Friday 31 July 2015

Seven days on the Eigerwand

We were becoming accustomed to being here on the wall. We didn't look towards the end of the climb or torture ourselves with thoughts of hot showers, beer and those soft warm beds where you don't wear boots, mittens or balaclavas. The furthest we allowed ourselves to look ahead was to the next bivouac and the only pleasures we promised ourselves were steaming mugs of soup in the evening and a warm mug of thick cocoa before the long, long night. We reached the Hinterstoisser, that improbable traverse which leads into the cauldron of the middle of the Face. Thankfully there were some ropes in place, but they were old and Dick eased himself nervously across the last twenty feet clinging to the frayed cores of two sheath-less lines.

Two and a half days to the Swallows Nest, where we'd bivouaced in summer after only a few hours scramble. The niche was lost in the snow and we tip-toed past it on to the first icefield. But we had been spotted and when a helicopter came hovering in we realised that we were the performers in a gigantic arena for the leisurely tourists to watch from the hotel or stare at from the helicopter. They were like spectators at a film and we were the film: we felt as a fly must when it sees people staring at it and tantalising it — failing to appreciate that it is involved very privately in its own affairs. The helicopter hung there droning as I tried to lead the Ice Hose. I waited, unable to concentrate on the steep runnel of ice, and unwilling to provide the spectacle for which all mountain spectators long — the fall.

Eventually the helicopter disappeared and we used axe and crampons on ground up which we had climbed in the darkness during the summer. There were bands of ice across the limestone slabs below the Second Ice Field, so I tried to lead in crampons but they refused to hold on the rock. I tried again without crampons but the ice was in the wrong place so I put them on again and tried to one side. It still wouldn't go: the enormity of that colossal wall was squashing me. 'I can't do it Dick,' I shouted down, a depressing admission of defeat. 'Have you tried without your sack,' I hung the sack on a peg and moved further left. There was a slab at chest height with bands of ice an inch thick across it. I had to stand up on these ice bands. Would they hold? Gingerly I got the picks of my axe and hammer into the ice band above — feeling the rock beneath them. I pulled up and cramponed onto the slab. My foot slipped. The axe and hammer held. I placed the crampon on the rock again — and again it slipped — and as I fell off balance the hammer started to twist from the ice.

Steepening ground below the difficult crack
I pressed it in desperately and trying to pull up on it at the same time I lunged upwards with my crampon into the ice beside the axe. By a fierce contortion I struggled upright and into balance. I was exhausted: my nerves were shattered, my brain squeezed and I was ready for a rest. Another day drew to a close and I felt it was a miracle that we were still there. In the dark we found a place to bivouac and spent an hour carving out a ledge, out it was worthwhile. We cooked and shuffled around to find the optimum comfort. As on other nights I struggled with drowsiness to look for the twinkling constellations wishing I knew more about them, but usually fatigue won and sleep, that great balm, soon took over. As usual we woke at 4 a.m. in order to utilise every moment of daylight. I had a little wrist alarm which used to buzz in case we overslept. It took an hour to prepare and eat breakfast, another half hour to get ready and a further twenty minutes to fight through the layers of clothing, velcro, flaps and zips to pay the morning call.

It was 6.00 in the morning of the fourth day that Dick led onto the Second Ice Field, and I was glad it was him. Sure, it's only ice and not steep — but it was black unfriendly ice and there was a thousand feet of it. No excitement, just up and across, foot by foot, a thousand steps, crampon points hardly biting, axes holding — but the hammer pick not at all, and knuckles bruised and fingers lacerated from the constant hammering. And then late in the day some variation as we climbed off the Ice Field on to the Flat Iron up steep rock broken by overhangs. It was my lead and I left my sack behind and teetered up first in crampons and then without, clawing at the rock with numb and painful fingers which stuck to each peg or karabiner as I touched it. It was cold. It was also difficult and I felt like a hero when I pulled up over the top. By now we were tired after four days on the wall and our sacks were still enormous. There were other excuses too for stopping on the crest of the Flat Iron before reacing the Death Bivouac. We had planned to eat most of our food here to lighten the loads and to make a rapid push the following morning towards the Exit Cracks —and — faint hope —the summit. The idea was sound but grey trails of cloud were sliding across the sky with the dusk and we rethought the whole plan. If the weather was going to turn bad we would need every ounce of food we were carrying to survive. We slept in the bivouac sack that night impatient for the morning and the chance to start moving again and make a few more feet towards the summit — a few feet less to climb should the weather break.

