The Shiant Isles
I never thought I would find myself writing warmly about a Scottish laird. Adam Nicolson owns the Shiant Islands, east of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The Shiants are a compact cluster and, like all small islands, offer the marvellous sense that you can encompass them, you can easily walk or sail round them and get to know each rock-face or sand-bar, each vein of water or peat-hagg lip. Islands make you attend to them with the most intimate focus, until you know them entirely and understand the reason each feature, natural or civilised, is as it is. That stone-heap on a west-facing slope, is it scree, or a cairn, or the remains of a house? Who made those cup-holes in a reef by the shore, and why? When did somebody last dig those lazy-beds, the ridges for potatoes or barley that corduroy the rough pasture? Nicolson has spent so many days and nights on the Shiants that he has had time to pose every conceivable question about them and to delve for the answers.
The Shiants were points on the well-frequented seaways of Western Europe when the landways were still mudded and laborious. Two scallop fishers recently dredged up a gold torc from near the islands’ western reefs. The bracelet is ‘as exotic as a silk dress on a cliff face, Audrey Hepburn, somehow, en route to the North Pole’. It was made in the Bronze Age, a period in which, according to Nicolson, ‘the human person is glorified and with his egotism comes his guilt.
He carries remarkable weapons. He wears jewellery. His body becomes the arena of his glory.’ Nicolson brings ancient and medieval times close, but he also gleans powerful stories from the islands’ recent life. By the 19th century only a shepherd lived there. About 1830 the wife of one shepherd, a man called MacAulay (his given name is not remembered), climbed down the northern cliff on Garbh Eilean to gather seabirds for feathers and meat: ‘She killed the birds and hooked them by their necks, into the rope around her waist. One day . . . the rope broke’ and she ‘fell into the sea, where, because of the number of fowls hanging from the rope around her waist, she did not sink, but floated out to sea watched by her husband, who could do nothing to help her.
How weirdly different, and in one sense how similar, was the experience of two debs (bridesmaids-to-be of Princess Elizabeth) who came to the islands in 1946 as guests of Nicolson’s father, Nigel (son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West). They lasted a night. Wakened by noisy rats, they screamed. Nigel would have to row them back out to a fishing boat in the morning. But he had forgotten to tie up his dinghy, which had drifted out and shattered on the rocks: ‘Nigel entered the freezing waters of the Minch, swam out to the boat and returned to the beach with a rope. Elizabeth and Margaret stood waiting in their floral prints. Nigel tied them on, one by one, and they swam out towards the herring drifter, speechless with cold, while their skirts spread like peonies around them.
When Nicolson sets out to uncover Shiant history, he is able to bring over, first, an archaeologist from the State Institute in Prague and then an entire team of Czech archaeologists every summer for five years. They dug up and sifted the layered fragments of the old black house on Eilean an Tighe until they knew its life in the finest detail. When Linda Cihaková made a cut or sondage through the floor, she uncovered a smooth, flattish, rounded stone about twelve inches across, ‘buried in the clay and peat ash of the mid-18th century’. It was deeply incised with a cross enclosed in a circle. Nicolson at once began to find out its history, travelling to Sheffield and Edinburgh, phoning Inverness and Dublin. The stone must have been made by a hermit, probably out of Torridonian sandstone from Applecross on the mainland. When the early missionaries founded a new church, they carried with them, ‘in a bag blessed by a bishop, soil or stone from the mother church’. Here was a source for the name of the islands: sianta is Gaelic for ‘uncanny’ or ‘hallowed’.
It’s characteristic of Nicolson that he researches the stone in the most expert way, but also in the most homely. He carries it to and from the Shiants in the bilges of his boat, the Freyja, ‘acting its part as holy ballast, leant on by the dogs and cushioned by my sleeping bag’. It is so charismatic a thing that everyone delights in it. The schoolchildren on the nearest inhabited island, Scalpay, tried it as a pillow. A woman in the toll-booth outside the Dartford Tunnel said: ‘That looks nice.’ A man at a garage thought it was a fossilised meat pie, and an expert in early Christian sculpture at the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland stroked its surface and said, ‘“Yes, yes,” as if it were a homecoming’.
