Reviewed by Peter Reason
David Gange is historian at the University of Birmingham and has a passion for mountains and wild water. Well before The Frayed Atlantic Edge was published, I came across him on Twitter and through his blog, Mountain, Coast, River, much appreciating his stunning photographs from the western coasts of the British Isles, taken at sea level from a kayak (these are now available on the website that accompanies the book, https://frayedatlanticedge.wordpress.com/).
The Frayed Atlantic Edge is the story of a journey by sea kayak from Out Stack, the scrap of rock beyond Muckle Flugga at the northern extreme of the Shetland Islands, down the western coasts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, ending at the Seven Stones reef off Land’s End. Gange describes the moment he decided to embark on this journey, waking one morning after a night on Eilean a’ Chlèirich, anglicized as Priest Island, in the Summer Isles north of Ullapool in Scotland. This is an extraordinarily remote place—as I know from having sailed past in my yacht Coral, gale force wind gusting down the mountains, with a scrap of genoa and three reefs in the mainsail, spray flying everywhere. Gange tells how, after a night in his waterproof sleeping bag, ‘enmeshed in a driftnet of wetness’ he woke to a clear day. From his vantage point he could see in all directions, ‘the tattered ocean-gouged fringe of northern Britain’. He realized that while the distance from John O’Groats to Land’s End was a mere 600 miles, it encompassed thousands of miles of coastline; and innumerable communities whose lives—between land and ocean and yet in both land and ocean—have been ignored, devalued, undermined by a culture and history that emphasises urban centres, modernity and progress. It would deserve a lifetime’s exploration.
The result is an engaging book for the general reader, and not only for those who, like me, are drawn to the sea in small boats. It is also an intellectually significant because it de-centres the narrative from urban centres and focusses instead on the shorelines. Throughout, the reader is shown that land meets ocean not as a distinct line but as a ‘wide seam’: ‘the subjective shore zone extends everywhere the influence of land and sea intermingle’, as Gange writes from Connacht. And we should be wary of words like ‘remote’: I used it in the previous paragraph only after checking that Gange had himself used it in his text. For the communities that lived along the coast were once part of an ocean community that extended from the Nordic lands down through the western British Isles, through Brittany and Galicia to the west coast of Africa—and to some extent still are. They are ‘remote’ only from the perspective of a land-based culture; they may have been deemed ‘backward’ but now can be seen as holding possibilities for a different kind of decentred society that we all may need to draw on as mainstream society fractures.
Gange’s journey takes place over a year, in a series of two-week voyages; the chapters of the book follow this sequence. Each includes some account of his experience at sea level—the coastline, sea conditions, wildlife, landing places, the people he meets—and an extended reflection on a theme that arises from that experience and that locality. In the chapter on Shetland the reader first learns something of what it is like to be at sea in a kayak, the attention that must be paid to wave, wind and tide, the physical capabilities and stamina required; and of the experience of finding places to sleep ashore. We read of his close encounters with seabirds—the gannets, guillemots, puffins, skuas and more—that teem the coastline in July. And we are reminded of how this life is diminished: Gange echoes Adam Nicolson’s The Seabirds’ Cry, writing, ‘… this fecundity was spectacular. It felt like a stronghold: a vision, perhaps, of how all these shores must have looked before human action ravaged them’.
From these descriptions Gange riffs off into wider themes. There is a fascinating account of the history and sea-keeping qualities (and otherwise) of the boats used by Shetlanders—’fourareens’ for inshore fishing and carrying supplies, and larger ‘sixareens’ for offshore fishing—and of the challenges of working these seas. He draws also on local poets—Thomas Alexander Robinson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Robin Robertson, Jen Hadfield, Christina de Luca—who have described the land and seascape and its communities in their work. Here also is a discussion of the quality of Shetland dialect, initiating a reflection on language and poetry that continues through the book. He uses the Gaelic and Welsh, rather than the anglicized, versions names of islands, headlands and rocks, wherever possible; and stresses the importance of the language, its local and political consequences, throughout.
After Shetland, Gange travels south and through the year. As the book progresses, he tells us less about the experience of the kayaking and devotes more space to reflections on the life and communities of the area. For me, this meant that some chapters felt out of balance. The chapter on Sutherland and Assynt has a short account of rounding Cape Wrath, and then dwells on the eighteenth-century poet Rob Dunn, who lived at the time of the Hanoverian attacks on the Highlands. The link between kayak and poet is not immediately evident; I would have liked an account of the voyage down the stunning coastline and communities to Ullapool. A later chapter on the Inner Sound and Skye has a fascinating account on the lives of the Mesolithic inhabitants of the Inner Sound. For this region ‘offers a vivid demonstration of the sea’s role as the cohesive element of the Mesolithic world’, who must have relied on craft of similar size to Gange’s kayak. But Gange then passes rather briefly over the rest of the Skye coastline until—a mountaineer before he got into kayaks—he climbs into the Cuillin.
