In July 2016, David Gange began a year kayaking the Atlantic coastlines from Shetland to Cornwall. His aim was to travel slowly and close to the water, connecting with both the natural world and the histories of the communities he visited. Being a historian, he spent as much time in local archives as in his boat, gathering stories and considering what Britain and Ireland look like when viewed with an oceanic focus.
The result is his new book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge. Seldom have we encountered a work that engages with its subjects in such a cognisant way. The many islands Gange visits are seen as anchor points for important aspects of social and economic history, understandings of community and place, and locations of outstanding natural beauty.
Roundly praised by critics, The Frayed Atlantic Edge was BBC Countryfile’s book of the month in August. Given such a glowing backdrop, it was only right that we had our go too. So we sent Mr Gange seven questions, to which he responded most generously with not just words, but photographs too …
How is your kayak a tool for understanding the history of Britain's coastal communities?
Kayaks offer an extraordinary vantage point for viewing wildlife, the sea itself, and the many layers of history on coastlines. Realising why buildings were built where they were – as you see them line up as navigational ‘sea marks’ to help a small boat past a reef - is just one reminder of how much our heritage was made to be seen from the sea. Closeness to water, whether in crossing rivers, travelling coasts or negotiating marshes, is now far less common than it was before the modern draining of land, bridging of streams, and building of huge ships that separate their occupants from the sea. Journeying at sea level, on the coastal and inter-island routes that were once travelled by countless families, allows for many different kinds of historical recovery.
There are other ways in which the past is accessible here as in few other places: the cross sections of deep time in sea cliffs, for instance, or the historic tragedies that mean histories on coastlines often aren’t built over with the same regularity as elsewhere. One thing I loved in many island communities though, was the persistence of a strong sense of connection to sea traditions. I benefited far more from the hospitality of islanders in Shetland, the Western Isles or the Irish Islands (often expressed in bowls of soup, cups of tea and local lore) than I would have done from months of staring at cliffs and guillemots without their guidance. And I think my kayak served as a signal that I was really trying to immerse myself in these coastlines: I might’ve been given much less tea, soup and story had I arrived by car.
Throughout the book, you show the peculiarities of each place and community you visit, highlighting points of commonality but emphasising distinctiveness in language, culture and history. Why did you feel this was an important approach?
One of my main goals was to defamiliarise the geographies of Britain that appear in many history books. The first step was to root perspectives in Atlantic coastlines, which are, after all, far more ‘central’ to the British and Irish archipelago than the south-eastern periphery that contains London. This meant moving through regions in which English was often a second language: Shaetlan, Gaelic, Irish and Welsh predominating for a large proportion of the journey. And, as in most of history (when population was spread much more evenly throughout Britain and Ireland), England was not in any way a predominant part of the story, featuring here only in the very last of twelve months’ travel.
But there was a further step beyond this. Nature writing has sometimes presented coastlines as wild and detached from history, and they’re often written about in journalism, as well as by historians, as though they’re almost interchangeable. I wanted to show how, even where the ingredients of water, weather, rock and kelp have been similar, islands and their communities are phenomenally diverse because of divergent processes of history.
The whole Atlantic littoral was knitted together by networks of trade and travel in which sea superpowers, whether Norway, Ireland or the Lords of the Isles, spread their varied influence far and wide, but individual islands negotiated their ways through turbulent centuries (especially the dark ages of the nineteenth and early twentieth) in unique ways. The effects remain visible from the water, legible in archives, and audible in dialects, today.
You met and spoke with many people - artists, historians, archivists, fishermen - and socialised in the places where you landed. You write about how people in different communities reacted differently to you and your boat. Why do you think that was?
I was taken aback by the unexpected generosity people showed; it was incredible how encountering one interesting person always seemed to spiral into a string of wonderful meetings. Long evenings in coastal pubs – where no one seemed to mind the smell of damp neoprene – or days sitting through bad weather, writing in cafes, could feel as serendipitous as finding yourself kayaking through a pod of dolphins.
I found it really remarkable just how differently the places I travelled through viewed their coasts. Irish culture faces up to the Atlantic in ways that nowhere else does (except perhaps Shetland). The tradition of taking tiny boats out onto the ocean in any weather survives in Ireland far more than anywhere in Britain, as do traditions of things like shops with only sea and no road access. So in Ireland I was treated as entirely normal. The Western Isles have the shelter of the Minch to fish in, so make less use of their ferocious Atlantic waters. When I was in Lewis and Barra I was often met with a shudder of incomprehension and a cautionary story of shipwreck: because I was kayaking down ‘the wrong side’ I was a strange novelty or a person with a death wish.
But there are long cultural traditions to consider too. For a Shetlander, the words ‘Nort Atlantik’ conjure a particular body of modern literature that shapes attitudes to sea travel. For someone on Lewis, Cuan Siar (the Gaelic Atlantic) has an entirely different set of literary and historical associations. So the meaning of a little boat adrift on the lore-layered ocean isn’t even similar.
