The Frayed Atlantic Edge: a review

by frankbeswick

David Gange's book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge, is an original work that combines historical thinking with an element of adventure.

The Frayed Atlantic Edge is an account of a succession of kayak journeys down the coasts of Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall undertaken as a means of doing history by reflecting on personal experience. It is in the tradition of the historian Trevelyan, who believed that a historian should be physically involved rather than cooped up all the time with books [not that books should be neglected.] There are no new facts in this book, but there is sustained reflection on the place of Atlantic cultures in modern urban London-centred Britain.The whole journey is the isles as seen from a small craft, as our ancestors once saw them.

Image by jaxbartram, of Pixabay

Rejecting Conventional Histories

We cannot know history by direct experience, for unless we have lived through it, it is not directly accessible to our senses. All that we can do is pick up and interpret clues, but the author, as a history lecturer at a university, is aware that history is always written from a standpoint, which can be subjective and one-sided, even biased. Historians have in the past belittled Black people, but it is not only they who are belittled in racist histories, for in the British Isles Irish and Highland Scots got similar treatment. Gange writes to expose the one-sided historiography of  the British academic, cultural and political establishment and the metropolitan focus that has so skewed its judgment. 

Gange takes aim at certain grand historical schema, the Renaissance and more insistently the Enlightenment, a term that is both self-congratulatory and unjust, for it is not true to claim that people lived in cultural darkness ere a few secular thinkers marched over--confidently onto the stage. Gange points out that the Enlightenment was a victory for certain big cities over other, often fringe cultures, such as the Gaelic cultures of Scotland and Ireland, which have in the arrogant eyes of the metropolitan elites been classed as unproductive sources of trouble. Gange reverses the accusation: we don't have a highland problem, but rather the highlands and islands have a problem with urban domination. 

On his journeys he recounts how economically thriving systems of production which had been in harmony with the local environment for centuries were "modernised" by landlords and thereby rendered uneconomic. His journey began in the Shetland Isles, Britain's most northerly archipelago before progressing to the Orkney Isles, immediately to the south of Shetland.En route he celebrates the legacies of thriving cultures in these isles which are now seen as fringe and exposes the detrimental affects of the landowning class. While this book might feel left wing, which to some degree it is, it is totally free of the convoluted nonsense that constitutes Marxist terminology and the book is more in keeping with the New Economics of Elwin Schumacher and with the modern commitment to ecology. 

While kayaking down the stormy western coasts of the British Isles is an adventure in stormy, turbulent water, Gange downplays the danger that he constantly suffered. We are left with the feeling that he did not want to write an adventure tale, but that his aim was to let the history that he produces keep to centre stage so that the voices of the past and present day cultural survivors be heard. But he cannot escape from revealing something of the danger of the voyage and at times in the book you can pick up the suspense.

The role of the kayak is to hold the various narratives and places together in a common theme, and as such it constitutes an original and stimulating element in the narrative rather like the string that holds beads together. It provides the human interest story which drives  the narrative along. 

The Route

He began in Shetland, negotiating the scenic Ramna Stacks and the beautiful, but narrow passage of Northmavine, pictured in the book, before travelling through the Orkney Isles, where he began on Westray before passing south, exposing the depopulation of certain isles at the hands of callous landlords. Thence he rounded Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point in Scotland to head to the Summer Isles. From there it was not a long hop to the Isle of Lewis, where he beached to explore the Lewis cultural revival.

As kayaking off Scotland in January is suicidal he stored the kayak and walked a succession of peaks in the wilds of Assynt before resuming his trip and visiting Skye, where he did some  walking and researched the Gaelic revival before going on to Islay, the stepping stone to Ireland. He was now entering some rough water. He boated along the north shore of Erin and turned south at Donegal, Then began a tricky passage south, but the strategy was the same,  camp ashore at night and stop at places where he could meet figures of cultural significance.He stowed the kayak at one point and made the trip to Tory Island. There is a gap in his account of the island community's survival, for he mentions the various individuals who were instrumental in saving the community, but overlooks Father O' Peicin, who did much for the isle. This I find a serious lacuna in that part of the book. 

But this one flaw does not vitiate the book, for the rest of the Irish journey is charming and filled with interesting characters, and also is replete with wild life, whales, dolphins and seabirds travel on the same path as he does, and he visits various islands with the poignant ruins of communities slowly being re-absorbed into the earth.  

The next journey is through the Irish Sea  from Inis Enlli [Bardsey] to the Bristol Channel. While concentrating much time and effort on Bardsey, the island of saints, he seems to emphasise culture more than the political and economic struggle which permeates Gaelic history. The islands on the Welsh leg of the journey are fewer and less welcoming, with wardens eager to charge landing fees or prohibit access.

The final leg of the voyage is down to Sennen Cove in Cornwall, and the emphasis is placed squarely on culture, with significant accounts of painters and poets.

