Sea Room by Adam Nicolson


Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Author:Adam Nicolson [Adam Nicolson]
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780007380718
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers


10

IN MIDSUMMER, AS THE BIRDS were proliferating around me, and as the cotton grass began to show its white-tufted pennants in the bogs, as the flag irises flowered in the ditches and the meadowsweet bubbled out in the protected corners by the cliffs, the time had come to address the central question of the Shiants. What had happened here? What history was there here? What explained its emptiness now and the remains of buildings distributed across the islands? The old buildings as I walked across them reminded me of a summer beach after the warmth of the day has gone. You can see where each family has been, their scufflings in the sand, the one or two sweet wrappers and scraps of paper left behind, a can or two, the holes where their windbreak had stood, the marks of dug-in toes beside the legs of a deck chair, all the diagnostic signals of life once lived but now finished, waiting for the tide to roll in over it. That, translated into moss and tumbled stone, was the condition of the Shiants.

I wanted to find out more about the islands and that was why I had asked Pat Foster to bring his team of archaeologists with him to the Shiants. He had now done his survey. He had made a few tentative guesses as to the nature of the remains he had identified. Now the time had come to dig. What has emerged from their archaeology, and from the historical documents which I gathered, is a rich and poignant story of a community coming to an end. Its struggles and its ingenuities, the changing circumstances with which it had to deal, its final collapse: all that is revealed. What before had been a contourless silence can now be seen as a tiny island microcosm of Highland history at its most critical juncture, the centuries between 1600 and 1800.

To understand that story, one must go back a little earlier. I asked the leading expert on the history of the Hebridean landscape, Professor Robert Dodgshon, to come to the islands for a couple of days and walk across them with me. The kind of detailed analysis of a single site or building which archaeology can provide needs the broader context of the landscape historian. No island house could make sense without its surrounding fields and sea.

It is one of the repeated pleasures of life to witness an expert presented with a new set of data. Arriving off Malcolm MacLeod’s boat from Stornoway one morning, Robert could scarcely sit down for a cup of tea in the house before rushing out to see what the Shiants had to say for themselves. An Atlantic storm was slashing around us like a carwash but it made no difference to the scholarly appetite.

What he impressed on me again and again over the next forty-eight hours was never to think of fixity in a place like this. Human occupation of the Shiants would always have come and gone like the tides, a filling and ebbing, a restless geography.



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