Recently, I watched a pair of films on BBC Four presented by Adam Nicolson. In The Last Seabird Summer? he took us to the Shiant islands in the Outer Hebrides, given to him on his 21st birthday by his father, which he said ‘have been the most important thing in my life’. Every spring sees the phenomenal spectacle of a sky thick with tens of thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills as they arrive on the Shiants from far out in the North Atlantic to breed.
But there’s a crisis that threatens to end this remarkable show: although the numbers on the Shiants are holding up, in the last fifteen years in Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the seabird population has been lost. In The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explored the reasons why this is happening, and how in places like the Shiants there has been long history of dependence on seabirds: thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers.
Watching the programmes, I was reminded that for some time there had been a copy of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room in the house, in which he told the story of how he inherited the Shiants from his father, his love for these lonely, uninhabited islands, and his exploration of their geology and history, and of the lives of the people who once lived and made their living on these remote islands. I decided to read Sea Room.
In Sea Room, Adam Nicolson tells how, for his 21st birthday, his father gave him the Shiants, three islands in the stretch of sea called the Minch that separates the Outer Hebrides from the Scottish mainland. The elder Nicolson had purchased them on a whim in 1937 from the novelist Compton Mackenzie. The book is Adam Nicolson’s description ‘of what my father gave to me and of what … I shall give to my son’.
My islands are not a place from which to exclude others’, he writes.
I have derived more richness from the Shiants than from anywhere else on earth. I have felt utterly sustained for years at a time by this wild and magnificent place. […] I may be in possession of the deeds of the Shiants, I may love them more than anywhere else on earth, but I do not feel that I have anything resembling an exclusive right to them, or that any landlord could.
Sea Room is an account of Nicolson’s delvings into every aspect of the islands he loves: their geology, the history of their human settlement and the reasons for their abandonment, and the stories of the people who made their living from cultivating the rich island soils and fishing the surrounding wild seas. But it’s clear that for Nicolson it’s the seabirds that arrive every summer to breed – over 150,000 puffins, along with prodigious numbers of razorbills, guillemots, shags, kittiwakes and fulmars – which are at the heart of his love for the islands.
The Shiants are one of the most important bird places of Europe (the puffins that return each spring to breed form about one in eight of the British total and two per cent of all the puffins in the world). The birds come because the islands offer safety: no humans, and no predators (other than 10,0000 black rats). But, in The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explained that, although the birds on the Shiants are thriving, colonies of seabirds in other parts of Britain and northern Europe are in an increasingly desperate situation. Where seabirds are being hit hardest, the problem seems to be out at sea where they find their food: disruption to the food chain caused by ocean pollution, over-fishing, and climate change.
The continued health of the Shiant seabird colonies is, therefore, considered vital, and in the first film Nicolson observed the first stages of a major plan by the RSPB to eradicate the black rats on the islands – not just to protect the birds already here, but to strengthen and grow the colonies to serve as a ‘seed bank’, a kind of insurance for what might lie ahead.
But, typical of Nicolson’s questing mind, having begun with this example of how in Britain our relationship with the seabirds is now one of conservation, he went on to examine how Hebridean islanders in the past viewed the puffins as a source of protein, one that reliably arrived in the spring just as winter had exhausted their food supplies. In the BBC films he travelled to places where communities still hunt the puffins. In Iceland, home to over half the world’s puffins, he joined a group of men as they caught puffins, and then ate barbecued puffin with them.
While the puffin colonies on the Shiants colonies are doing well, in Iceland and elsewhere he discovered that the sea is failing to provide the birds with the food they need to survive. He examined several explanations, but the most likely seems to be disruption of the food chain by climate change and pollution. In Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the birds have been lost and, further afield in Iceland, Adam found colonies where nearly all the birds have been wiped out.
‘Sea room’ is a sailing term which Nicolson adopts in his book to signify ‘the sense of enlargement which island life can give you’. Sea Room examines the geology, flora and fauna, and history of the Shiants, which lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the ‘stream of blue men’, after legendary water spirits who sailors once feared.
