David Gange (2019) The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel.

Historian David Gange journey by kayak around the coast of Scotland facing the Atlantic in winter sounds like madness. Takes in Ireland in spring time. He crosses the channel to the less ragged coast of Bardsey in Wales and Bristol and Cornwall in the summer.  He offers a low-down view from the sea that mimics E.P. Thompson’s bottom-up view of class history.  

Gange rejects a London-centric view of the world. An imperialistic vision that for example classified Scottish islands as empty land until the English arrived.  Scotland was close to home, but full of Scotsmen, women and children that insisted on speaking in their own strange tongue and had strange customs and culture. Scots Gaelic was the mark of a marked man. Similar to Irish Gaelic, or even Welsh, the language of Atlantic trading routes that predated Britain and British as a unifying narrative.

Hanoverian kings in London outlawed kilt and tartan. Daniel Defoe, a spy for the English billeted in Edinburgh before the union of Scotland and England in 1707, wrote to his paymasters and claimed that for every Scot in favour of Union, ninety-nine were against. Riots were quelled. King George, after 1745 Culloden, punished all Highlanders even his would-be supporters. ‘Butcher’ Cumberland imposed a reign of terror.

‘the English forced a union on Scotland that was as violent and unwelcome as that of 1801 would be for Ireland.’

Oliver Cromwell spoke in terms many English kings understood, ‘hell or Connact’, coastal Galway, Connemara. In Munster, in a splintery rockbound stronghold of Gaelic, 300 mainly women and children were killed by Cromwell’s troops.  A holy man, Dairaid O’Sullivan, run through on Scarif Island. Cromwell forced half the population (his troops hadn’t murdered) west, towards the coast and regions thought to be sparsely populated such as Connemara.

The brutal Sutherland clearances. Its population reduced and redistributed. Pushed from valuable pasture land towards the coast.  

‘The modern population of Sutherland is half what it was in the early nineteen century.’

Many of those that clung onto their holding or crofts were undone by the famine of the late 1840s.

‘Potatoes were the miracle food of the early modern coast. Visitors to the Scottish and Irish islands in the eighteenth century describe a population living in abject poverty, but who were tall and strong. These tubers carried far more nutrients and were more efficient, damp resistant and voluminous than the grain on which the islanders had previously relied.’

 Gange rallies against the unifying influence of Enlightenment and the notion of progress leaving those outside it in the dark. But he’s not anti-science. Just its overarching hegemonic influence that doesn’t allow other, coastal, dwellers to tell their stories. ‘The Highland Problem,’ was not an invention of Highlanders, but of the big cities, London, Edinburgh and even Dublin that managed their decline from afar and claimed the high ground. Enlightenment is not singular, but plural and many of the questions and answers for how we should live comes from the watery shores and poetic view of the world Gange champions, based on observation and direct experience.

In saving the world, you need to save the story of that world.  The British Education Acts 1870 and 1872 which aimed to unify the nation around a common curriculum and the currency of the English language excluded the Gaelic languages of the coastal people.

Gange describes their effect ‘as an unmitigated disaster for many coastal zones’ with many young people leaving and not returning. Others returning but unable to speak their native language. But here there is a happy ending of sorts in economic recession (which should be useful during the current rolling recession) which saw an island renaissance and return to the innate languages of the peoples and the myriad and enriching connections that entails.

Famine, clearances and Educational Acts are part of the narrative of who owns the land owns the narrative of what is said about the land. The languages of the people on the periphery are growing slowly back to life. Gage identifies a contemporary problem of multinational companies like Shell who buy up Britishness and Irishness and pollute the water and land for profit. They kill people in Nigeria for oil.

Ireland can be bought wholesale. (I’m thinking here of the Irish government knocking back the 14 billion euros that Apple should have paid in back taxes to the state).  And while the Irish state makes a net profit from the EEC (it receives more than it contributes) selling off Atlantic resources leaves a nation indebted.

‘Corporations registered in Norway, Russia, Canada, the Netherland and Spain draw greater profits from the waters west of Ireland than do Irish interests.’

