History & Historians

Lewis (72)

The past is present on coastlines like nowhere else in Britain. Atlantic shores have been subject to intense social change so that their patterns of habitation are now entirely unlike what they were in earlier centuries. Ruins of ten millennia line firths, islands and headlands, waiting to be explored.

Uist (51)

Some remains are spectacular: abandoned brochs, monasteries and castles, including many whose stories of construction and decline are unknown. Many are entirely uncelebrated sites of extraordinary historical potential, such as this precarious early-medieval settlement whose shape is transformed whenever northerly winds assault the Orkney coast:

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More recent ruins include empty villages – there are, after all, many time more depopulated islands in the British Isles than there are cities – with histories recorded in documents and oral history archives. On the right of this picture is the village of South Havera, abandoned in 1923 but once home to over 40 people, a few of whose experiences of the island were recorded on tape decades later:

Shetland (113)

Oral and written sources tell of the searing misery inflicted on coastal regions by the preference of landlords for sheep over people; but they also record the joys of life in places that were once central to thriving economies, though they’re now often thought of as remote and isolated.

New forms of engagement with the coast have boomed over recent decades, with some coastal towns repurposed from fishing to tourism, the internet encouraging a vast acceleration of coastal entrepreneurship, and countless people seeking the experience of the wild. This project will therefore also be a reflection on how far, and in what directions, our current interactions with the coast are reshaping this north-east Atlantic archipelago.


Part of the purpose of The Frayed Atlantic Edge is to experiment with ideas about historical research. This experiment takes two forms. Coasts are the places at which the entanglement of human history with changes in climate, geology and nature is most evident. There are (it has been said before) only three certainties in life: death, taxes and coastal change. Here, the social histories of animals, the pasts of the landscape and the ocean itself are as significant as the histories of people: all are threads running through the same stories.

Along these coastlines, similar ingredients of weather and geology take very different forms when inflected through the diverse cultures of Orkney, Uist or the Arans. But there are also some dramatic distinctions in geology and natural history. What difference does it make to human history, for instance, that while the coastline of the Isle of Lewis is still slowly rising (rebounding from the last glacial period), the coastline of Shetland is falling rapidly (over 9 metres during the short span of the human past)? How should we interpret the ways in which many human buildings have been colonised by nature as the distribution of animal species has changed through time? The twentieth-century influx of fulmars into the Atlantic coasts of the British Isles might be called the most dramatic invasion of Britain since 1066: they now nest in the walls of structures whose builders would never have seen or heard of a fulmar.

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Here’s one of thousands of tiny, purring storm petrels that use the ancient man-made Broch of Mousa as though it were a natural hive:

Shetland (142)

Visit the historical site of Skellig Michael, off the coast of County Kerry, in April, and yoou’ll find that the ritual observances of six centuries of monks entirely replaced by the equally earnest rituals of seabirds, such as these gurgling, bill-clacking razorbills:

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Those examples suggest a hopeful story of nature’s expansion and resiliance alongside the far bigger, already catastophic, impact of human action on coastal ecology. The recent boom in environmental histories that explore such narratives is one crucial context for this project.


The second aspect of this historical experiment relates to ‘the archive of the feet’. It was once the done thing for historians to think of walking and movement as a form of research. Writers like Thomas Carlyle or G.M. Trevelyan considered roaming sites of past habitation to be the key to understanding those who lived there. By the mid-twentieth century, new kinds of historian saw that idea as romantic and unscientific – the kind of wishful thinking that gave the discipline a bad name. In 1966, for instance, Keith Thomas wrote with approval of ‘the computer’ replacing ‘the stout boots’ of ‘the previous generation of advanced historians’. Historians, it seemed, should stay in their offices or archives and carefully count the past.

However, something has changed over the last decade. This change has partly been a response to the idea of psychogeography, which sees groups such as the wonderful Fife Psychogeographical Collective explore two centuries of their region’s industrial past. From Alexandra Walsham’s studies of the Reformation landscape to Matthew Kelly’s geo/history of Dartmoor increasing efforts are being made to undermine the strange and unhistorical distinction between ‘human’ and ‘natural’. Scholars such as Tim Ingold give us concepts like the ‘taskscape’ to help comprehend the importance of movement in life and research. At the same time, many of the most vibrant history departments in Britain, such as that at the University of the Highlands and Islands, have begun to resuscitate the idea of the archive of the feet: historians such as Jim Hunter and Elizabeth Ritchie lead field trips into Scotland’s past, partly as efforts to evade the elitist distortions of the official archive. Archaeologists have also expanded their interests into recent history and into the relationships between ancient sites and uses of landscapes in the present, generating potential for yet more productive collaboration between disciplines.

In the light of all this, The Frayed Atlantic Edge is an exploration of how travel and movement (whether by land or sea) can be a form of historical research. The routes it follows were once habitually travelled by families making their livings from land and sea, while stories of ships (and their wreckage) fill the traditions and imagery of these coasts…

Lewis (78)

…and the regions it explores are part of vast Atlantic geographies stretching from west Africa, through Spain and the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, Greenland and the Americas. They offer reminders that our current political formations – whether Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, the UK or Britain – are moving through this archipelago only a little more slowly, in the grand scheme of things, than a kayak.

As I travel I’ll be exploring what it might mean to call the outdoors an archive, and what it means to call kayaking research.

Shetland (3)

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