The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange

The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange

published by William Collins

The story of a breath-taking kayak journey along the weather-ravaged coasts of Atlantic Britain and Ireland and a lyrical exploration into the ways in which wind, rock and ocean have shaped the diverse communities of coastal Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. 

Over the course of a year, leading historian and nature writer David Gange kayaked the weather-ravaged coasts of Atlantic Britain and Ireland from north to south: every cove, sound, inlet, island.

The idea was to travel slowly and close to the water, as millions did in eras when coasts were the main arteries of trade and communication, and so build a history of coastal living. Drawing on the archives of islands and coastal towns, as well as their vast poetic literatures, he shows that the neglected histories of these stunning regions are of real importance in understanding both the past and future of the whole archipelago.

The journey is one of staggering adventure, range and beauty. For too long the significance of coasts has been underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of their histories rarely explored. This book seeks to put that imbalance right.

About David Gange

David Gange was born in the Peak District. He is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham and has published history books with Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Oneworld Publications. He has appeared on BBC2 and Smithsonian television as well as at the Hay Literary Festival and in the TLS. Recently, he held a research fellowship at the National University of Ireland, Galway. 

Ness

An excerpt from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange, published by William Collins, 2019.

On the morning I set off I had, quite deliberately, told no one in the Western Isles’ northernmost district, Ness, of my need to kayak round their most infamous headland. This is the rocky, windy Butt of Lewis where the swell of the Atlantic meets the tides of the Minch. Later, I was regaled with tales of shipwreck and sea death that might well have sapped the conviction I required to grit my teeth through danger. But I’d learned by now that local knowledge is terrifying, and anyone who heeded it would never kayak anywhere. Children raised on North Atlantic shores are taught to view their own seas as uniquely treacherous. Every fast tide becomes the fastest tide. Every seam where swells converge becomes the most dangerous spot in Scotland. Yet there’s something particular about Outer Hebridean respect for their unquiet ocean: when I’d arrived in Stornoway, people were far more sceptical of my journey than Shetlanders or Orcadians had been. The response I now met was less ‘what a wonderful thing to do’ and more ‘rather you than me’.

I soon saw why. An old Lewis saying – ‘the sea moves faster than the wind’ – rang true as I rounded the Butt. Skies spoke the language of summer: clean, blue and close to calm. Yet the sea seemed to contain the violent energies of winter. Coastal kayaking is different here from in the Northern Isles because land drops away slowly rather than suddenly, leaving shallow inshore waters and multitudes of reefs. These obstacles for the incoming ocean transform swell into tall breakers that can run huge distances before erupting on the shore. Within ten minutes of launching I watched spume climb cliffs, reaching so high that the water from each wave barely began its descent to the sea when the next bombardment hit: the result was a great salt Niagara that foamed just half a mile from a massive tidal stream known locally as ‘the river’. I knew then that every landing between the networks of boat-shredding rocks which guard each beach would be a lottery.

In the mid twentieth century, these deeply historic islands were the most economically depressed regions of Britain. They had the highest unemployment and the least chance of retaining young people. This was when studies of the area described a ‘cultural backwater’ and even many islanders began to believe the narratives of failure. ‘Traditional’ was now a term to contrast unfavourably with ‘modern’. In the face of economic crisis, a bright future was one in which mainland, urban culture ameliorated the isles. Everything distinctive about Lewis was seen as an embarrassment that impeded regeneration and left the island floundering in the past. One Ness resident told me that once a cash economy was in place, crofting seemed unsustainable. He described 1940s women in their early teens wandering to the port seeking work in mainland hotels; he described his own act of setting off for

Customs House, aged seventeen, to join a huge merchant vessel in which hundreds of youths set out for South Georgia. With movement on this scale, the transgenerational transfer of stories, on which Ness identity and culture is constructed, had little hope of surviving the century; nor did island Gaelic.

Central to the language’s impediments were the Education Acts of the early 1870s. For much of the British Isles these celebrated Acts heralded a bold new dawn of educational opportunity, but for anywhere with different educational needs from urban England, the new standards were disastrous. They were, to the educationalist Farquhar Macintosh, ‘the most serious blow that Gaelic suffered, more than . . . the clearances or even . . . the terrible toll that was taken of Gaelic-speakers in the First World War’.

The Scottish Act assumed that speaking Gaelic interfered with the proper learning of English and so held back the development and opportunities of any child unlucky enough to be a Gael. Overnight, schools born of Gaelic communities became alien, English-speaking units. As Christine Smith observed when visiting rural Lewis in the 1940s, the most mundane features of mainland textbooks – railway stations, lamp posts or cricket bats – were as unrecognisable and irrelevant to children as guga would have been in Clapham. Iain Crichton Smith wrote that in a short bus ride from school to home ‘I moved between two worlds’; he had never left Lewis but had never read books that didn’t come from England or America. The result was that, where English children found the culture of the home buttressed and confirmed in school, the first intellectual training for Gaelic-speakers served to ‘undermine, to weaken and to harass’ the home’s heritage.

