Being Littoral: Rethinking Atlantic Britain & Ireland


This page sketches out a framework for imagining how histories of North-East Atlantic coastlines might help us see (and address) some fundamental problems with the way much British and Irish history has been conceptualised.

It is about three things:

  1. the way histories are written (especially about narrative and conceptions of time)
  2. the implications in the present of singular narratives of national history for places that don’t fit those narratives
  3. the alternatives to those narratives, which can clear some space for us to think more imaginatively about how we interpret the links between past, present & future 

This page has a lot of text, so each section has a short precis in italics for anyone who just wants to skim.

I’d love to hear comments – especially further examples of things that fit this framework or things that don’t. Or just books I clearly haven’t read but should’ve done! Please do email or tweet @david_gange

1: Establishing the problem

The narrative structures of British and Irish history still tend towards the linear – assuming one big story of development – in ways that are entangled with growth-based economics, the nation state, and other constructs that ought to be subject to more critical forms of attention. These narratives simply marginalise regions that don’t fit; so the sidelined areas are the most promising places in which to identify strategies to see clearly what (very real) damage the linear narratives do and imagine alternative approaches.

Despite widespread critique of modernity and all its attendant narratives, most histories of Britain or Ireland are written as if from inside the places that won out in the transformative processes of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries: the urban centres connected by the technologies of acceleration. Even when writers disavow old-fashioned terms such as ‘the enlightenment’ (which is, after all, little more than an expression of the triumph of a few cities at the expense of everywhere else) a host of their underlying assumptions remain. Progressive stories, rooted in urban life, still underpin the implied directions in lots of British and Irish histories.

Atlantic coastlines have often followed very different historical trajectories from urban centres (depopulated at precisely the moments of population growth elsewhere, for instance). And it was when processes that had worked inland (e.g. agricultural improvement) were imposed on coastlines that such depopulation occurred. The result is that many labels we apply for periodising history have opposite meanings there (the Enlightenment imposing a dark age for instance).

The education acts of the 1870s are a telling example. Still widely celebrated by historians as though a major ‘step forward’ – an unproblematic advance in the drive towards universal literacy – these were acts of urban imperialism deliberately designed to do immense damage to the cultures of coastlines: they’re sometimes remembered as traumas on a similar scale to the clearances and the world wars. General histories have a tendency to narrate the major processes, and sometimes to note their uneven effects; but it’s rare for that unevenness to be more than an aside or caveat (the simplification of history that narrative implies doesn’t allow for that).

And it’s important to note that none of this divergence can be framed in national terms: the differentials between the Welsh coast and Cardiff or the Scottish coast and Edinburgh matter as much as those between England and Wales or Scotland. This makes it unsatisfactory that even when historians aim to diversify the geographical perspectives from which the island group’s history is written (e.g. Four Nations History) they often just bring extra cities into play.

The result is that the overarching narratives in British and Irish histories don’t apply to many regions of the island group; and it surely isn’t good enough to simply keep the narratives but note exceptions. The larger problem is that there’s no single story that could replace the narrative being challenged. One way to address this is to explore and encourage more flexible thinking with, and about, time than has hitherto been widely practiced.

This project is therefore about the existing and potential strategies that communities, scholars and artists on coastlines have taken, and can take, to undermine the grand narratives that claim to speak for Britain and Ireland but in fact take urban and inland perspectives for granted. It explores the outlooks that allow people to resist the mesmeric pull of ‘modern time’ and think through their pasts in ways with potential to repair the damage. It proposes a ‘temporal littoralism’ that chips away at the singular and teleological visions of our general ‘temporal literalism’.

2: Current historical work on time

Historical scholarship on time has shown that much interesting thinking with temporalities can be found where colonised or occupied peoples confronted French, British and Ottoman empires and where multiple temporal regimes therefore came into contact. The ideas developed in those studies can be applied not just to the encounters between colonised peoples and imperial powers but to the fractures within individual nations too.

Almost all the interesting work on temporalities in modern history studies colonial and semi-colonial spaces (classic examples treat the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and Lebanon). This work is built on the premise that understandings of time in Europe and North America have, for centuries, been unusually singular, linear and inflexible. According to Vanessa Ogle, ‘Europeans were slow to develop the same imaginary flexibility of abstraction and ability to juggle different times that those at the core of modern globality had displayed all along’.

