The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land. Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible. It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin. All he could do was call out his love, over and over. She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate. “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.
This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book. The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later. Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages? For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.
This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands. How were they formed and will they survive? Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants? Did they thrive or merely survive? He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs. Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”. Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.
His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly. He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail. As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches. History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.
Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants. The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”. He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port. There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.
The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen). This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit. Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves. We’ll see.
The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages. The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands. It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman. A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins. Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.
Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus. At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained. The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides. The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen. Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.
This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land. There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered. Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had? What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem? For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change. Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.