Thirty years ago, on his 21st birthday, the English author Adam Nicolson, whose books include God’s Secretaries, was given the Shiant Isles by his father – 550 acres of grass and rock in the Hebrides off north-west Scotland.
“I’d been there as a boy and always loved it. It’s a huge, dramatic place to be,” Nicolson says. “My father gave them to me saying: ‘This is a young man’s place.’ I strapped my canoe to the roof of a van, went up to Scotland and got a fishing boat to take me there for 3½ weeks. I didn’t see anyone; it was really enlarging.”
Nicolson became so attached to the islands that he wrote Sea Room, a homage to their every aspect – from the geological to the ornithological, the spiritual to the personal.
The author says the islands – which his father bought in the mid-1930s for £1,400 – were never seen as an investment. Back then, the same money could have purchased 200 acres of prime farmland or a Jacobean manor.
The second-largest island, Garbh Eilean – “which means, roughly, ‘the big, beefy island’ in Gaelic”, says Nicolson – is little changed from what it was during his first sojourn: “A little house, two rooms, a fireplace, a tin roof, no electricity and water from a seep at the bottom of a slope. It’s not a place you could advertise on the internet. It’s a very naked environment; you’re not mollycoddled.”
Owning an island carries with it social and moral obligations, says Nicolson, who allowed a farmer to graze sheep on the Shiants. You should not exclude others, he adds. “If you decide to open the door, it’s much warmer.”