The last leg nearly went wrong.He made a fourteen mile trip to the  Seven Stones Reef,hoping to spend a last night camping there, but the whole of this ship's graveyard was foaming white and as night was falling Gange was forced to spend a whole night on water, having to stay awake.He survived the ordeal and, exhausted, paddled back to Sennen Cove. But there is significance in his ordeal. While he had enjoyed some rather good luck with weather conditions, luck can change and the sea will always win in the end.Maybe his luck had begun to run out.

Reflections

Gange places great emphasis on the preservation of culture, and his account of how the community of the Isle of Lewis  was revived through a far-sighted woman who began a project of cultural research in which old songs and tales were collected and published is a wonderful account that deserves to be studied. He ensures that politics and economics are not divorced from the lives and cultures of the ordinary people.This theme is also found strongly in his account of Skye, but it is not as strong in his discussions of Wales and Cornwall.We get the feeling that the Cornish artists and poets are not as socially and politically counter-cultural as the Gaelic ones. 

The author does good work demolishing the notion of the fringe in politics and economics. We are accustomed to the term Celtic fringe being applied to the west of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  Gange's  studies of Ness, on the north coast of  Lewis, and his studies of Ulster show significant trading networks radiating from these areas independent of London and the South of England. This book explores the local industries and farming systems that thrived when local knowledge was dominant before the days when Enlightenment thought became an  elite world-view that belittled and domineered other knowledge systems. Gange also  points out that it was the Enlightenment that gave us scientific racism. Where this has led us is easy to see, and it is not good. 

The Frayed Atlantic Edge is a book that will appeal to anyone interested in the British Isles,particularly the Gaelic cultures and their history. The book will also interest anyone who is into economic thinking alternative to the twin horrors of capitalism and socialism, both of which are products of the Enlightenment. There is much that will be agreeable to green thinkers, with their emphasis on the local. Yet while the book celebrates the local it is not narrow, for where there are broader connections of an area with the broader world Gange explores them, but they are not elite connections, but contacts with ordinary people who have similar problems.

The book makes the point that the so-called fringe areas are not economically useless or unproductive, but they have simply been misused and their people neglected.

This was a book enjoyable, informative and stimulating. The text is supported by good maps and photographs. It is detailed without being over-wordy. I commend it to readers.     

 

 

Updated: 11/30/2019, frankbeswick
 
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DerdriuMarriner 7 hours ago

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information and product lines.
Does the author say anything about note-taking or recording his history-based experiences or trying not to lose them or trying to retrieve them from the waves and the wind?
There's not much that can fit into a kayak and stay dry so did he have to rustle up drink and food every day and sleep in wet bedding outdoors? Oh perhaps not, since you mention January so he must have arranged overnight accommodations along the way.
The attitude toward the Scots is strange since the French thought they were respectable enough to marry into their royal lines and since the Russians thought them intelligent and successful enough to let them establish enduring economic ties by the time of Ivan the Terrible (although it didn't stop Peter the Great from decapitating his favorite mistress, Mary Hamilton).
It's surprising about beginning English kings with the very person whose wife, Matilda, was vaunted then (through now, no?) as a direct descendant of that most Anglo-Saxon of kings, Alfred the Great.
Why not include Edward the Confessor in the list of English kings? Wasn't he the ruler that sometimes is described as the last king that everybody agrees on liking and respecting?

frankbeswick 8 days ago

Yes, it is easier to be prejudiced when you are sitting in a comfortable study than when you are confronting danger.

WriterArtist 8 days ago

Historians and Authors will be biased based on their perspectives, prejudices and culture impact. However, I like it that the author traveled through the many dangers of the sea before presenting the facts. His views were formed on a thoroughly researched topic, adventure and study.

frankbeswick 8 days ago

He does not answer that question, but he does not mention note writing, so I presume that he wrote from memory.

blackspanielgallery 8 days ago

Quite an experience he had. He chose the middle approach. Far less perilous would have been to experience the trip via video, if one were to exist. And a less acceptable approach would have been to take a class of students along, albeit in a larger boat, perhaps a drakkar (Viking longboat).
That would have been authentic, and would indicate heading up rivers to observe the people who live along them.
One curiosity is did he record as he went, or remember and write things observed later when he was not being tossed about by the sea?

Veronica 10 days ago

Frank
This is an excellent piece thank you. Orkney and Shetland are places I would love to visit one day.

frankbeswick 11 days ago

One form of historical bias not mentioned in this book is the way that English history is written with an aristocratic, therefore Norman bias. The Anglo-Saxons are regarded as crude and primitive, ripe for take over by the Normans, who must have been civilised as they built castles! That these castles were tools of oppression is overlooked. The list of English kings begins with William the Conqueror, despite the existence of a line of Saxon kings prior to him, but they are treated as a mere preamble to the Normans.

I can recall recoiling in annoyance when as a youngster I read a history book that depicted our Saxon ancestors as crudest of all the German tribes.Totally wrong.They were an efficient and competent people who turned England into a well-farmed and administered land, Unfortunately, history is written by the winners!

teddletonmr 11 days ago

Thank you, sir, I do love history despite the political/cultural bias historians seem always share.

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