Cover image for Sea room : an island life in the Hebrides
Sea room : an island life in the Hebrides
Nicolson, Adam, 1957-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press, 2002.

Physical Description:
391 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm
General Note:
"Originally published in 2001 by HarperCollins Publishers, Great Britain"--T.p. verso.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DA880.H4 N53 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



A riveting book for all readers who know and love a place where the sea meets the land. In 1937, Adam Nicolson's father answered a newspaper ad -- "Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides, 600 acres . . . Puffins and seals. Apply . . . " -- and found the Shiants (the name means holy or enchanted islands). Adam inherited this almost indescribably beautiful property when he was twenty-one: Sea Room describes, and relives, his love affair with the three tiny islands, composed as he prepares to give them to his oldest son. The Shiants lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the "stream of blue men," after the legendary water spirits who menaced sailors there. For millennia they were a haven for those seeking solitude -- an eighth-century hermit, the twentieth-century novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie -- but their rich, sometimes violent history of human habitation includes much more. The landscape is soaked in centuries-old tales of restless ghosts and Bronze Age gold, and it cradles the heritage of a once productive world of farmers and fishermen. In passionate, keenly precise prose, Nicolson evokes the paradoxes of island life: cut off from the mainland yet intricately bound to it, austere yet fertile, unforgiving yet bewitchingly beautiful. Sea Room does more than celebrate this unique, profoundly isolated place. It shares with us the greatest gift an island bestows on its inhabitants, a deep, revelatory engagement with the natural world.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When Nicolson was 21, his father gave him the tiny Shiant Islands a few miles east of Lewis, the biggest of the Outer Hebrides, and somewhat more miles northwest of Skye, largest of the Inner Hebrides. Nicolson already knew the place well, having spent many holidays there with family and friends, and alone. There is a two-room house near the easiest landing, and Nicolson repaired to it for the year that this rhapsodical tribute records. He conducts us through the months in the Shiants, for each unfolding part of Shiants history and telling of the experts he brought in to see what the place could tell them, which included the shepherds with whom he rounded up the fattened lambs in the fall. He demonstrates that the Shiants were a vital part of several cultures, which became remote only as industrial capitalism centralized enterprises and profits. This history is finely and personally relayed, but what is best in the book is Nicolson's intensely sensual detailing of his sailing of the waters around the islands; of air, rock, soil, flora, and light; of the spirituality historically assigned to the place and which lingers there; and of what it must have been like to live there over the centuries. Magnificent and poetic, this is a literary and ecological masterpiece. Ray Olson.