Small and local might be better. But the paradox that Gange doesn’t address is such interests are easily brushed aside by big business, multinationals. Sometimes we need more, not less government. The explosion of poetry in the 1930s during the Great Depression didn’t change the world. W.H.Auden, Stephen Spender, Louise Mac Niece anti-war poetry didn’t prevent the Second World War. Community versus Commerce (whisper it, it used to be called Communism versus Capitalism) and we all know how that went. I’m on David Ganges side. He’s optimistic. I’m pessimistic, but I hope his vision is the one that endures. More power to the community. Less power to the rich that own the people on the coast land—and mainland—and stir our fears for their own financial gains.

Gavin Francis (2020) Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession.

Gavin Francis tells us of his love affair with islands and maps. And he traces his addiction to a district library in Fife he visited as a child aged eight or nine. How his little fingers traced patterns over atlas and archipelagos ‘as if reading Braille’. As an adult he had to choose between studying medicine, or becoming a geographer. A romantic notion to which I say, you’re a fucking liar, but hey, we all tell fibs. It’s how you tell them that matters.

He quotes John Berger’s description of Gigha, ‘A  uterus leading to the western sky’.  That alone makes it worth reading and his account of his odysseys of island hopping to a more sedate existence and medical practice in the centre of Edinburgh (you need serious money to live there) is knowledgeable, in an easy-to-read style, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

‘A fair summary of what I’m attempting here: a simple and sincere cartography of my own obsession with the twinned but opposing allures of island and city, of isolation and connection’.

Here’s island life as an ideal.

W.B. Yeats, small lake island in County Sligo.

The lake-island of Innisfree

‘I will arise and go now, go to Innisfree. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.’

But be warned, like ye old maps of here be dragons, island life such as the year spent as a warden on Unst, with the gannet colony overlooking the Muckle Flugga, must be chosen or it becomes a prison. Francis tells us that ‘isolate comes from the Italian word isolare: to make an island.

‘We have the unnecessary and foolish word: isolate.’

Eleven autobiographical chapters with overlapping themes end in Island Dreams. Islands simplify life and there is the commonality of escaping the clock and finding time. Finding yourself and where you’re meant to be. Often thrown back into a different century.

In Letters From an Island, Louise Mac Niece, wrote of his gaiety at having come north, running away from the south’s ‘cruel clocks’.

Francis visits Inchcolm (Holy Isle) Iona of the East, Bass Rock (Prison Isle) and  Inchkeith, Edinburgh’s leprosarium that shows the tick-tock of choosing and being chosen sometimes by God, sometimes by man and cruel nature. No vehicles. No phones. No radio. A falling back on yourself. A revelation of your real nature.

James IV experiment on Inchkeith was ostensibly for a higher purpose, to reveal the language of angels. (I’m sure I read a book with that title.) The first Scottish and English king ordered his lower subjects to take a mute woman to Inchkeith, to give her two orphan children, and provide her with everything she needed. He wanted to discover what language the children would speak when they were old enough to have perfect speech. ‘Some sources said they spoke good Hebrew, but I did not know any reliable sources for these claims’.

In the realms of higher ideals, there are always casualties and it’s always the poor that suffer most, first and last.

Francis uses the ‘precious one’ Rinpoche and Lama of Shey on the Crystal Mountains of Himalaya as an examplar of being and belonging. The Rinpoche whose body is twisted with arthritis has an acolyte but spends his days in a cell looking out into the diamond light of the Crystal Mountains. He has not left in eight years and is unlikely to ever do so.

‘Of course I’m here,’ the Lama said. ‘Especially when I have no choice.’  

Author of The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen makes much of the Rimpoche’s laughter and good humour, but italicises ‘Especially’. To choose is to be chosen and all is right in the world.

Francis makes much of the Rinpoche’s choice too. It contains in it the paradox of letting go and freely choosing unchoosing. Ironically, in an act of synchronicity, I was also reading The Snow Leopard when I was reading Francis’s book about the lure of island and city life. Books he tells us are also islands, I often choose. Matthiessen’s journey is a Vintage Classic. Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession is entertaining but neither vintage nor a classic. There’s no shame in that. The Precious One might be perfect, but the rest of us plodders…Read on.