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Review: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002))
Having inherited, at the age of 21, the Shiants, three small islands east of the Outer Hebrides, Nicolson wrote this book as ‘a love letter to them’ before handing them over to his son. He describes them as ‘the most powerful absence I know’, an apparently bleak and uninhabited example of the lifelong hold a place can have on people.
Sea Room is a lyrical, thoughtful meditation on our relationship to place, to the wild, to islands and the sea, and on life strategies, human and otherwise. ‘Sea room’ is a sailing term Nicolson uses to mean ‘the sense of enlargement that island life can give you’, and spending time on the islands is like surrounding yourself with an ocean of possibility, open horizons and expansiveness. But also resilience and ingenuity despite bad weather and dangerous seas; the island as a metaphor for life fighting to survive against the odds:
‘They are the not-sea within the sea, standing against the sea’s chaos and erosive power, but framed by it, enshrined by it. In that way, every island is an assertion in an ocean of denials, the one positive gesture against an almost overwhelming bleakness. The state of siege is creative and an island, in short, is life set against death.’ 14
The islands were inhabited for millennia, reached by Bronze age boats of remarkably enduring technology:
Their heavy oak planks were laced together with lashings made of yew, part of the sewn boat tradition that extends around northern Europe, through the Baltic and across the Kola peninsula to northern Russia. … The seams had been made watertight by squeezing moss between the huge oak planks. John Macaulay knew a man whose father was still doing the same in the Hebrides early in the twentieth century, the only difference being that he soaked the moss in Stockholm tar. 117
The link between the sea and the islands is reflected in the richness of place-names, many now lost:
‘That is the reason all mountains in the Hebrides have Norse names: they are the only seamarks in foul weather.’ 119
And the detailed knowledge that comes of deep rootedness in a place is also reflected in a plethora of names, described by Christina Shaw from Harris:
‘There wasn’t the length between here and the gate that we didn’t have a name for, which is not the case nowadays. Every ben and every mound and every hill… I could name them all.’
‘The place-names of the Shiants record not memories but forgetfulness, the washing away of human lives, the fragility and tissue-thin vulnerability of human culture to the erosion of time.’ 74
The fragility of human life and culture on the islands wasn’t just due to time and climate but also to aggression; the Hebrides were first plundered from the north in 798, causing something like cultural annihilation:
‘A settlement which had been there, in much the same form, for five hundred years was razed and immediately built over. Everything which the earlier inhabitants had used in the way of buildings, pots, bonework, metalwork, plates and buckets disappeared overnight in the middle of the 9th century, to be replaced by their Viking equivalents.’ 171
In its archaeological and cultural examination of human habitation on the islands, which dated from the Bronze Age and began petering out in the 17th or 18th centuries, Nicolson provides vivid and touching insights into the struggle for survival, and the need to cherish and care for a limited range of available materials in a harsh context.
‘Birds, fish, livestock, vegetables and cereals, clay, peat, driftwood, stone: these were the materials out of which life was made. Metal was nearly absent. Roofs, creels and fish-traps, even the strakes of boats, weren’t pinned or nailed but woven or bound together with ropes made from heather, hair, grass or roots.’ 209
How easily we look at rough old ruins and imagine primitive inhabitants. Yet historians and archaeologists can uncover great knowledge and intelligence adapted to climate and other constraints, yielding multifunctional benefits. The innovation of the long, low ‘blackhouse’ which appeared in the 17th century is a model of place-sensitive design:
‘Its narrow width is governed by the shortage of timber on the isles and its length by the need to shelter more than a family from the weather … It was always built on a slight slope so that the liquors from the manure heap would run out at the far end, rather than pollute the hearth … The smoke from the central hearth filled the house’s roof and worked as a fungicide to preserve the timbers, which were precious. Meat and fish hung there and were cured in the smoke. Midges, mosquitoes, wood-beetle and other pests were killed off. The sharing of the space with the animals not only provided extra heat in the house, but protected the dung heap and its precious nutrients from the rain.’ 239