Scholars such as Ogle and On Barak argue that standardised time was essentially a western phenomenon until far later than once thought: in many places multiple temporal regimes existed into the twentieth century (they weren’t ended by the establishment of time zones etc in the nineteenth). Barak asks how the apparently hegemonic technologies of modern time, from the time zone to the telephone, were reimagined, reformulated or rejected by the diverse communities they had supposedly been ‘imposed’ on. Given new political meanings and new practical uses, these technologies could be turned against the very ‘modernizing’ purposes they were intended to advance, strengthening commitment to alternative temporal modes rather than embodying the imposition of international standards that imperial powers intended and expected.

All this scholarship emphasises the existence of multiple threads of uneven development where narratives of the globalisation of western time had previously been more straightforward. But that multiplicity existed everywhere. In fact current work usually focuses on urban experience, whether in Cairo or Mumbai, when the dynamics between urbanised culture and rural coastlines – whether in Galicia or Galway – are also worth attention.

Other books, such as Prasenjit Duara’s Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (1995), have shown the entanglement of narrative, time and nation. They demonstrate that, in seeking frameworks for understanding localities in Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England, our conceptual net should be cast wide. Global histories, histories of south and east asia, and of the Islamic world, are currently far more advanced in their handling of these concepts than is European history. As all the above implies, linear time has deep roots in the academy, as in European culture at large; and narrative, built from single lines of cause and effect, has been the privileged mode of discourse for two centuries at least. These things will require conscious effort to unpick.

As the above also implies, the methods explored on this page aren’t applicable only to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, but can be relevant to any space in which communities live in the shadow of grand narratives that don’t fit their experience.

Sections 3-9 explore seven kinds of corrective strategy that have been used to clear space for thinking about coastal communities and coastal experience outside dominant historical narratives.

3: Counter Narratives

The most prevalent strategy for diminishing the power of modernising narratives is perhaps the creation of alternative histories that work for specific groups: giving voice to those previously marginalised in narratives that are separate from overarching, singular histories (in competition with them, rather than alignment; forming separate stories, rather than aiming to modify the singular narrative).

James Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community (1976) is a classic of this genre, inspired by E.P. Thompson’s 1963 text recovering the voices of the urban labouring classes from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. And the 1970s were the key moment in the flourishing of new histories – in the forms of archives and museums as well as texts – that saw economic regeneration and linguistic revival as dependent on the establishment of new narratives about the past, which restored dignity to traditions that had been dismissed as ‘backwards’ in comparison to the forward thrust of urban development.

The emphasis in these movements has been both on collecting empirical data – saving knowledge in danger of being lost – and on telling the stories that information lends itself to. Comunn Eachdraidh Nis is a useful illustration of this. In the 1970s, Ness was among the most economically depressed regions in the UK, with an education system rooted in urban ideals that had the purpose of training children to be shipped to the mainland for work. The region got an injection of cash from the Van Leer Fund in the ‘70s and chose to do something unusual with it. Where everywhere else that got these funds used them to set up things like fishing cooperatives or haulage companies, the Ness group argued that all such projects would fail until local people turned round the narratives in which they saw the region and their lives. So they used the money to establish an archive and hired six fieldworkers to collect oral histories. They aimed to undermine the binary between ‘traditional’ Ness and ‘modern’ cities – showing how Ness is differently modern – and are now the biggest employer in the region.

4: Anti-Narrative (deep mapping)

There has been a much more explicit recognition in Irish scholarship than in British that narrative is a problem. The result has been a widespread movement that constructs historical knowledge by rendering it in space rather than in time. In deep mapping and historical cartography ‘ground truthing’ is no longer a matter of more accurate measurement, but of layering the map with historical information.

In Ireland dozens of community deep mapping projects aim to undermine the ways the ordnance survey cleansed the coastlines of histories. Like the counter narratives, this is at heart a project of recovery, but one that assumes the best way to counter the narratives of modernity is not the construction of yet more narratives. The rhetoric of cartographers is often explicitly anti-Enlightenment. In the words of Tim Robinson deep maps avoid cause, effect and narrative: ‘they don’t aim’, he says, ‘to compose a local history; they mark some points of attachment of the historical web from which one can grope back along the strands into the darkness’. This is also comparable to the approach of archaeologists: seeking spatialised patterns, not attempting to provide narrative arcs. This seems to throw into relief the fact that writers of history books aren’t used to drawing arguments or conclusions except through the tools of narrative.

