The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Remarkable Perspective On The Coast

by Alastair Hamilton -

An absorbing new book recounts an extraordinary adventure by kayak that took historian David Gange all the way down the western coasts of the British Isles, beginning in Shetland.

The Frayed Atlantic Edge is based on the view that the significance of our coasts has been under-estimated and that one way of putting that right is to explore them by small boat. As his book demonstrates, doing so offers a perspective and a richness of experience that must once have been familiar to the earliest seafarers. In a very real sense, he asserts,

“the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role…All British history looks different when inland cities are made remote by seeing them from Atlantic shorelines, and the most powerful element of a year’s journey by kayak was immersion in that changed perspective.”

the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role

Indeed, immersion was the word that leapt to mind when I attended the launch of the book in the Shetland Library, for it was clear that the slow journey had enabled David to dive deeply into local history and culture. While in Shetland, he had made excellent use of the Shetland Library and the Shetland Archives.

His own talk on that memorable evening was framed by contributions from three award-winning Shetland-based writers, namely Jen Hadfield, Sally Huband and Donald S Murray; and there were fiddle tunes from another award-winner, Shetland Young Fiddler of the Year Emma Leask – you can see that evening’s performance here. David’s empathy with, and understanding of, Shetland is really striking, clearly derived from a curiosity, a listening ear and an attention to detail; but that’s equally true of all the other places he visits along the Atlantic edge.

The idea of undertaking such a journey had occurred to David during an earlier kayaking exploration that took him to the Summer Isles, off Scotland’s north-west coast. The scale and diversity of that landscape prompted a realisation that his explorations thus far had exposed “mere fragments of something huge”, and he resolved to change that. But he was also driven by the knowledge that earlier historians had often pursued their studies outdoors, where reading and reflection might best be done.

The journey began during a Shetland summer, continuing through a Scottish winter and an Irish spring before concluding in Wales and Cornwall as a second summer arrived. It happened to be a particularly good Shetland summer, too, one of several in the past few years, and although the Shetland phase of the journey wasn’t without incident, the weather was mostly benign: his first night, spent above Unst’s seabird cliffs, was followed by a morning that was all ”sunshine and stillness.”

Once afloat, paddling towards the rock that marks the northern end of the UK, he was accompanied by a “cyclone” of gannets, great skuas (bonxies), black guillemots (tysties) and puffins (nories). However, the serenity of the weather wasn’t matched by the waves and tides in the exposed waters west of Unst:

“I hit a wall of breakers and swell that beat against the most preposterous cliffs I’d ever looked up at…Twice in the first half-hour, an unforeseen peak forced me sideways and into the ocean and I had to flick my hips to roll back upright…Passing down Unst was the hardest day’s travel I’d ever done.”

But although his kayaking skills were tested at other times, those two rolls turned out to be David’s only involuntary submarine adventures. With weather that was much more serene than he’d expected, he was able to find plenty of time for reading and for thinking up “questions for present-day islanders and for the past Shetlanders whose lives persist in the archives”. In the first chapter, he recounts in some detail the history of Shetland boats and quotes some of the poetry of T A Robertson, whose pen-name was Vagaland. He explains the “geological distinctiveness” that “has drawn scientists and artists to Shetland for generations”, including Hugh MacDiarmid.

David’s journey continued down the west coast of Shetland, taking in the outstanding cliff scenery of Eshaness, Papa Stour and Muckle Roe.

Guided to its tiny harbour by a poem written by Christine de Luca, David spends a night on Havera (below), a small island that had once supported a population of around 30 but has been uninhabited since 1923 .

He absorbs its history from the wonderful, beautifully-illustrated book that was published some years ago and explores the remains of its unique windmill.

Later, he listens to recordings of some of those who lived there. This intimacy with the communities he visits is one of the qualities that sets this book apart.

His voyage continues past Fitful Head to the southernmost point of the Shetland mainland, Sumburgh Head, and then takes in a night-time visit to the Broch of Mousa – where he photographs the tiny storm petrels that breed in its walls.

His Shetland sojourn concludes on the westernmost island of Foula, where – at last – he encounters some properly stormy weather.

The second chapter of The Frayed Atlantic Edge immerses the reader in the landscape and culture of Orkney, once again exploring that archipelago not only physically but through the writings of George Mackay Brown, Amy Liptrot and others. And beyond Orkney, his absorption in geography, geology, ornithology, botany, literature, archaeology and history – and the relationships between them – illuminates that Atlantic edge all the way to Cornwall.

Some of the journey is undertaken over land. Winter finds David on the moors and peaks of the Western Highlands, far from roads or houses, sleeping in bothies and carrying an inflatable kayak for use in crossing lochs. On every page, there are insights into local history, for example the iron-working that long ago devastated the ancient woodland on the shores of Loch Maree and the “mildly shambolic” origins of the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve.

on every page, there are insights into local history

As in the Shetland chapter, the ecology and botany of these uplands is described as knowledgeably and comprehensively as that of the coasts. And everywhere, the absorption into the narrative of the cultural foreground – whether it’s the work of Jen Hadfield, Sorley MacLean or, in Ireland, Seamus Heaney – hugely enriches this odyssey.

The final chapter of the book, written a year after the voyage concluded, is an epilogue, a reflection on the experience and on the insights that it offered not only into all of those coastal communities, but into contemporary urban culture, too. It involved a further expedition, to the west of Ireland – and a further submarine excursion, this time premeditated – in an effort to “prompt ideas about the difference that seeing Ireland from their watery edges makes.”

He realises that “traditional narratives of British and Irish history cannot possibly account for the composition of these coastlines. Those interpretations aren’t just landlocked but largely London-locked, imposing shapes on the past that explain how the metropolis became the place it is.” These interpretations also mask the potential of the coastal edge, when what is needed is “celebration of locality and littleness, against the homogeneity of nation.”

As he points out – and so convincingly confirms – “the most interesting phenomena regularly occur in the margins between disciplines”; and this is part of what makes David’s approach to history so compelling. Both in person and on the printed page, no listener or reader can fail to be struck by his breadth of view and ability to make effortlessly lucid connections between poetry, natural history, archaeology, political history and much else.

He concludes:

“Far from installing an alternative vision to the naïve romanticism I set out with, the journey had shown me that a romanticism which delves into the natures of humans and their fellow species, finding wonder while rooted in the real, might not be so naïve after all.”

Sharing this journey with David feels like a remarkable privilege, as well as a joy; and that is more than sufficient reason to read this book. The beautiful jacket design by Joe McLaren hints at the delights within.

But The Frayed Atlantic Edge should find a place on the bookshelves not only of those whose real or spiritual home is on that edge, but those of historians, geographers and – perhaps most of all – administrators and decision-makers. It’s published by William Collins at £18.99.

You can also visit the excellent associated website, where there are more resources; these include many wonderful images, among them an extensive set covering the Shetland chapter. I am very grateful to David for permission to reproduce a selection of them here.

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