A surprising outcome of this ‘primitive’ living was that tuberculosis had a far lower incidence than elsewhere in the country, matched only by dairymaids, for similar reasons:
‘It turned out that blackhouses had a sophisticated internal air flow, meaning that heat rising from the cattle and their dung heap carried a weak solution of ammonia (from the urine) across into the human half of the house, where the people breathed it. A weak solution of ammonia, inhaled regularly, is known to prevent TB. Dairymaids were breathing the same air.’ 239-40
The lack of timber and other materials also translated into millennia of reuse. We make a song and dance about recycling and reuse but we are still only doing it at a minimal level over very short periods of time, at least as compared with the reuse of available material that creates a dilemma for archaeologists:
‘Not only are the materials of one age, even one millennium, barely distinguishable from those of another, but one age consistently uses the materials of another. A modern sheep pen or fank reuses the stones of a 19th century summer shieling, which reuses the stones of a 17th century house which reuses stones of an Iron Age roundhouse, which has itself reused the remains of a Bronze Age dwelling. An island can only survive by recycling.’ 209-210
This is also reflected in some beautiful exchanges on the nature of making, which is to say, making things well, to last, with all the robustness needed to handle harsh conditions over the long-term, drawing on deep accretions of skill:
‘I felt a little fat in his presence, mentally fat, from the world beyond here, the world of cheap options and short cuts, the world of ‘most boats’, where the rigour of this man and his workshop was not applied.’ 20
The boat-maker buries a 1941 three-penny bit in the woodwork, the year of his birth, before handing it over to its proud new owner:
‘It’ll last longer than you,’ he said, and then turning away, ‘There are boats at Geocrab, the next bay up, that are more than a hundred years old and they’re still sailing.’
‘And do you think I’ll make a good sailor of her?’
‘If you had another life,’ John said.
‘Ah yes,’ I said, reeling a little, ‘I suppose one needs to know these things instinctively.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘You need to be entirely conscious of what you are doing and why you are doing it.’ 21
One of the most long-lasting things found, in the sea around the islands, is also one of the most delicate: a Bronze-age golden torc. Unravelling its purpose and how it came to be in the sea takes some piecing together, and leads to some astonishing insights into the possible workings of the Bronze-age mind, which also raise questions about our own reactions to climate change:
‘Conditions began to decline towards the end of the second millennium BC. The weather worsened. The land which had been taken in for agriculture throughout this Atlantic fringe of Europe started to become difficult.’ 123
One response seems to have been a kind of generosity contest, perhaps something we can relate to only in terms of philanthropic endowments of libraries and concert halls.
‘A gift exerts power over its recipient. The recipient remains in debt to his benefactor. And he can only absolve himself of that debt by giving in return. This leads without much interval to a generosity contest. Give and you shall ordain. Give back and you shall conquer. In pre-capitalist societies, it is not the accumulation of wealth which is the mark of standing but the ability to dispose of it in the form of gifts.
Consider for a moment that the torc might be a gift to the world… If it had been thrown into the Minch, it would be, as Trevor Cowie, its curator in the National Museum of Scotland, has written, ‘a means of accumulating prestige without the risk of the original gift being returned or “trumped” with the loss of status that would ensue.’ If you can give something of such enormous value to the Minch, the Minch will be forever in your debt. Such gifts to the world are found all over Europe in the Bronze Age and later.’ 124
‘The Bronze Age acts with unparalleled generosity to the earth as the earth grows meaner … The gift of the torc here … was an act not of propitiation but of dominance.’ 124-25
Is this a metaphor we can consider in our response to the negative effects of climate change? For me, this ‘unparalleled generosity to the earth as the earth grows meaner’ turns on its head the idea of ‘dominance’, which in recent times has been exploitative. Instead, strength is demonstrated through generosity, through investing something of great value in the earth (or rather, the sea).