Scotland has particularly strong resources for thinking spatially in this way (Canmore etc) but the only way of finding the full potential of this approach will be for coastal communities, geographers, archaeologists and historians to work together.

5: Anti-Narrative (poetics)

This strategy is sometimes formed round fragments, or single cross-sections of time, in place of narrative, or round the power of metaphor to establish unexpected connections and unpick historical cliche.

Poetry is one of the most characteristic resources of the coastlines and has been made into a rallying cry for imagining the past differently in works such as James Hunter’s On the Other Side of Sorrow (1995). A host of poets associated with individual places (from Shetland to Dingle to Ynys Enlli) have sought to entirely reread the historic associations of their locality. As with deep mapping, this works not by composing histories, but ‘marking points of attachment’ in the web of past and present, or finding unexpected metaphors that transform the meaning of an event or site. It has the power to force multiple times together, swinging from deep time, through history into the present with an efficiency rare in prose. For scholarship dealing with past poetry – particularly the Irish, Welsh and Gaelic poets from before the nineteenth century – strategies for doing justice to the potential of their material involve refusing to look for links to modernity and instead elaborating poetic worlds in and for themselves – ‘worlds where the future was not known’ as the historian Naomi Standen puts it.

6. Connective Histories

This approach amplifies the voices of those whose individual pasts include threads beyond the nation state: it reveals water as a medium for interaction, borders as fictive, and renders national narratives unsustainable.

This connectivity works in many directions. New stories arise from the experience of Syrian refugees on the Isle of Bute, of emigration between Nigeria and Ireland, or of being black in a white family in Orkney (Luke Sutherland). Stories of the coastlines also incorporate their diasporas: the Gaelic speakers of Canada and Australia, the Irish influence in the United States, the Welsh enclave in Patagonia.

Exchanges in the present help reconceptualise the coast as porous: the sea not as barrier but conduit – a medium of encounters, not an impediment to movement – a force that softens and erodes the hard edges of the nation state and allows a multiplicity of stories to flow together. This is not so much the establishment of counter narratives as the demonstration that everywhere contains a host of entangled stories, each place made unique by its particular set of connections with elsewhere.

7: Othering the Present

This involves the idea of exploring ‘potential histories’ and draws on postcolonial scholarship (e.g. Ariella Azoulay): ‘potential histories’ denote those pasts and presents that could have flourished were they not cut short by the totalising ambitions of the new centralised political economy of the late eighteenth century. It aims primarily to show that the present we live in was not inevitable and that past knowledge can be a resource for dismantling the worldviews on which the present depends.

Where many of the above strategies are primarily empirical, this is a more conceptually ambitious but, so far, less empirically grounded reimagining of coastlines. It has extraordinary unfulfilled potential for rethinking the relations of cities and coasts in an era forced to confront the climate crises created by urban living. The work of David Lloyd, including Irish Times: the Temporalities of Modernity, presents the present as a single toxic offshoot from multiple living pasts – a wrong turn. Our role is to imagine alternatives: the potential futures of the prematurely severed pasts. This is therefore part of the burgeoning global effort to recover local ways of knowing but is framed by its own grand narrative that reverses the meanings of Enlightenment: the moment that created the present was the eighteenth-century expansion of growth-based economics – its products, such as agricultural improvement, are notable primarily as the causes of the Irish famine and the Highland clearances. The new political economy presented coastlines as backwards and poverty stricken – failing – when in fact they were succeeding, just on different measures. That political economy made itself seem inevitable by wiping out all competition. Seeing beyond the myth of inevitability makes the premodern past real and alive with potential futures, and the future real and alive if linked to many pasts. The present, in contrast, is false and dead. So time isn’t what we’ve been told it is at all.

8: The Time of Experience

This method orders multiple pasts according to a single story, but uses a story deliberately disconnected from the past itself: a personal memoir, a journey on foot, or the first-person perspective of a novel or short story’s protagonist.  

This involves approaching temporalities through personal narratives that allow points of connection with multiple pasts. This has the advantage of giving readers the familiar experience of reading narrative, while the narratives involved take place at a personal scale rather than drawing on the large arcs of linear history. Such texts are sometimes organised spatially – a journey across a landscape for instance – or as more general memoir. There are aspects of this in the work of writers from Kathleen Jamie to Rebecca Solnit, to Alastair McIntosh.