For millennia the isles were a haven for those seeking solitude – men such as an eighth-century hermit, the novelist Compton Mackenzie, Nicolson’s father and himself – but, as Nicolson describes, the islands have a long and rich history of human habitation. The soil is rich and people have lived off the land, the sea and the birds for millennia – leaving traces of their existence on the landscape. So keen is Nicolson to understand this history that he invites archaeologists, including a leading expert on the history of the Hebridean landscape to stay on the islands and dig.
The Shiants are rich: in the kind of island beauty to which, it is clear, men have been drawn over many thousands of years; in soils and natural fertility; in the seas around them thick with plankton, and with the layers of predatory fish and sea birds stacked four or five tiers above that. These islands in their season are the hub for millions of bird and animal lives, as dynamic as any trading floor, a theatre of competition and enrichment. They are the centre of their own universe, the organising node in a web of connections, both human and natural, which extends first to the surrounding seas, then to the shores on all sides and beyond that, along the seaways that stretch for thousands of miles along the margins of the Atlantic and on into the heartlands of Europe.
One of Nicolson’s most interesting insights is how the islands have become more, not less, remote in modern times:
For all the illusion of remoteness, the Shiants have never been parochial. They are part of the whole world and are a profoundly human landscape, the subject of stories, songs and poems.
Nicolson recounts the tantalising story of the Shiant torc which might – or might not – suggest that the islands were close to regular shipping routes from Ireland to Scotland, around the Scottish coastline, and possibly even from further afield.
One day in the 1980s, Kenny Cunningham, fishing for scallops in the Minch close to the Shiants, hauled aboard a piece of gold coloured wire about two feet long. For a year it lay forgotten in his boat’s toolbox, alongside the spanners and screwdrivers, until he was encouraged to take it along to the recording of an episode of The Antiques Roadshow.
It turned out that the nondescript piece of wire was a 3,200-year-old gold torc, fashioned out of very pure gold by a craftsman in the Bronze Age. Only three other torcs have been found this far north, and this one was probably not crafted in Scotland, but in Wales, Ireland or southern England. There is growing evidence that Bronze Age people did cross the seas to trade, so the torc could have been imported to Scotland as a wedding gift, or to seal a friendship between chieftains. Or, speculates Nicolson, the torc may have been cast overboard as a religious offering. What seems certain is that a sea trip was involved.
‘The geese leave as the spring comes’, writes Nicolson. ‘Their absence marks the opening of the days. I have never seen that visionary moment, but whatever it is that the geese sense in the air, I know it too.’ Like countless others before him, Nicolson sets out for the islands in his own boat as soon as the calmer ocean currents and sea breezes of a spring day allow. This moment ‘of ecstatic ease’ is, he writes, the significant historical fact:
Anywhere that can be reached on a calm day will be reached. What matters is the invitation, not the threat, and if there is an opening, people will take it. That is why the Shiants are as much part of the human world as anywhere else. […]
The peopling of the Shiants is only one fragment of an endless chain. That is why this crossing of a potentially alarming sea, at a moment which is picked because the weather is kind and the spring is coming, because the tide is running with you and the sun is out, when you can see where you are going and you have everything you need, is one of the deepest of all histrical experiences.
Sea Room is one of the great books about a place – its landscape, wildlife and the people who have left their traces on the earth’s surface and in old documents, legends and oft-retold stories. Adam Nicolson draws his book to a close observing that ‘the time I have had on the Shiants is coming to an end’. Soon, as he promised, he will hand their ownership over to his son Tom on his 21st birthday.
That was some fifteen years ago, but the pair of films he has made for BBC Four reveal that his love affair with the islands isn’t over. He and his son still care passionately for the Shiants: in the films we see the arrival of an RSPB team, invited by the Nicolsons to help maintain the strength of the puffin colony through a programme to eradicate the thousands of black rats that inhabit the islands, probably coming ashore after a shipwreck.
Adam concludes Sea Room by recalling an autumn day ‘when the whole of the Hebrides lies cold and still around you, the hills in Skye washed purple, the mountains in the Uists a faded, sea-washed blue’. Climbing to a high point on the main island he lies down in the grass.
I was … 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.