Each one of us kept stealing secret glances outside throughout the night to look at the cloudy sky and wonder. If it broke should we go down or go up? We knew that once past the Death Bivouac we would have passed what is usually the point of no return. But the weather held and so to the Third Ice Field, like black glass which splintered when you kicked it, and then on to the Ramp, the first of the big uncertainties. The Ramp looks so short from the meadows below the Face, but rope lengths came and went and we seemed to get no higher. Some pitches were difficult but the Waterfall Chimney which we had dreaded was dry and free from ice. A welcome bonus. The Rib Pitch too was clean, but when I came to follow Dick up it powder snow had fallen onto the holds, and where I had balanced easily in summer I was forced to struggle with cracked and senseless fingers. That day we only managed the Third Icefield and the Ramp. The fifth bivouac was the worst so far, a mere seat smashed out of the ice amid loose blocks, a perch for the night on the shattered ledges. But at least we could now anticipate reaching the summit eventually and we mentioned beer for the first time. I remembered it was Saturday the 1st of March and my first climbing partner was getting married. I'd had to write to say I couldn't make it.

My sack hung from a peg beside me and I wedged my head behind it to stop myself falling forwards. I dreamt there was a policeman booking me, 'Hello officer, what's this for? "I'm booking you for driving a piton down this groove."But officer I didn't know anyone else knew about this groove."I often drive down this way myself' I woke to find that Dick was lying with his head in my lap and his feet somehow lodged behind a rock. 'You don't mind?' 'No, it's okay.' And now it was Sunday and we climbed the steep pitch up to the Traverse of the Gods in the semi-darkness before the dawn. I felt a little shaky, my nerves were probably bad from the epic on the icy slabs, or maybe our rigid crampons weren't ideal on this mixed ground, so I edged gingerly along the traverse back into the heart of the Face —the White Spider. But black would have been an apter adjective, for the ice was the worst yet and the steepest we had come across and unfortunately it fell to me to scrape and claw my way up it in the lead. The climbing required no technique: it was kick like hell and smash in the picks of the axe and the hammer, meanwhile glancing down to see of the crampon front points had gone in as much as a quarter-inch.

Every blow seemed more to smash my knuckles than improve my balance. An old rope hung down to my right and I reached it and guiltily rejoiced in using its security as a handrail for fifty feet. But then I had to leave it and wished I had never felt the security. I longed to make some excuse for handing over the lead to Dick in this terrible place. By the time we reached the Exit Cracks our fingers were bleeding, really painfully cracked and raw in the cold. How can ice, which is merely a smooth slope, cause such trouble? All I know is that every time I look back on the photographs of those dark inhospitable slopes the shudders run back down my spine. It seemed unbelievable that the end was nearly in sight. The Exit Cracks are not easy but at least they are the final obstacle. A boss of snow that guarded the base of the Quartz Crack collapsed as Dick led over it. I was afraid he was off, but he managed to hold on and climbed up leftward into the sunlight which was playing on the upper rocks of the Face.

It was the first sun we had been in for days and we were soon warm and revelling in the knowledge that there were now only hundreds of feet instead of thousands to the final slopes. But the rock was terrible, it was shattered and treacherous, interspersed with snow patches and with worthless belays. The wind was increasing as the dusk came in and there was no chance of a classic sunset photo, clouds closed round the summit and powder snow began to blow. We searched hurriedly for a bivouac ledge for dark is on you suddenly in winter and we had no alternative but to bivouac in this forlorn spot. Of an instant the wind was ferocious with driving snow everywhere and we began to loose equipment in the drifting powder. There was no time for anything except to pull the bivouac tent over ourselves and huddle together with the gale battering and shaking the tent in its fury. It was a rough night, at first we crouched over the stove and slowly suffocated from its fumes and when we had eaten we wriggled one at a time into our sleeping bags, boots and all, while the air quickly chilled now that cooking had finished.