Other readers may feel, as I did, that the different themes of this book—voyage, people, history, language and poetry, wildlife and ecology—could have been more thoroughly drawn together. I was at times frustrated to be taken off into history and poetry when I wanted more of the sea. But to list these themes is to indicate the ambition of this book and the challenge of selecting from and drawing together the huge amount of material the voyage must have generated. Readers will bring their own particular interests and track different themes through the book.
It is in the chapters exploring Ulster and Connacht that the book most effectively integrates the kayak voyage with the history and present circumstance of communities along the shoreline. Here is a long description of Oileán Thoraí, Tory Island, whose spirited inhabitants and remote location enabled a long resistance to the influence of landlords from the mainland. Here also is an account of kayaking in the turbulent waters around the Stags of Broadhaven—‘five jagged heaps, surreally precipitous and frighteningly exposed’.
This account of turbulent water leads directly into stories of the significance of the wild seas for local communities. Gange shows clearly the historical bias toward south-east Ireland and Dublin, and how the ‘power, wealth and sophistication of the west coast’ belong to a different world that has been overlooked. While outsiders increasingly influenced the southeast, the west continued its own seaboard trade, with fleets of vessels ideally suited to natural anchorages. ‘In Donegal webs of Atlantic exchange run northward’; archaeological explorations show more links with Iberia than England. ‘That the myth of remoteness could survive so long is a measure of how far historians, if not the people of Connemara themselves, have lost their understanding of the sea’.
Gange describes meeting the cartographer Tim Robinson, renowned for his two books on Aran and three on Connemara, which deepens his understanding of coastline. We learn to see modern mapping as a colonial project that shifted the emphasis from sea to the land; how Admiralty cartographers anglicised and so misrepresented highly descriptive Gaelic names for islands and rocks. While modern maps draw the coast with a line that has no width, in experience, ‘land and sea entwine their twisted fingers’. He quotes Robinson as pointing out that a cliff face is ignored by a conventional map, but traditionally ‘was a wider province of the islander’s mental landscape, a theatre of anecdote, tradition, boast and dream’, with the ‘cliffmen’ who worked these places passing along vertiginous pathways to harvest marine and avian wealth—and also to evade the customs officials searching for illicit goods.
Gange argues that it was the Enlightenment idea of progress, and the movement toward integration of the whole nation in a monetary economy that undermined these communities: ‘The ideology of progress involved annihilating the communal culture… not because it was anachronistic or failing but because it represented an alternative set of values that could threaten, through competition, the fragile ideas of the new political economy’. The monetary economy demands, for example, a separation of work and recreation that is ‘meaningless when work was an occasion for song and story’. This monetarising and centralising influence continues to this day, against the interests of local communities: oil, gas, offshore fishing, salmon farming are all controlled by distant interests.
As one who has sailed in a small yacht singlehanded through many of the seas Gange has paddled in his kayak, I am struck by the significance of the perspective it brings. I thought I was close up and personal in a ten-metre yacht with less than a metre of freeboard; but Gange travels more in the water than on it. His small and manoeuvrable craft enables him to explore bays and skerries out of my reach with a two-metre draft; and I cannot but be envious of his startlingly close encounters with dolphins, whales, otters and seabirds. Perspectives from a small craft are utterly distinct from that of a land-based writer. Gange also brings a trained historian’s perspective to his voyage and to his writing. It a historian’s perspective whose scholarship is infused with a romanticism, as he makes clear (I nearly wrote, ‘confesses to’) in his final chapter. He writes that immersion in these worlds has not cured him of his romanticism: ‘It isn’t romanticism that needs to be cleared from perspectives on these places, but the assumption that these communities somehow belong to the past, not the future, and a merely hazy places to escape to’.
This an engaging book, elegantly produced by William Collins, with an evocative cover, extensive maps and colour illustrations. An excellent contribution to the broad fields of ‘travel’ and ‘nature’ literature, with the significant addition of a historian’s perspective. I am sure there is more to look forward to in David Gange’s writing.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His most recent publication is On Presence: Essays | Drawings, with artist Sarah Gillespie http://peterreason.eu/OnPresence.html. His writing includes In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea (Vala Publications and Jessica Kingsley, 2014). Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu and on Twitter @peterreason.
David Gange, The Frayed Atlantic Edge. (William Collins, 2019). 978-0008225117, 400pp., hardback.BUY from Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.