Six Questions: Adam Nicolson about the Sea and Sailing

My interview for The Island Review with British writer Adam Nicolson, author of “Seamanship”, “Sea Room”, “The Mighty Dead” and “The Seabird’s Cry”. You can borrow these books from the Sea Library.

Photo above: Adam Nicolson off the Shiant Isles, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Photo by James Nutt.

In 1937, nineteen-year-old Nigel Nicolson bought three islands known as the Shiant Isles, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, for £1,400. Later, he passed ownership of them on to his son, Adam Nicolson, when Adam turned twenty-one. After owning them for twenty years, Adam gave them to his son, Tom, when he turned twenty-one in 2005, but not before he had written a love letter to them, the non-fiction book Sea Room, published in 2001.

Adam Nicolson is a prolific author and sailor, the father of three sons and two daughters. He comes from a family of writers, including his father Nigel Nicolson, grandfather Sir Harold Nicolson, and grandmother Vita Sackville-West, the poet, novelist, and garden designer best known as a lover and muse of Virginia Woolf. In fact, Vita Sackville-West was the one who spotted the unusual advertisement in The Daily Telegraph offering the three, small, uninhabited islands for sale: “Very early lambs. Cliffs of columnar basalt. Wonderful caves. Two-roomed cottage.” 

Today anyone can stay on Shiants, in a stone bothy, free of charge. You can read about it at http://www.shiantisles.net. “The house is extremely basic,” you are told. “It has chairs, tables and a fireplace. It is best to bring some bags of coal and some kindling. There is no electricity, running water, telephone or loo. Mobile phones work but you obviously can’t recharge them.” There’s even a suggested list of what to take — “for three hungry men for four days” — along with a caution about how precarious life on a high, exposed rock in a tidal sea can be: “The Shiants are dangerous on land and sea. Do not climb cliffs. A boy died behind the house in 1986 doing that. The sea is tricky and needs great care. Many people in the past have drowned there.”

Adam Nicolson is a captivating storyteller. Whether he is searching for the prototype of Homer’s gates of Hades in an estuary of two poisonous rivers at Huelva, Spain, in The Mighty Dead (2014), or waiting for puffins to arrive on the Shiants’s high cliffs in The Seabird’s Cry (2018), you take his words in with your chin resting in the palm of your hand. Facts of history and science are retold in a poet’s voice. His new book, The Making of Poetry, about the year Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth spent together in Somerset from 1797 to 1798, will be published next summer.

In Sea Room, published 17 years ago, you write how Shiants had changed you. What do these islands mean to you today? Have you ever really left Shiants?

I have never really left the Shiants. I have known those islands since I was eight years old, 53 years ago, when my father took me for the first time, but if you added up all the days I have actually been there since then, the accumulated moments, they probably come to about a single year. I once spent a month there on my own with a dog and I have been in every season of the year, gathering sheep in the autumn, making repairs to the house after a ferocious winter storm had swept over it and smashed open the door, leaving the furniture topsy turvy from the swell and chop that had broken inside, but more usually it has been just ten days or so in the height of summer.

This fragmentary and highly selective knowledge of a place, when it is at its most beneficent and generous, filled with the summer-visiting seabirds and the turf spangled with the summer flowers, has nevertheless come to seem like the centre of my life. The islands are remote, disconnected from the rest of the world, for a long time without any communications — although the mobile phone has changed that — and yet they seem to me to lack nothing. People think of them as somehow impoverished, but to my mind they are an enriched form of existence. Life there, which consists of gathering water, setting fires, cooking food, pulling the boat up the beach, dealing with the sea, talking late into the Hebridean night to those friends and family who love to be there too, has the virtues of obviousness. The needs and tasks and pleasures of life are all clearly present, a deep mixture of the physical — climbing, hauling, drawing, stacking, digging — with the undiminished beauty and vitality of the living world, visible at every turn, at every moment glancing up from spade or oar.

This is why it matters so much to me: time expands there, widening to accommodate these riches. The usual thinness of everyday life in ordinary places allows time to pour past in a dilute stream. Not here though, where time is as thick as tar, and maybe that explains something. The 300 or 400 days I have spent on the Shiants are probably worth 30 or 40,000 spent elsewhere, and that is the luck of knowing them, a strange doubling for me of the thickness of life, the truly beautiful solidity of being.

Tell me about sailing in an open boat — what do you love about it? 

I did once, for an exciting year, own a large seagoing boat, a big gaff-rigged cutter, 43 feet on deck, and with it sailed up the west coast of Ireland, out to St Kilda and on to Orkney and the Faeroes. It was one of the great trips of my life, an immersion in the whole sense-world of the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. We had some hair-raising times, big winds and big seas, and I am grateful to have made that journey, but I don’t think in the end that I am a big-boat or open-ocean type. A powerful and complicated boat is too much, too technical, the experience of being at sea too mediated by the demands of the boat itself.

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In silhouette: the Shiants and Broad Bay, an open boat belonging to the Stornoway-based poet and sailor Ian Stephen. Photo by James Nutt.