This education, lauding mainland monarchs and remote English cities, left children ill-equipped to comprehend and value local life. As Crichton Smith put it, ‘the island seemed to have no history [because] it never occurred to anyone to tell us’. Lewis felt, as a result, like ‘a hard bleak island which did not reverberate when one touched it with one’s mind’. Children were educated as though Lewis was just a stepping stone to ‘more important’ places: ‘slowly’, wrote one activist in the 1970s, ‘the folk of Ness see the viability of their Gaelic community disappearing . . . we have been educated for one purpose – to be shipped across the Minch to find work’.

When I left my kayak on a beach beneath a cemetery and wandered inland, the building I arrived at had witnessed all these changes. As the school for several Ness townships it once had 265 pupils but, after decades of declining numbers, had closed. In 2011 it was reopened as an archive, museum and café. I’d heard this centre was run by the local history society (Comunn Eachdraidh Nis) and was now, remarkably, the biggest employer in the region, so I was intrigued to see their work.

Salty and damp, I stepped into an archive which was so bustling with people that it felt entirely unlike the quiet emptiness historians anticipate of urban equivalents. Locals switched between Gaelic and English as they conferred with each other and with the Canadians and Australians brought to the resource in search of Ness ancestors. Over and over again I heard visitors and locals find points of commonality in relations who died a century ago, or in Ness trades now gone.

Within an hour the centre’s guiding star, Annie MacSween, had ushered me to another room to speak to local retirees about my kayak journey. One of them told me how the villages of Ness had migrated inland when the road was built. Buildings that once faced the ocean had been rebuilt 200 yards uphill to face the cart track instead: this community’s perspective on the world had been transformed. An hour later, MacSween was helping me find documents to learn of the historical society’s early work. But only later, when I began cross-referencing texts from Ness with others in Stornoway archives, did I discover the scale of MacSween’s own contribution to Lewis life. This wasn’t just a matter of dedication to community, but of a visionary approach to both history and social regeneration.

In 1970, the first stirrings were taking place of processes that offered hope to coastal regions such as Ness and laid the basis for the revival of Gaelic. One important step was the reorganisation of local authorities: rather than being split between faraway mainland councils in Dingwall and Inverness, the Western Isles became a unified body and public servants could operate from Stornoway rather than living far across the Minch. This reverse of the island ‘brain drain’ assisted the attraction of resources from private as well as public bodies. The Bernard van Leer Foundation, established in 1949 by the Dutch oil magnate Bernard van Leer to aid every area in which his outfit operated (from Colombia to Finland via Ness), began to see the need to avoid central, patrician provision in favour of control by people it labelled ‘free-wheeling activists’ with ‘a finger on the pulse, who can respond quickly to needs as they emerge’. But even this organisation couldn’t have foreseen how the people of Ness would use their funds.

With Van Leer funding, MacSween (then Annie MacDonald) and her peers pioneered one of the most successful job-creation schemes in the history of the Scottish coastline, not by founding a fishing co-operative, a credit union or a transport company but by recruiting five unemployed young people and a project leader, Agnes Gillies (tempted back to her native Ness from Aberdeen), to collect oral histories from locals. At first this novelty looked eccentric. In a 1979 interview, Macdonald noted the concerns of her critics: ‘perhaps they thought it wasn’t the best way to spend public money. Maybe they thought the past was dead.’ They had reason to be sceptical: Scottish studies in this era took folklore from the Gàidhealtachd but showed no ability, nor even ambition, to feed back into the culture it collected

from. Yet the legitimacy brought by official funding made it possible for the Ness group to begin a historical scheme crafted to stimulate ‘the people of the Western Isles to perceive their own community more clearly’. The possibility of a constructive cycle, where society made history and history made society, was born.

Nothing could be achieved economically, Macdonald had realised, until the narrative in which Ness people placed their lives was turned around. And the group’s purpose was simple: by recovering the herring girl, small crofter and Gaelic singer from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ they aimed to show that mainland pasts taught in schools were not the only worthy histories. The historical society was like shell-sand worked through acid bog: an antidote to the idea that Gaelic culture was intrinsically inferior.

Many historians like to think they offer hope in the present. The question ‘what is the nature of the present?’, these historians argue, can be answered only comparatively, and the past is our only real source of comparison. It shows us there are other ways to live than those most widely practiced today. The past is full not of dead things but of unfinished business: germs of fruitful routes as yet untravelled. Every coastal ruin whose living cultures were once steamrollered by the homogenising logics of industrial capitalism is a site at which the possibilities for an escape from those logics can be entertained. However, few historians find themselves genuinely empowered to turn analyses of past or present into better futures. In this sense, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis are inspirational: they have done, on minimal resources, what much larger historical bodies can often only dream of. This is why the Western Isles should be a site of pilgrimage for anyone who wonders what history can do or how historical thinking can be made to matter.