Introduction

flying tern
Geoff Rand
A tern population, resurgent over the past decade, nests and breeds at the Isles from late spring to early summer.

Our islands, far at sea, held unusual attraction for visitors from the busy cities of the mainland. The bracing air came over miles of water, pure and invigorating, and there was perfect quiet except for the murmur of the ocean about the shore. . . {Laighton, p. 101}

Oscar Laighton, whose family owned and ran hotels at the Isles of Shoals throughout the second half of the 19th century, wrote this in the 1920s, looking back on a lifetime spent five miles offshore. The sense of remoteness that he identifies has characterized these islands since Europeans arrived in the New World.

Early fishermen used the Shoals to dry their catch for transport to markets around the Atlantic. (The best explanation of the Isles' name is that "Shoals" refers to schools of fish rather than shallow water). As these shore stations grew in to modest settlements, they remained focused on the surrounding ocean and isolated from mainland institutions. The resort hotels which replaced fishing as the Isles' primary activity did so, as Oscar Laighton suggests, by treating this isolation as an attribute.

What's perhaps most remarkable about the Isles of Shoals today is how easy it still is to get that sense of being 'apart from the main' here. Even when the Thomas Laighton (named irreverently for Oscar's father) cruises through the harbor at sunset blasting dance music, you know that in 15 minutes or so it will be gone.

more on Isles of Shoals. . .