Publisher's Weekly Review

For his 21st birthday, Nicolson's father gave him some islands among the Scottish Outer Hebrides, 600 acres worth of land that the elder Nicolson had purchased on a whim in 1937. At various times, the Sussex-based writer recalls, the Shiant islands "have been the most important thing in my life," and he has produced a vivid, meticulously researched paean to his "heartland," examining its geology, its flora and fauna, and its history as he reminisces about his own idylls there. The islands, now uninhabited except by the Nicolsons, are outcroppings of grass and rock and stark black cliffs, surrounded by churning waters that are notoriously difficult to negotiate. Until 1901, they were continuously inhabited for thousands of years by an eighth-century hermit, medieval farmers, Irish Jacobite rebels and others documented by Nicolson. The islands are also an important breeding station for birds, and Nicolson observes the comings and goings of geese, puffins and razorbills. Throughout the book, Nicolson explores the troubling idea of ownership; Hebrideans view English landowners with a mix of resentment and derision, and Nicolson acknowledges that his rights to the islands, like those of previous landlords, are morally ambiguous. His mix of scholarship, reflection and lyrical description brings his beloved atolls to life, and the genre-bending book should win some fans among those interested in nature writing and memoir. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Nicolson has what most can only dream of: his own island. Actually, the property consists of three remote Scottish islands, the Shiants, located in the Hebrides and purchased by Nicolson's father through a 1937 newspaper advertisement. The grandson of Vita Sackville-West, Nicolson, who was given the islands with their cliffs, sheep, rats, and birds on his 21st birthday by his father, has written Sea Room as a self-proclaimed "love letter" that captures the character of the place. More intellectually weighty than most travel narratives, Nicolson's book offers as much information about the geological origins of the islands, the seasonal details of the flora and fauna, and the melding of Norse language into the culture as it does about the author's solitary boat rides and peaceful beachcombing adventures. The comprehensive bibliography and index indicate a love and knowledge of the island that goes well beyond that of an occasional visitor or tourist. Nicolson is the islands' resident historian and scientist, and as he prepares to give the islands to his own son, he can do so knowing that his gift is not merely sentimental but substantive. Recommended for all travel collections. Mari Flynn, Keystone Coll., La Plume, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Sea Room An Island Life in the Hebrides Chapter One For the last twenty years I have owned some islands. They are called the Shiants: one definite, softened syllable, 'the Shant Isles', like a sea shanty but with the 'y' trimmed away. The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out, and if their five hundred and fifty acres of grass and rock were buried deep in the mainland of Scotland as some unconsidered slice of moor on which a few sheep grazed, no one would ever have noticed them. But the Shiants are not like that. They are not modest. They stand out high and undoubtable, four miles or so off the coast of Lewis, surrounded by tide-rips in the Minch, with black cliffs five hundred feet tall dropping into a cold, dark, peppermint sea, with seals lounging at their feet, the lobsters picking their way between the boulders and the kelp and thousands upon thousands of sea birds wheeling above the rocks. In summer, the grass on the cliff-tops is thick with flowers: bog asphodel and bog pimpernel; branched orchids, the stars of tormentil and milkwort. 'Under such skies can be expected no great exuberance of vegetation,' Dr Johnson wrote, but this miniature spangle of Hebridean flora, never protruding its yellows and deep purples more than an inch or two above the turf, is a great and scarcely regarded treasure. I think of it when in England I walk on expensive Persian rugs; the same points of dense, discreet colour, the same proportion of ground to decoration; a sudden flash of the Hebrides in a rich man's rooms. It is a private signal to me, a bleeping underfoot, winking through the burr of conversation and offered drinks: Remember me . At times in the last two decades, these islands have been the most important thing in my life. They are a kind of heartland for me, a core place. My father bought them over sixty years ago for £1,400, he gave them to me when I was twenty-one, and I shall give them to my son Tom when he is twenty-one in four years' time. This is not, as cynics have sometimes said, for tax reasons. The Shiants seem scarcely to do with money and, anyway, they have been a catastrophic investment. For the same amount, at the same time, my father could have bought a Jacobean manor house in Sussex or a two hundred-acre farm of prime arable in Cambridgeshire. Each would be worth a million or more by now. As it is, if I sold the Shiants, I could perhaps buy a two-bedroom flat in Fulham. This was never a question of financial riches. My father bought the islands and gave them to me because as a very young man he had felt enlarged and excited by the ownership of a place like this, by the experience of being there alone or with friends, by an engagement with a nature so unadorned and with a sea- and landscape so huge that it allowed an escape into what felt like another dimension. It was a way of leaving home, a step into a different world. He described this, fitfully, in a letter to his brother Ben on first going there in 1937: 'I would wake up the next morning to find the sun in a sky as pure as a Bavarian virgin,' the twenty-year-old Balliol undergraduate half-joked. I would lie all morning with no clothes on, on a rock overlooking the sea, reading and annotating Hegel. In the afternoons I used to run bare-footed across the mile of heather to the edge of the northern cliff, there flinging myself down, to read, or write, or gaze out to sea thinking about life, and what Heaven this was. The view from the top is such that only Greece could parallel. And then he torpedoed it, embarrassed: 'One becomes very Golden Bough in these conditions, I'm afraid.' For all the camouflage, the experience was real, and forty years later he wanted, I think, to give that same enlargement to me: that wonderful sea room, the surge of freedom which a moated island provides. The gift was this: the sensation I can now summon, anywhere and at any time, of standing in the pure air streaming in off the Atlantic, alone on these islands which the last inhabitants left a hundred years ago. I have peered at them in every cranny: I have hauled lobsters and velvet crabs from the sea; picked the edible dulse from the walls of the sea caves and of the great Gothic natural arch which perforates a narrow horn of one of the islands; scrambled among the hissing shags and looked down the dark slum tunnels where the puffins live and croak their curious, endearing note, like a heavy door opening on a rusted hinge; and I have lain down in the long grass while the ravens honked and flicked above me and the skuas cruised in a milk-blue sky. I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have had no existence apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them. The place has entered me. It has coloured my life like a stain. Almost everything else feels less dense and less intense than those moments of exposure. The social world, the political world, the world of getting on with work and a career--all those have been cast in shadow by the scale and seriousness of my brief moments of island life. There was a time when I thought that to give the islands away, even to Tom, would be an unbearably difficult thing. Sometimes, away from . . . Sea Room An Island Life in the Hebrides . Copyright © by Adam Nicolson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.