Book review – The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel

This is a travelogue the likes of which you do not find often. It tells of historian David Gange’s audacious journey, kayaking the length of the Atlantic coast of the British Isles over the course of a year. His motivation was to challenge established historical narratives that tend to be land-centric and focused on big cities. Wishing to become a more rounded and responsible historian, he literally immersed himself in a different perspective. The Frayed Atlantic Edge seeks to salvage the histories of coastal and island communities and show they have played a far larger role in British history than they are normally given credit for.

The Frayed Atlantic Edge

The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel“, written by David Gange, published by William Collins (a Harper Collins imprint) in July 2019 (hardback, 404 pages)

If Gange’s aim is praiseworthy, his approach has been nothing less than audacious. He admits that the sensible thing would be to kayak south to north with the prevailing winds at his back. Instead, he chose for disorientation by total immersion, jumping into an alien ocean world like “the hare-brained, ill-prepared flop” of a guga (a gannet chick). Starting from the northernmost tip of Shetland in July 2016, he paddled south, passing Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, the whole western coast of Scotland (just for good measure), the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland, and, finally, the coasts of Wales and Cornwall. Nicely prepared maps of the route open each chapter.

Tackling the journey over the course of a year in two-week intervals, Gange wrote up the book in the two weeks between each period at sea. As a consequence, The Frayed Atlantic Edge starts off as a travel narrative, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the sea soon take a backseat to historical research and arguments, as well as critical analysis of literature and poetry. During landings and short trips inland he talks to village elders, poets, artists, farmers, historians, archaeologists, naturalists, etc. and scours local archives, picking the brains of archivists.

Gange channels his trip in evocative prose. On launching from the Shetland Islands, he is accompanied by “flocks of gannets [that] form like cyclones overhead.” Battling around the northernmost headland of the Orkneys he reflects on the changing coastlines, musing that “if timelessness exists anywhere on earth, it is not in sight of the sea”. The Scottish mountains on Skye, Rum, and Mull are “young rock cascades suspended in motionless pouring”. Off the coast of Ireland “horizons bright with golden light spilled between pewter sky and iron ocean”. While off the coast of Munster sits the stupendous skerry (a small, rocky island) of Skellig Michael. Home to a tiny 6th-century monastery, it is so jagged that only small boats can land here, “all pilgrims sit small and low in the water as if in supplication at these immense altars in the ocean”.

“Gange channels his trip in evocative prose; reflecting on changing coastlines, he muses that “if timelessness exists anywhere on earth, it is not in sight of the sea””

There is plenty here for readers of nature writing to enjoy, and Gange’s trip is studded with wildlife encounters; curious sea-otters, seals, dolphins and whales aplenty. Two colour plate sections contain breathtaking photographs, while the accompanying website contains hundreds more and has other interesting background material. Though the natural beauty and the battle with the elements is a continuous backdrop, this is no mere adventure story. His mission as historian quickly takes over but is no less fascinating.

The big theme of this book is the marginalisation of coastal communities in historical narratives. Obviously, fishing has always been an important activity (see also my review of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization), as have other subsistence activities such as collecting of bird’s eggs and feathers, hunting of seals and cetaceans, and harvesting of seaweed. But, often overlooked, the Atlantic coast has long been an international trade hub, and Gange traces threads to Iceland, the Americas, Scandinavia, and Africa. Historian Barry Cunliffe has done much to highlight this in his book Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500, and Gange mentions recent works such as Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans as a sign that the tide for oceanic histories is turning.

According to Gange, the period leading up to the 19th century marked a sea change. He scoffs at terms such as “the Enlightenment” and “Renaissance” as “an identity politics that values the rich alone”: while big cities such as London and Edinburgh flourished, coastal communities went into near-terminal decline. The modernisation of this era affected numerous aspects, customs, and habits. Modern agricultural methods led to the decline of old farming practices, often degrading the land. Only in the last decade has there been a recognition that traditional crofting practices are the only sustainable form of agriculture in this kind of marginal landscape.

“[…] while big cities such as London and Edinburgh flourished, coastal communities went into near-terminal decline”

Many historic episodes Gange touched on were new for me. I was particularly shocked reading the effect of the Education Acts in the 1870s which sought to standardise education across the British Isles and went hand-in-hand with anti-Gaelic propaganda. It resulted in children who were ill-prepared to value or comprehend local life and who, in the words of an embittered older generation, were educated for one purpose only: to leave their communities to work in the cities.

More recently, Ireland joining the European Economic Zone opened up its waters to international fishing fleets, resulting in “resource-raids inspired by short-term profit in contrast to the long-term custodianship” by local communities. Gange is level-headed enough to not lay the blame with European administrators, but with Irish regulators, insensitive to the needs of their islanders. Similarly, plans by multinationals such as Shell to drill for oil off the Irish coast have met with fierce resistance.

“I was particularly shocked reading the effect of the Education Acts in the 1870s which sought to standardise education across the British Isles and went hand-in-hand with anti-Gaelic propaganda”

Besides the geopolitics, Gange explores the legacy of literature, art, poetry, and (particularly overlooked) oral history. Obviously, they offer a window onto a different era, but recently they have become a vehicle for a renewed interest in local languages. Local archives and historical societies are seeing much footfall, and the opening of local universities means there is a renewed interest in local cultural heritage. I admit that I found some of these sections a bit abstruse, although that reflects on me not being much of an arts and literature buff, rather than on Gange’s writing.

English kayaking literature has a long history, going back to Dunnett & Adam’s exploration of the Highlands in 1934, immortalised in their book The Canoe Boys: The First Epic Scottish Sea Journey by Kayak. Since then, plenty of people have taken to Scottish waters (see the classic Blazing Paddles: A Scottish Coastal Odyssey) or paddled around Ireland (see On Celtic Tides: One Man’s Journey Around Ireland by Sea Kayak, Dances with Waves: Around Ireland by Kayak, or Paddle: A Long Way Around Ireland). Although all of these contain some of it, The Frayed Atlantic Edge stands out for its focus on history over adventure. I expect that those with an interest in the local communities at the margins of the British Isles will devour this book, and it powerfully argues its central message for a rereading of history. But thanks to its evocative writing, it succeeds both as a history book and a travel narrative.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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