A small and open boat is the opposite. It is the water equivalent of going for a walk, with nothing between you and the world of the sea. A small boat, and I have had several, all about 16 feet long, is easy to launch, easy to bring into a beach, easy to sail alone, with a shallow draught that allows one to sail up into narrow creeks and estuaries, to dodge the rocks or drift easily into a welcoming bay. And a boat like that can be rowed without difficulty when the wind drops.

With the shrinking of the boat comes an expansion of the world. Crossing a stretch of sea that is only ten or twelve miles wide, or finding one’s way down between the islands off the west coast of Scotland, carefully catching the tide gates as they open, or waiting at anchor for the tide to turn, becomes as much of an adventure as sailing from Cornwall to Ireland or Ireland to Scotland in something fitted to the scale of the ocean.

It is the immediacy that I love, the quick response, the boat answering to a touch on the tiller or a shortening of a sheet as lightly and as happily as a friend to a hint or a dog to a murmur, the cockpit drains gurgling beneath me, the bubbling of the wake behind. If I think of the happiest of times, it is in a small boat with the wind set fair, the sun on the sea and the boat itself drawing towards its goal as if it knew where it was headed and where its harbour lay.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. How do you deal with the terrifying side of the sea?

Any kind of seamanship that I have learned — and I wouldn’t claim much— does at least know that almost everything that matters about being at sea happens before you leave. Every sheet and halyard, every reefing line, every shackle, gudgeon and pintle, every bit of clothing to keep you warm and dry must be in as good a state as you can make it. Every flake of acquired understanding has to be in play — what the wind and tide will do, where you can run to if things turn rough, where you can stow food and drink so that it is to hand without leaving the helm. Only then can you set off. Homer knew all about the beauty and holiness of preparation for what he calls the salt wastes of the sea. For the great Greek epics, the readying of a ship was a form of liturgy. Every voyage described in Homer begins with that making good of the little wooden world on which the heroes would rely.

Strength in hull and rig is, of course, a way of keeping the more obvious devils away. All the same, they or their cousins will always appear. How to meet them then? The only way that I know is to trust the boat, to know that its hull and spars are good, not to overload them in a wind, not to overreach but to treat her kindly and look for safety in the hope that the boat will treat you kindly in return. Of course there is some fear there, when the weather turns and you are far from home. The muscles always tighten across my chest when that happens, and for hours I continue on my way, gripped by that fear but more than ever attentive to sea and wind, looking to be slow and careful in every move I make, every trimming of the sails, every shift of the rudder. That maybe is the answer: care keeps devils at bay.

I wonder if the sea and islands are an escape from your life on mainland, your literary heritage and ancestry?

I don’t feel the need to escape from the rest of my life. In fact I feel quite proud to belong to a family that has for at least three generations been interested in writing and in the transformations of lived experience that writing involves. And the sea, in one form or another, has been there for a long time too. Lots of Nicolsons have been in the navy. My great-grandfather had a large and beautiful yacht (the Sumarun, still afloat and now living in New York), my grandfather a small one, the Mar, destroyed in a German bombing raid on Portsmouth during the war and my father, who first fell in love with the Shiants when he was 19 in 1937, had for a time a Hebridean herring boat called, unfortunately, the Puffin Billy, which came to a sad end one day in the late 1940s on the shores of Harris.

I do wonder, though, if the opposite of your question is true: does the sea somehow lubricate and irrigate the whole process of writing? Is there something in the sea which allows writing to happen, to flow as people say, which “the earth earthy” — St Paul’s description of the first Adam — stultifies and rigidifies? Or maybe, one step on from that, maybe writing thrives in a kind of coalescence and mingling of sea-life and earth-life, a fusion of the liquid and the fixed, each element providing what the other lacks?

Which books have shaped the way you think about the sea?

Melville of course and Conrad, but The Odyssey is the one for me. It has been my route to understanding the sea as the grandest of metaphors, as the realm in which the essential disciplines and fragilities of human life are revealed, where islands hold both promise and threat, where submission to the sea-goddesses can save you from the rage of the great sea god himself, where the most carefully made craft can still be broken, where illusions flower and riches are to be found.

Have you ever felt lonely at sea?

Alone but not lonely. I have never sailed for many days alone, always coming to a harbour when single-handed, and always with a companion when out at sea for days and nights at a time. But I have often sailed two-handed, the two of us alternating watches, so that only one is on the helm at a time, the other sleeping below, and then alone, especially at night, with the sea dark and luminous around me, I have felt a rich and cosmic kind of loneliness, as many sailors have, with the sound only of the wind in the rigging and the bow cutting and cutting through the swells. Then, as many sailors do at night, I have heard voices coming from the sea, snatches of words and part-sentences, no sense in them, but a suggestion of a presence. And I remember once, sailing one day across the Celtic Sea, alone on deck, halfway between Cornwall and Ireland, in the springtime, a swallow came and found the boat, en route from Africa, and flew down and in through the companionway hatch, where it cheeped and squeaked as it flew around the cabin and then up and out again. A barn! Out here! Where no swallow had found a barn before! It left and a few minutes later returned with its mate. The two of them prospected for a moment or two and then left again, heading on to the sure and earthy realities of Ireland. And then, of course, I did not feel either alone or lonely. The very opposite.

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Adam Nicolson ashore on the Shiants. Photo by James Nutt.