanent human residents for the past hundred years. Thus, while Nicolson's magnificent prose makes the story reasonably interesting, it wasn't enough to earn more than four stars in my opinion ... that is, until the concluding chapter. It's because of these last pages, a heartfelt and poignant manifesto of the author's great and consuming love for this far-flung spot, a legacy for his son Tom, that I finally awarded five stars for the whole.
"I was left alone in the silence, with the pale sun on my face, and, as the dogs nosed for nothing in the grasses, I started to fall asleep there to the long, asthmatic rhythm of the surf. The islands embraced and enveloped me. Twenty yards to my left the Viking was asleep in his grave ..."