The biggest difference, however, was between the journey from Shetland to Ireland, and that down Wales and England. For almost all the last two months, the idea of coastal travel didn’t seem to resonate with people I encountered in the same way, so I wasn’t met with stories and soup but with much more indifference. I might be being unfair to those places in saying this, but to me it felt like I’d reached regions where practical, living memory of maritime tradition was confined to a smaller minority.
After Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and Cape Wrath, you move away from the coast to travel through Wester Ross. How did this mountain passage help make sense of the islands, and vice versa.
The idea was to cross the mountains while remaining in sight of the sea, and to use a 2kg packraft to cross lochs and sea lochs rather than to walk round them. There were many points of contrast. One of the most obvious was perhaps the super-abundant life of the shoreline, in contrast to the diminished biodiversity of our largely devastated uplands. Another contrast was the way in which kayaking islands and coastlines almost never feels ‘remote’ because it’s rarely really all that far between shops, cafes and villages: there’ll be somewhere to stock up every day or two. But some regions of mainland can feel like the word ‘remote’ isn’t entirely inappropriate. I found stories of, for instance, the first family to move into the building at Shenavall that’s now the bothy seen in a thousand calendars. In the imposing shadow of An Teallach, they were frequently entirely isolated by snowfall for months on end and had to make stocks last half a year at a time. Rough seas might isolate an island, but only ever briefly. Until the advent of modern technologies, winter storms could be crueller inland than out at sea.
In Ireland, your time with Tim Robinson transformed your thinking about cliff edges. What was it about his mapmaking that changed your perspective?
Tim could humanise a lump of coal. The way he threads delicate, ironic, emotive stories round every taing, over each headland, and into every geo is unrivalled. And he’s a quiet, gentle and understated radical protestor against imperium. The fusions of art and science in his maps find truth when they reject literal precision, and they coax hundreds of warm, unexpected stories out of the hardest coastal stone. The bird’s eye perspective of most maps makes cliff faces unrepresentable: vast vertical drops into the sea appear infinitesimal. So Robinson artistically stretches his cliffs a few millimetres sideways, just enough to swathe them with the Irish-language names that official mapping ignored, and just enough to tie into them endless stories of the wheezy old men and women, with comic turns of phrase, who made their living from the flora, fauna and mineral wealth of these grand, craggy theatres of island culture. I remember a grim night at Slyne Head – in constant rain, by a roaring sea, with no tent and no shelter and only sodden bits of bread, cheese and chocolate to eat. But the scene couldn’t feel wild because I had with me Tim’s stories that reveal the multitude of ways in which this ferocious little headland, thrust far into the Atlantic, was entirely domestic.
I felt cold to my bones just reading this book. The descriptions of your experiences on the sea are vivid and sometimes utterly terrifying. How was being in the sea fundamental to rebalancing the way that the history of these islands is understood?
Being comfortable in the cold (I’m extremely useless in hot temperatures) was probably my best qualification for doing this project. And maybe the fact of my discomfort in what most people would consider the proper temperature for an ordinary working environment is part of what prods me not to ignore the ways environments shape life. It’s too easy for writers in disciplines like history to fall into the trap of thinking that social processes stop at the edge of human society: confined to interactions between humans. You can’t fall into that trap if you’re in a tiny, fragile craft bobbing up and down on the most powerful entity on our planet – the engine of all our climate – in which changing habits of species like herrings have been the making and breaking of whole societies.
Travelling at close quarters to hundreds of species, it’s instantly obvious how dramatic are their histories. I landed on islands whose human communities left in the 1930s, which are now covered in birds such as fulmars and great skuas that didn’t breed on those shores in the era when people did. I travelled south down Shetland as a pod of orca travelled north. Fifty years ago Shetland’s rumours of large sea beasts were of huge sharks: orca were never seen and even familiar common dolphins and porpoises were rarities too. Our histories are as entangled as our ecosystems because our ecosystems are entwined round every aspect of our histories. And each ‘our’ in that sentence must include herrings and huss as well as humans if it’s to make sense of any of them.
Your book feels alive with stories. It opens up new ways of thinking about histories and place that are, as yet, unexplored. Where will it take you next?
My next plan is to sweep out North and West, exploring the small boat traditions of the North Atlantic world. The project will start in familiar Irish and Scottish territory, but take the stepping stone route via Faroe and Greenland, all the way into the realms of vast networks of small-boat trade that linked Baffin Island the Great Lakes and the Caribbean in an era when the wheel was still a barely functioning technology. It’ll offer lots of opportunity to be out in boats, but these will be canvas or clinker rather than carbon fibre, and I’ll be drawing much more on the historical knowledge of heritage boat builders around the Atlantic, as well as on the artistic and philosophical perspectives of writers such as Kamau Brathwaite, who challenged the marginalisation of water in modern conceptualisations of the world. I’m practicing my portrait photography, and thinking too about how to incorporate art and poetry (neither by me! But both, as Rachel Carson understood so well, among our best forms of approach to ocean).
The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange is published by Harper Collins.
All photographs shown here are courtesy of David Gange.