Harper Collins, £14.99stg
The Shiants? Where are they? Pull out your dusty atlas and you will find a tiny group of isles stuck in the rushing waters of the Minch between Lewis and mainland Scotland. These islands form the base from which Adam Nicolson launches a love story, not a romance, but a generous, sharing love story of people and place, culture and history, archaeology, ornithology and geology.
The title 'Sea Room', sufficient space for a ship to be safe from hazards, is significant in a human sense as here is a place to sort oneself out and recover from civilisation. The book is a scholarly sort of journey mixed with a degree of speculation. We travel with the author as he learns about his islands in greater and greater depth. He visits and calls in experts to help him understand the place he loves. As he does so, we learn with him. From his beautifully hand-crafted new boat, which he learns to sail in these dangerous waters, to digging for archaeological remains, we are with him. There are Irish associations here, particularly through the influences of first millennium Christian monks, The Vikings and our experience of landlords.
At times the book drags as Nicholson speculates about answers to the many questions about life on the islands in previous times, but he is building a fine picture all the way. The image of bird life on the Shiants is a vivid one. His description of the awkward puffin coming in to land as "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," will remain with me.
Do I want to cruise to the Shiants some day? Yes please, and for me that is the measure of this book. It will appeal to those who are fascinated by human and natural history and those who like to get away from crowded places.
Includes a good index and comprehensive bibliography.