Besieged by the Sea

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In May 1937 Vita Sackville-West wrote to Harold Nicolson:

I’ve got another activity in view: three tiny Hebridean islands for sale, advertised in the Daily Telegraph today, 600 acres in all. ‘Very early lambs. Cliffs of columnar basalt. Wonderful caves. Probably the largest bird colony in the British Isles. Tworoomed cottage.’ Do you wonder? I have written to the agents for full particulars and photographs. They cost only £1,750.

It was their son Nigel Nicolson, aged 20 and still at Balliol, to whom she sent the particulars and who fell for the remote Shiant Islands at first sight and resolved to buy them. By August they were his, and he planned to spend a month there on his own to familiarize himself with them, ordering supplies from Fortnum & Mason, which were duly unloaded on to the beach by a local fisherman after their elaborate overnight journey by train and boat. Nicolson waved the man off, dragged the waxed cardboard boxes up to the stone bothy that provided the only shelter, and started to unpack, only to discover a polite note informing him that owing to Railway Regulations it had not been possible to include the safety matches requested. ‘Trusting this will not be of any serious inconvenience, we remain, Yours, etc . . .’

Every boy scout is taught how to kindle sparks from dry bracken, and by dint of dismantling his binoculars Nicolson managed to do so, but he was unable to leave the resulting frail flame untended for more than a couple of hours at a time. Out walking one day, stark naked – not unusual in wild places at the time – he was aghast to stumble upon a bucolic yacht-load of visitors picnicking directly on his route back to house and fire. Eventually he was forced to pick his way back past them with ‘an apron of gossamer fern’ and as much dignity as he could summon, to revive his precious but by now dying flame.

Despite such minor setb

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About the contributor

Ariane Bankes recently compiled, with Jonathan Reekie, the New Aldeburgh Anthology, another homage to place, but one considerably less demanding of its visitors.

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