Ice formed round our beards and over the inside of the tent only to shake off and fall like snow as the nylon flapped furiously in the relentless wind. Our fingers, so cracked and festering, began to hurt and a little voice in my mind kept whispering 'You've done it, you've done it.' But I refused to listen. I had no wish to be deceived and I determined not to relax until I could step into the hotel bar and order beer with nothing more to worry about than the time of the next train. There was no farewell breakfast and no reluctance to leave that last perch at the top of the wall. We just packed up quickly and felt underservedly favoured to look down and see the fresh snow splattered on those last few pitches of loose and unnerving rubble up which we had teetered so delicately yesterday. Now the steep and comfortingly blue ice of the Summit Ice Field led to the final ridge, although our promised views of the great Oberland peaks on the far side were stolen from us by the swirling cloud. A sharp crest ran up to the summit and it would have been an exhilarating gangway had we not been pushed and tugged by the wind all the way along it.

 Dick was there first. It was eight o'clock on the morning of Monday 3rd March — just six days after leaving the railway station below the Face. He just flopped down and pulled in the coils of rope. Sometimes a summit can be an anticlimax —the uncertain anticipation of the upward climb is no more. The blasts of winds and the stinging driven snow drove off such self indulgent thoughts as we faced inwards and slid, shuffled and scrabbled on our front points over ice, snow plastered rock and through pouring streams of avalanching spindrift down the West Flank. From one place we were able to look back into the North Face and we could see nothing but a cauldron of grey mist.

 And so we went on down, hour after hour, still tense and watchful until we reached the snow covered meadows and plodded towards the hotel. There was a waiting group of people but inside were welcome drinks and food that all you did was pay for. There were English papers too with headlines about a London Tube disaster and there was a juke box with some character singing 'I've got two strong arms, I can help.'....... It was another world.

Joe Tasker 

First published in Mountain Life June/July 1975.

Friday 24 July 2015

A Climber Extraordinaire

I was getting down to work when a voice came on the telephone, strongly Lancashire and alive with excitement. I won’t try to put it in dialect.
“Tom, it’s Stan Bradshaw. I’ve been at the Munros on my own for a week. It’s been marvellous. Yesterday I was above the clouds, at 3000 feet in the sun with nothing but mist all round. I’ve done nineteen Munro tops, and I want to make it 20. How about joining me for Ben Challum tomorrow? It’s my last day. Can you make it?”

Before such enthusiasm what can you say? Especially when the man is Stan, whom I met for the first time on the Cuillin ridge a year ago. On that occasion I had watched Stan and his friend Frank Milner pick their way down Bidein Druim nan Ramh on their way to finishing the whole Cuillin Ridge in a single day. But alas, they had failed on the Bhasteir Tooth, and thirty-one hours from setting out they were back at their Loch Coruisk base.

By any standard that was a good attempt. I drove north to meet him, because he went back to the Cuillin last June and I wanted to hear the story of his triumph. Stan is 63, and wonders if he is the oldest man to have done it? Small, bald-headed, light and wiry, he had the coffee boiling when I arrived on him at breakfast-time for Ben Challum. During our climb he told me all about the most wonderful day of his life, beginning at 3.30 a.m. in Glen Brittle and finishing at Sligachan at 11 p.m.

“It was perfect, except for taking a third man along who slowed up Frank and me. But he gave up halfway, and we got moving then. We had a cache of food planted at the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and once we got it we felt sure nothing could stop us. We were tired when we got to the Bhasteir Tooth, and once again we couldn’t find the route, although we had made a reconnaissance in advance. We wasted a bit of time and energy, but once we were up we could relax, for we knew that nothing could stop us getting to Sgurr nan Gillean. It was beautiful! Everything about was grand—the colours, the sea and, swinging away from us, the marvellous ridge and the corries we had traversed.”

The Cullins painted by William Mervyn Glass
Telling the tale to me as we climbed, I noticed that he never seemed to pause for breath as the top of Ben Challum came nearer and nearer. I had never thought of it as an exciting hill, but Stan grew excited as the corrie opened up and a whirling flock of thirty ptarmigan crossed in front of us, white as doves. The cause of the alarm was immediately apparent, when over the ridge came an eagle, its broad wings beating as it crossed our flank.
Strangely, there was a flock of twites up here, too, despite the frozen ground and the cold wind that made us put up our anorak hoods. It was fine to get into the lee of the cairn and have a cup of hot soup and a jam butty while watching the moving black clouds obliterate peaks, or pass and reveal winking eyes of lochans, one of them pin-pointing our route of descent by the south corrie.

