Friday, April 17, 2020

The Frayed Atlantic Edge - David Gange

I bought this book more or less the instant it came out last July and have been circling round it ever since. It was always going to be the next book I read, or the book that I dipped into for quick previews, but as sometimes happens with hotly anticipated titles I was reluctant to actually sit down and read it. In this case if I'm honest, because I knew I'd have to really think about what I was reading, and I've been more interested in escapist reading which would stop me thinking.

Last week it finally seemed like the right time to start it, and it did make me think (there are more, and more, scribbled notes in the margins as the book goes on), and has left me with a whole lot of questions which are perhaps easy enough to answer to my own satisfaction, but would be better for debating with someone who has a different set of prejudices and views. Happily there is a blog that accompanies the book - The Frayed Atlantic Edge - that includes an extensive bibliography, a lot more photographs, and the promise that there's a more formal project in the works which sounds like it will expand on a lot of the areas I have those questions about.

'The Frayed Atlantic edge' is more or less exactly as the subtitle describes it - a historian's journey from Shetland to the Channel, an historian's travel journal is what you get. The journey itself takes in Shetland and Orkney, the west coast of Scotland with a little bit of the highlands as well as the inner and outer Hebrides, Northern Ireland, Eire, Wales, and a chunk of Cornwall all tackled by kayak over the course of a year.

The common thread is the Atlantic facing west coast which is significant to all the communities along this coastline, but doesn't necessarily tie them together. Shetland and Orkney have a distinctly different history, culture, and language (they are not part of the Gaelic or Celtic world) and look East as much as West. North Sea oil has given them a degree of prosperity since the 1970's that's only started to noticeably diminish (I'm thinking specifically of Shetland here, which I know best) in the last few years, leaving the community decades behind in facing some stark choices about sustainability.

Skye has it's own set of issues around tourism and trying to balance the needs of the local community with the influx of visitors who provide so much income - it's the cause of a tension that grows with each summer season. What tourism and second homes have done to Cornwall could well serve as a warning for places like Skye, but the problems facing less accessible bits of coastline are different. The way this is handled shows both the strength of a kayak level view of the coastline, and its limitations.

I've had mixed experiences of Orkney, but it's chapter is my favourite in the book for the way it really captures something of the allure of a place where the past constantly keeps you on your toes (in terms of archology Orkney really is spectacular) in a way that I think does suggest possibilities for future ways of living.

The chapters which cover Gaelic speaking Scotland and Ireland are the ones that raise the most questions. I may be wrong but I feel like Gange instinctively supports the idea of re-culturing the highlands and islands, but I lean more towards re-wilding. This seems set to be a particularly contentious issue in Scotland in the next few years, complicated because it's tied to the thorny issue of who owns the land (a very few people own a lot of it) and the still raw wounds caused by clearances and famine.

It's here that it starts to becomes clear how much the landscape changes over time. Sea levels rise and fall, land use changes, coastlines erode and are reshaped, different industries leave their mark, populations and cultures change too, nothing stays still or certain for long. The more I think about this the less I see abandoned communities as a tragedy. However deep the romantic attachment to a place is, these aren't always easy places to live. They're difficult elements to reconcile, and the forced removal of so many people only intensifies that.*

Gange also touches on deep mapping through some of the Irish chapters, which was a new concept to me, and another one which underlines how much things change, and also how much we centre our thinking about the natural world on our ability to name and describe it, and in the process try and domesticate it. Nineteenth century mapping projects anglicised place names across Ireland and Scotland, obscuring their history and purpose in the process, but for all the negative connotations around this (and they are legion) the realisation that it's part of a millennia's old process has shifted my perspective somewhat.

I could go on (and on) with all the questions 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' has raised for me, it's a mark of how much I enjoyed the book. The central idea of changing the perspective that we look at our history and culture from (when you stop seeing the sea as a barrier a lot of ideas change) is something that I've been actively thinking and reading about for a few years now. This book has opened up a virtual library of things to explore as well as being a thoroughly engaging collection of travel notes, history, and observations to spend a difficult week with.  

*Malachy Tallack in both 60 Degrees North, and The Valley at the Centre of the World is really good on both the push and pull effect that Shetland has had on him.

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