The wild western coasts of Orkney's islands have been under close inspection in recent weeks by historian Dr David Gange. He is kayaking and walking all the Atlantic coasts of the British Isles, researching for a new book called 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel.' We asked him to share his Orkney experiences so far with us.
A few days ago I made the most frightening landing I’ve ever tackled in a kayak. The swell rolling into Eynhallow Sound in Orkney was catching the evening light in ways that were unbelievably beautiful.
But sat at sea, rising and plunging with these waves, I hadn’t anticipated the violence with which they broke onto the north Birsay shore. It was impossible, from the boat, to photograph the waves as I rode in, but this was the last picture I took before entering the breakers.
Landing in heavy surf on sand is rarely a problem in a kayak: you bounce happily along until you come to rest (one way up or the other). But the Birsay tide was too high for sand and I clattered hard into the rocks, surprised to still be upright and unbruised. Not for the first time this month I asked myself what on earth I thought I was doing.
I’m a historian at the University of Birmingham. So far every book and article I’ve written has been about the nineteenth century. My latest was an introductory survey of one period of British history, the Victoria era.
But I decided recently – after several months in Highland & Island communities – to make myself into a historian of Britain’s coasts. To begin learning enough to achieve that change of focus I resolved to do something drastic: to kayak the Atlantic coasts of the British Isles from Shetland to the Scillies, spending half my time travelling and the other half using archives and meeting people who could help me make sense of the places I’d explored by sea.
While I travel I’m spending nights on cliffs and skerries in my waterproof sleeping bag, and I’ve left electronic navigation devices at home to help me build the kind of skills and knowledge I need. The book I’m writing will be published by Harper Collins as The Frayed Atlantic Edge: a Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel.
I’m hoping to find ways to comprehend and communicate the diversity of the communities along today’s Atlantic coasts, while exploring the development of these differences through history. I’m interested in how similar ingredients of weather, sea and land have been transformed into very different societies through centuries of life and work by the people of places such as Orkney and Lewis. This will also be a history in which environments and animals – whether herring, fulmars or cattle – play a role alongside people (I find it strange that we make distinctions between history, natural history and geography).
That means there’ll be as much nature in this book as history - something that’s helped by the immediate presence of wildlife in the experience of kayaking. My favourite Orkney animal encounters have been a large bull dolphin that swam right beneath my boat, and this short eared owl that circled me repeatedly before heading off inland.
One of the greatest attractions of kayaking is the lack of fear that wildlife shows around a boat. There was the strange Westray gannet that decided to approach and peck my kayak. Whales, dolphins, eagles and otters have all come close to investigate:
The sense that quickly develops is of a world in which humans and other animals are less different and detached from each other than they often seem.
I began the journey in July, setting out down Atlantic Shetland in some of the most serene weather imaginable, with flat seas and a sense of almost limitless space. Turning to Orkney in the last weeks of August, things have been different. Every change in the weather has given me new challenges of swell, surf and tide. My admiration has grown for families of the past who plied these coasts in small open boats as a matter of daily life.
I began from Pierowall, setting out north east round Papay and down Westray’s western edge.
Before I even disembarked the Westray ferry I’d encountered the famous Orkney storytelling, an islander telling me that Westray was the first place in Britain to see a kayak and dating this to the 1680s (I’m ashamed to say I thought he was making it up, although I later discovered that this is a venerable old tale – sorry!). I then kayaked beneath the cliffs of Rousay and down mainland to Stromness, exploring caves and stacks along the way.
After that, I took a detour to spend time on Eynhallow while I waited for two calm days to let me explore, in detail, the cliffs of Hoy.
I spent most of my time in the Orkney archive. In fact, I found so much wonderful material there – such as the recordings made by Ann Marwick, Kate Towsey and Helga Tulloch - that I had to renegotiate life back in Birmingham to stay for an extra week.
The worst thing about trying to cover so much coast in a single book is that I can only have a tiny number of themes for each region. My task in the last few days has been to decide what my Orkney chapter will look like. The first section will cover the productivity of the shoreline. On Papay and Westray I investigated everything I could find from industries such as kelp, and this section will also feature ware and tangle,spoots, creeling, seabird eggs, fowling and cattle. Focusing on the shore rather than the sea, it’ll feature in particular the roles of Westray women in forming this community.
The second section will explore the relationship of later Rousay people with the prehistoric and medieval remains of Rousay and Eynhallow. It will investigate the beliefs and stories of crofters, as well as the conflict over the land that was created by Rousay’s unique history of clearances, and the ways later memory of that injustice have shaped attitudes to monuments.
The other section I’ve planned turns to the arts, partly inspired by my own history of engagement with Orkney. As I grew up, my Dad worked in the orchestra where Peter Maxwell Davies was based before he came to Hoy. Many years ago, the St Magnus Festival and Max’s Orkney symphonies were my first engagement with the islands. In my view, what distinguished Max from his peers was his intense awareness of the soundscapes of his environment: once he moved to Orkney, aspects of the island sound-world shaped his music so that his seascapes are among his most definitive compositions.
Across four decades, he painted in music many different faces of the Orkney sea and even used – in works like the third symphony – the complex rhythms of Rackwick waves to generate musical patterns and transformations. These wave rhythms define a kayaker’s experience of the world. Their all-enveloping sound is crucial to how a kayak stays safe, navigating such obstacles as I’ve been forced to listen for over the last few weeks.
Because of the power of Orkney tides, and the force of swell accumulated across the whole Atlantic, the ocean’s rhythms are unique here. I’m hoping Max’s long immersion in those sounds and his transformation of them into art can help me explore the experience of being in a small boat on the Orkney sea. His music will also help me discuss the potential of the sea to shape not just the work of Orcadians but the artistic representation of Orkney.
It won’t be long until I head briefly home before kayaking the Western Isles, where different coasts, seas and people (not to mention a new season) will make for an entirely different experience. But the Northern Isles have provided much more than I could have imagined – not just in the richness of their history and landscapes – but in the resources of their extraordinary archives (something for which there are no parallels at all on the rest of the coasts I’ll kayak).
As perhaps you can tell, I’ve not yet come to terms with the fact I’ll have to leave.
You can read more about David's journey on his blog or follow him on Twitter. He is also keen to hear from people who used these coasts for work, leisure or inspiration. You can contact him via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
David's journey will be featured on BBC Breakfast TV on Thursday, 8th September.