Nice to jog down the rocky corrie sweeping down to Lochan Dubh and listen to Stan telling me of his lifestyle as a tripe manufacturer, cross-country runner, fell-racer and hill-walker. He told me how the building up of his business hadn’t left him any time for climbing until he was 40, but that he had always been a harrier.

“I do four miles every day before breakfast in any weather. And I run six miles every evening after work, before tea. I’ll run six miles tonight, and I’ve done so every day since I’ve been up here. After coming back from the hill I have a cup of tea, then go out for my run and come back to a big meal I eat a lot.”
In fact, I did not know what a remarkable individual Stan was until I talked to his Cuillin companion, Frank Milner. Stan, it seems, is a legend in his own country, having at the age of 48 knocked a little off the time taken by Bob Graham to round 42 Lakeland summits in 24 hours, a record which stood for 28 years until Alan Heaten did the second round. Stan was the third man to do it.
Another of his feats was a winter run of 120 miles and 20,000 feet of up and down work to link the two highest pubs in England, Tan Hill in Yorkshire and the Cat and Fiddle in Cheshire.

Doing this with a couple of friends, they took only 51 hours and 49 minutes, without sleep, in rain, snow, mist, hail, thunder and lightning. They set out on Boxing Day. Stan has also done all the summits over 2500 feet in Lakeland in a continuous walk, 105 miles of ascent and 77 summits, all between Saturday morning and Tuesday morning.

Ah, well, it is encouraging to meet a driving force like Stan, who doesn’t know where to stop and who refuses to grow up or grow old. I went to the funeral of another man of that kind a few weeks ago, Dr J. H. B. Bell, with whom I had the pleasure of climbing in 1968 when he was in his seventies, yet he was doing the Munros for the second time and planning to go to the Alps that summer.

Bell was an Auchtermuchty man, chemist, scholar and editor of The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. He was one of the big names in British climbing between the wars. Small and lightly built, like Stan Bradshaw, Bell at the age of around fifty pioneered some of the hardest climbs ever done on Ben Nevis. The Orion routes on the North-East Buttress will be amongst the finest of the Scottish classic routes for situation and difficulty.

Now he is dead, a great character gone, while Stan Bradshaw is off to the Canaries to climb a volcano in Tenerife. The great thing about life is to live it to the full when you have the chance. It’s the best recipe for happiness.

Tom Weir 

Stan Bradshaw Guardian obituary 

Friday 17 July 2015

Your lovely hills are very dangerous

There cannot be more than half a dozen real hard men, perhaps youthful aspirants to the Alpine Climbing Group, who have made the journey, on foot and by road, from the beginnings of Llanberis Pass to Beddgelert. To the best of my knowledge I am the only man living who has made this appallingly dangerous journey on two occasions. Of the second, on which I had a companion, I have already written in another place, but my solitary attempt has remained unchronicled. I now set out, below, what I recall of my experience in the spring of 1951. I was not able to make notes at the time, but the facts are essentially as I record them here. About ten o'clock one morning towards the end of March 1951, or it may have been 1950, I was sitting in the bar (since remodelled and renamed the Smoke Room), of that small hotel at the foot of Llanberis Pass which is known to all travellers in those parts.

I was sipping a whisky and soda, having just finished reading a most excellent article on the climbing situation in Wales in the 1940s called 'Return to Arfon'. On the table in front of me was a big blue-covered volume, 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District', by a man called 0. G. Jones. Some people from a place called Keswick had taken some old-fashioned photographs to illustrate the work and I was finding it of interest. My presence in that hotel at that time of year was due to an obligation I was under to write a work of fiction containing a gang fight in Wales, preferably on the face of a steep rock climb. My thoughts had no connection with Beddgelert and were indeed focused upon the measurements of the bar. It had just occurred to me that a determined man, sitting where I had positioned myself, could hardly miss the landlord with a shot from a .32 Mauser pistol, if the landlord happened to be standing at the cash register. At that moment the door of the bar opened and the landlord's wife came in to join me.