The Shiants are ‘uninhabited’, which is to say, by humans. They are the seasonal home of nearly a quarter of a million puffins, 2% of the world total, along with a number of other birds. They must be one of the most lovable birds, in behaviour as much as appearance: sociable, curious, faithful to their partner and their burrow throughout their long lives , and slightly pompous:
‘A puffin can fly fast, up to sixty miles an hour, but then the landing can be difficult, less a controlled jump jet settling into place than a managed crash, after which there is a lot of head-shaking and shoulder ruffling by which coherence is re-established and dignity restored.’ 190
Yes, they can fly up to 60 miles per hour, dive up to 180 feet deep, and live to about 40 years. And they surely have some biomimicry lessons to impart to heating engineers:
‘The bird, in fact, has a wonderful circulatory system, consisting of three separate loops – one for the body and one for each orange foot – which are only connected to each other by the narrowest of necks. This means that the blood in the feet, which inevitably dangle in the ocean, can remain at a temperature scarcely above freezing, while the blood in the body … remains beautifully warm … An ornithologist said a puffin is ‘a hot water bottle with two orange icicles hanging off the end.” 187-88
Insulation comes from thick chest down which was once used for stuffing pillows, just as the bird was hunted for meat:
‘Eating a puffin is a sudden reminder of the reality of wildness from which we are removed. What we eat is as flaccid as ourselves. And that is the heart of Shiantism: the shock of unmediated life.’ 18
Nicolson also writes movingly about the grandeur of eagles and, more strikingly, the primal bird called a shag, neither grand nor cute, but somehow hard not to admire for sheer awfulness and tenacity. The shag has cracked evolutionary endurance – whereas the earliest puffin fossil is a mere 5 million years old, the earliest shags, identical to today’s, are 60 million years old. This is one of the most arresting – I didn’t say appealing – wild creatures I have come across:
‘Nothing can really prepare you for the reality of the shag experience. It is an all-power meeting with an extraordinary, ancient, corrupt, imperial, angry, dirty, green-eyed, yellow-gaped, oil-skinned, iridescent, rancid, rock-hole glory that is Phalacrocorax aristotelis. They are scandal and poetry, chaos and individual rage, archaic … As you climb the big broken scree towards their stinking slum…’ 184
‘… hawks and spits at you, its gizzard shaking in anger and fear, its whole head prodding and prodding towards you, like an angry finger. … a couple of young, half-formed embryonic creatures, shag chicks, rat-birds, serpentine, leathery, hideous … Then, through all the fluster, you see the eye of the adult, a green point of clarity … it’s an adamantine green, a mineral concentrate, able to outlast any kind of erosion or catastrophe that might occur around it.’ 185
‘Scandal and poetry, chaos and individual rage, archaic…’, you won’t forget them in a hurry.
Nor the courageous and determined people who made these islands their home until it became untenable partly due to a curse of one of the few resources they had. Kelp, which helped to coax food out of unforgiving terrain, was later used to make soda and potash, needed for soap and glass, and to bleach linen. It therefore became valuable to the landowner, more valuable than as a fertiliser for the tenants. The kelp was fed into the landowner’s kilns, and not to the land, so that those harvesting it went hungry, eventually driven to eating limpets, millions of them, the remains piled up as a ‘ziggurat of strain and sorrow’, for the archaeologists to find:
‘A rich and poignant story of a community coming to an end. Its struggles and its ingenuities, the changing circumstances with which it had to deal, its final collapse: all that is revealed. What before had been a contourless silence can now be seen as a tiny island microcosm of Highland history at its most critical juncture, the centuries between 1600 and 1800.’ 204
The courage and sadness of that story is touchingly underlined by two details:
‘These are worn, swept places, with the dust broomed away from the hearth, out into the corners and edges… It is a microscopic human landscape of powerful intimacy and unrelieved poignancy. These sweepings, keeping tidy in the face of catastrophe: what deeper sign of dignity is there than that?’ 224
‘In bad years, when food was short, blood would be drained from a living cow and used to make blood pudding.’ 235
The cow, in turn, would be so weakened that by the spring, when they were taken out of the home they shared with their human family, they often had to be carried.
This beautiful book, which has much to teach us about our way of living in the world, our way of relating to places and to nature, ends with a poem by W.H. Auden which, like Sea Room, accommodates the feisty island and its singing, surrounding sea.
Look, stranger, at this island now…
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
W. H. Auden
Who possesses this landscape?
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?
Norman MacCaig, ‘A Man in Assynt’