Although nobody lives permanently on the Shiants these days, men from Scalpay graze their sheep there and catch whitefish and scallops between Lewis and the islands. These are long-standing habits. When the Victorian laird was trying to justify the clearance of all the crofting townships in the part of Lewis closest to the islands, now called Pairc, he made out that the crofters’ fishing grounds were too distant to be viable. A generation later their descendants testified to the Napier Commission that the fisheries were excellent and were round the Shiants, just two miles away.
The origins of the Shiant place names were known to islanders such as Neil Nicolson from Stemreway, on the fjord called Loch Seilg which opens towards the Shiants, where I did fieldwork last summer. Stemreway (now transliterated as Stiomrebhaigh), a site of extraordinary beauty and habitability, is still mantled in dense green turf, backed by an outcrop for building stone, with a peat moss just yards away. The best houses were roomy, with vegetable fields enclosed by stone dykes. A stand of aspens chatters on the bluff above a river flowing out of a circular tidal lochan which would have made an ideal fish-trap. Stemreway was one of six villages cleared in 1843 by a family called Stewart (who figure in some scalding stories told by Adam Nicolson) so the place could be turned into a ‘sporting’ enclave – a base for killing animals, birds and fish – centred on Eishken, the next settlement along the shore.
The estate is still frequented by sportspersons in Barbour jackets and gamekeepers in natty olive tweeds. The Eishken employees, according to Nicolson, were instrumental in exterminating the Shiant birds of prey, including white-tailed sea eagles, to conserve the profitable grouse. When Nicolson was helping the Scalpay men to gather and dip their sheep on Garbh Eilean, the largest of the Shiants, ‘eight handsome men and women’ arrived from Eishken on a 38-foot, ocean-going, twin-diesel estate boat called the Incorrigible. They lounged about in their fleeces and sunglasses, pretending that Adam and the crofters weren’t there, until he went over to them and asked: ‘What are you up to at Eishken?’ ‘Probably drinking too much,’ replied one of the young bloods.
Nicolson knows that for well-off people to own parts of the Highlands is invidious. At the start of his book he retails the remarks of a man who came up to him in Macleod’s Bar in Tarbert, on Harris, and said: ‘Well, you’re a sackful a shite . . . You can no more say that those islands belong to you than I can say that I’m the landlord of the moon.’ Towards the end he describes his debate on ownership with Robert Stewart of the SNP National Council, considers whether ownership and management by the local community would be the just solution, and concludes that ‘flexible and responsive’ private ownership can be more ‘open’ than ‘exclusive community ownership’, adding that anybody who wants to stay in the one house on the islands can get in touch with him at email@example.com. Nicolson wants the Shiants to remain part of a living society. He knows their harshness and their goodness, ‘neither more privileged nor more deprived than anywhere else’, with ‘the benefit of the good soils, the riches of the birds and fish. It was not to be deprived of anything the mainland could offer. It was a sea room with sea room, a place enlarged by circumstances, not confined by them. Each experience of his island life is beautifully described.
Quite casually, and with no fanfare, no advance warning, from between your feet the islands start to groan. A long, deep moaning emerges from the slits between the dolerite slabs. It begins slowly and builds, a deep and exhausted exhalation. It is like finding a room in which you thought you were alone suddenly occupied by another, a voice emerging from a long dead body.
When the rock breaks, ‘the bare unlichened stone smells of iron or even blood, because blood smells of iron too. The smell is one of deep antiquity, a release into the nostrils of elements in the rock which have not been volatile since the rock was made. It feels as intimate as poking your fingers into a wound.’ On a dark day the gannet is lit like a crucifixion against it.
I could never tire of this, never think of anything I would rather watch, nor of any place I would rather be than here, in front of the endless renewing of the seabird’s genius, again and again carving its path inside the wind, holding and playing with all the mobility that surrounds it like a magician with his silks, before the moment comes, it pauses and plunges for the kill, the sudden folded, twisted purpose, the immersion, disappearance and detonation of the surf.
David Craig: A version of this article first appeared in the LRB-2001