She was not in those days much given to conversation, being endlessly busy about the house. 'I've come to have a little chat with you', she said, 'It's nearly eleven o'clock'. `So late', I said, emptying my glass, 'I was sitting here thinking'. `Not thinking', she said, 'Drinking'. `So I was', I said, holding up my glass, 'I must have another of these'. `That's what I want to talk about', she said. 'You drank a bottle and a half of Scotch last night in this very room, and here you are doing it again, or in a fair way to doing it again, before lunch. You should go out more, into our lovely hills'. `I did that from this very hotel, just after Christmas,' I reminded her, 'and I was ill for weeks. Your lovely hills are very dangerous.' I stood up, all the same, and returned the red Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District to the corner bookshelf in the bar which, in those days, had twenty or thirty of the Journals, but not one of them with anything quite so good as 'Return to Arfon.' I didn't know what any of it meant. It was just interesting to read.

The author was a man called A. B. Hargreaves, and I didn't know him either. I put 'Rock Climbing in The English Lake District' under my arm. It had just come into my head that my hero might well be reading it in his bath when a villain, still uninvited, thrust a gun through his bathroom window. The essence of thriller writing is that heroes', preferably unarmed, should invariably outsmart relentless thugs with guns in either hand. It seemed to me, as I weighed it in my hand, that 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' was at least throwable. `I'll get hold of my packed lunch and go', I said. I tried to sound a little hurt, a trifle wounded: I've always found that difficult.
The landlord's wife picked up her broom and duster. 'Don't forget to take off those red slippers,' she said. There was a packet of sandwiches lying on the hall table bearing the legend, 'Mr. Fitzgerald, no cheese'. As cheese makes me frightfully ill, I knew what would be inside the grease proof paper, but I shoved the packet into the little knapsack I used for carrying books, put aside 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' while I was putting on my shoes, and walked out into the icy conditions of a Welsh spring morning. A man with a coiled rope over his shoulder was standing motionless in the driving rain. He was wearing scarlet stockings, and what appeared to be velvet knickerbockers.

There was a look of total despair on his face. 'Have you seen Marcus'? he asked me. `There was a man in the bar last night they were calling Marcus' I said. 'He was trying to read the `Tractatus' of Wittgenstein, but they kept interrupting him'. `Sounds like him' said the despairing man, 'I was to meet him here at half past ten'. `And you've been standing here in the rain all this time? Come in at once and have something to drink'. To the look of despair he added a look of real horror. `I am a member of the Alpine and of the Climbers' Clubs' he said; 'I never drink in the middle of the day. We try to keep ourselves reasonably fit'. I bowed, silently. It seemed to be the only thing to do. `You'd have seen Marcus at breakfast, if he'd been there, wouldn't you, don't you think?' the despairing man said, almost to himself. It was clear to me from his constructions that he, at least, had not, spent the previous evening reading the `Tractatus', or even the 'Philosophical Investigations' of Herr Wittgenstein, but it was my turn for the look of despair and horror.

`I never eat breakfast,' I said, 'I'm never well enough.' That man seemed not to like being with me. 'I think I'll go inside,' he said, and I stood alone with my problem in the heart of Welsh Wales. I could see no way round it; I would have to go for a walk of some kind. It had been on the tip of the despairing man's tongue to ask me to go climbing with him. I had only saved myself with my inspiration about breakfast. I embarked upon my journey. I still had no thought of Beddgelert. I don't suppose that I had, in those days, ever heard of it as more than 'a place'. But there was, as there still is, in a much altered form, a High Road and a Low Road for part of the way in which I was, merely by chance, going. I stood at the junction (there was no gateway then), took a pull at my pocket flask and considered matters. A blonde woman in Scandinavian costume who was standing beside me began to sing `Solveig's Song' from Peer Gynt.

As I turned to seek her advice she disappeared. There was a lot of loose gravel on the Low Road, and a little bird with a white rump was hopping about. It frightened me rather, and I set out along the High Road.

There was very little traffic on that road in those days, and it had not been straightened out anywhere. But there was a blinding flash every five or six minutes as a motor bicycle or motor car skidded upon me round unsuspected corners. There was an Admiral of the Fleet in full dress uniform walking beside me, making a rather curious clanking noise with his sword. I asked him if he thought our situation dangerous, but he didn't reply. I asked him if he would like a sip out of my flask, but he had vanished. Some time later I reached a Post Office in a place they told me was called Nantgwynant.