One drawback of using this approach to intervene directly in scholarly debates is that foregrounding the personal in this way has traditionally been considered incompatible with the modes of scholarship. Few historians conduct their research in this way (a notable exception being Modris Eksteins’ Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World Wars, and the Heart of our Century (1999) which blends memoir, movement through the Balkan states, and conceptual innovation, to dramatic effect).This leads to the question of how far genre (the narrow range of formats in which scholarly argument takes place – monographs and 8,000 word articles) is just as implicated as form (narrative) in the persistence of unhelpful frameworks, and just how much the conservatism encouraged by university apparatus such as the Research Excellence Framework diminishes historians’ ability to rethink the frames they work in. In an academy where emotions, psychology and the place of the individual in e.g. the vast processes of climate are taken increasingly seriously, it’s worth asking what the place of experiential approaches in scholarly debate could be.

9: Embodied Time

Art and theory overlap in the ways they seek to situate the viewer/reader in space, time, elemental forces and – ultimately – the temporal flux of climate change. Various ‘seascape epistemologies’ also situate the individual within the flows of tide and weather as the starting point for recovering localised ways of knowing.

One thing any visitor to Atlantic coastlines sees is the sea’s association with visual art expressed in an unusual concentration of arts centre and galleries. The work of e.g. Ellis O’Connor, Shaziah Mahmoud or Ruth Livingstone situates artist and viewer within the elements, conjuring the impact of weather on the senses. Some of the most useful scholarship for framing this phenomenon comes from hydrofeminist visions of the place of the individual within the temporalities of climate, and from postcolonial scholarship that uses ‘seascape epistemologies’ to recover and re-dignify localised, island, ways of knowing. Astrida Neimanis & Rachel Lowen’s ‘Weathering’ takes a perspective from Atlantic coastlines; it aims to short-circuit the teleological, linear and progressive framework in which nation states profess faith in technological solutions to climate collapse. Karin Ingersoll’s Waves of Knowing resists the commercialisation of Pacific island societies by formulating its epistemology through the eyes and body of traditional Hawaiian surfers.

Scholars such as Neimanis & Lowen present humans as watery, permeable bodies that are items of weather. People are subject to weathering in the same way as coastlines, just with different rhythms. They are part of the weather-world in flux that coastal artists depict. The ideologies of linear modern time have attempted to cut us off from weather (in cities), made us believe that our bodies are coherent units, and made climate change seem like something ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’. Neimanis refers to ‘the thick time of transcorporeality’ – in which each of our permeable bodies is a node in climate-change temporalities. This is the time we appreciate best when we subject ourselves to wind, rain and ocean, but in which each of us is also a weathermaker, with a carbon footprint. And algal blooms, arctic ice and spawning salmon are also nodes in the flux with their own rhythms of weathering. This connectedness is one of the main ideas that coastal art today attempts to develop.

10: Consequences

None of these approaches offers a grand scheme to replace the problematic vision that all of them resist.

Each simply works to clear a space in which we can imagine something different.

As such they present a range of tools that can be used to challenge the idea that there’s no alternative to the teleological visions formed round growth-based economics and the nation state. It’s the space cleared for imagining difference that matters.


Key Texts:

Astrida Neimanis & Rachel Lowen, ‘Weathering: Climate Change & the Thick Time of Transcorporeality’, Hypatia (2014)

Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (2017)

Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, Waves of Knowing: a Sescape Epistemology (2016)

Boon, Butler & Jefferies, Autoethnmography and Feminist Theory at the Water’s Edge: Unsettled Islands (2018)

Nessa Cronin, ‘Ground Truths: Deep Mapping Communities in the West of Ireland’, in Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet one Place at a Time (2017)

David Lloyd, Irish Times: the Temporalities of Modernity (2008)

Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1989)

Tim Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara (1984)

Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019)

Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other (1983)

Naomi Standen, ‘Colouring Outside the Lines’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (2019)

James Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community (1976)

James Hunter, On the Other Side of Sorrow (1995)

Roger Hutchinson, The Waxing Moon (2005)

Alaimo & Hekman, Material Feminisms (2007)

Elizabeth Grosz, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (2005)

Robert Markley, ‘Time’ in Tom Cohen (ed.), Telemorphosis: Theory in the era of climate change (2012)

David Farrier, Anthropocene Poetic: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones & Extinction (2019)

Prasenjit Duara’s Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (1995)

On Barak, On Time: Technology & Temporality in Modern Egypt (2013)

Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time (2015)