I enquired for licensed premises and was told that Beddgelert was my first hope, but that 'they might be closed by the time you get there'. I sat down by the roadside and opened my sandwich packet. Everything was made from cheese and onions. One of the misty people all round me said something that sounded like lucus a non lucendo', but I didn't know what he or she meant and just threw the sandwiches away and emptied my flask. It seemed wasteful in my desperate circumstances to pour a libation for the gods, and I did not. I struggled towards Beddgelert. It was a long journey, but I thought I could do it. I remembered dreamily that the night before someone had been talking about a man called Carr who used to stay in Beddgelert and run over Snowdon every morning, with a bicycle on his shoulders, on his way to a mountain called Tryfan. 'It's quicker that way', he is alleged to have said.

I supposed that was why I was without conscious design, now on the way to Beddgelert, and moreover, with an empty flask. I began to recite aloud the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but when I came to the bit about measuring out my life with coffee spoons an Australian Aboriginal, who kept throwing a boomerang across my head, and snatching at it with his left hand as it came back, asked me to shut up. `You need concentration for what I'm trying to do,' he said. I made for the public house where Mr. Borrow was said to have spent a night or two on one of his missionary journeys, reaching it as the rain stopped. You could say I was wet. They told me the bar was closed, and that, at that time of year they seldom bothered to open it during the week until 'going on seven.' The barmaid was knitting a strange looking tube from a huge ball of grey wool. 'Nice not to see climbers,' she said, `If you and I were locked in the snug no one would know, isn't it?

'Not a soul', I said. We drank a bottle of gin together in the snug and quite soon the Australian went away and I was alone with her. Just before six o'clock I asked her if she thought a determined man with a .32 Mauser pistol could blow the lock off the snug door. 'You had better be getting back, isn't it'? she said. We embraced, a brother and sister in extremis. Perhaps there was a cousinly touch to the final kiss as she slipped a half-bottle into my pocket and kept the change.

 'Don't let them put you into one of those places, bach,' she said. 'I've a book to finish,' I told her, stiffly, and set off on my return journey. "You’re going to find this bit difficult, cobber", the Australian said. He'd been waiting for me outside, together with a man from a circus who had a herd of camels with him. I put my face towards Nantgwynant. I woke up just before it was full dark. I think I had rested, with a book, because, as I opened my eyes, a little man in a pink hat closed 'Esmond' for me and dropped it into my book bag. As I reached the hotel the guests were just coming out from dinner and the landlord's wife called out to me, 'Oh, there you are: You're just in time if you hurry up and change'.

'You look ever so much better.' In those days I preferred dining alone, and I gave any loitering diners all the time they needed. There was never a crowd in the early fifties, just a few climbers. When I reached the dining room the Wittgenstein man was sitting by himself reading, and absent-mindedly picking at a plate of Welsh mutton. 'Do you happen to know any German'? he asked me, 'I'm trying to re-write and re-translate a rather bad piece for the Alpine Journal.' I did once, long ago,' I told him, "But where the number 2 bus used to stop they've set up a kind of jungle with orang-utangs hung on the trees."

I must have spoken all Kastner's piece from `'Emil' in German because I heard myself saying Orang-Utans hingen in den zweigen and the Wittgenstein man stood up and held out his hand. 'Please don't bother' he said, 'my name is Marcus, and I'm a doctor. What you need is a nice long rest.' 

I go to that hotel rather a lot, now, and the other night a woman guest said, 'Don't you ever drink anything except tonic water'? 'Oh, yes' I told her, 'at Christmas time and Easter I quite often have a bitter lemon, or something like that. You see I'm a member of the Alpine Club, and the Climbers' Club, and we have to try and keep fit.' Then I went up to bed. There was a book up there waiting for me called 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' and I was longing to read it for the twentieth time, and to look again at the lovely photographs taken by the Abraham Brothers of Keswick eighty years ago.

Kevin Fitzgerald: Published in Mountain Life Dec/Jan 1975 

Friday 10 July 2015

For Rattus Norvegicus: A brief history of the Shiant Isles

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 Cihakov√° 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 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