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Good Reads  Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel

The Frayed Atlantic Edge A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel

Nature Writing
By: David Gange(Author)
404 pages, 16 plates with colour photos
Arguing that history is marginalising coastal communities, The Frayed Atlantic Edge is as much audacious travelogue as it is a powerful historical counter-narrative.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge
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  • The Frayed Atlantic Edge ISBN: 9780008225148 Paperback Jul 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
  • The Frayed Atlantic Edge ISBN: 9780008225117 Hardback Jul 2019 In stock
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About this book

Over the course of a year, leading historian and nature writer David Gange kayaked the weather-ravaged coasts of Atlantic Britain and Ireland from north to south: every cove, sound, inlet, island. The story of his journey is one of staggering adventure, range and beauty. And one which reveals how the similar ingredients of wind, rock and ocean have been transformed into wildly different Atlantic cultures in coastal Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. For too long, Gange argues, the significance of coasts has been underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of these histories rarely explored. The Frayed Atlantic Edge seeks to put this imbalance right.

Paddling alone in sun and storms, among dozens of whales and countless seabirds, Gange and his kayak travelled through a Shetland summer, Scottish winter and Irish spring before reaching Wales and Cornwall.

Sitting low in the water, as did millions in eras when coasts were the main arteries of trade and communication, Gange describes, in captivating prose and loving detail, the experiences of kayaking, coastal living and historical discovery. Drawing on the archives of islands and coastal towns, as well as their vast poetic literatures in many languages, he shows that the neglected histories of these stunning regions are of real importance in reconceptualising both the past and the future of the whole archipelago. It is a history of Britain and Ireland like no other.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Powerful travelogue & historical counter-narrative
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Sep 2019 Written for Hardback

    This is a travelogue the likes of which you do not find often. It tells of historian David Gange’s audacious journey, kayaking the length of the Atlantic coast of the British Isles over the course of a year. His motivation was to challenge established historical narratives that tend to be land-centric and focused on big cities. Wishing to become a more rounded and responsible historian, he literally immersed himself in a different perspective. The Frayed Atlantic Edge seeks to salvage the histories of coastal and island communities and show they have played a far larger role in British history than they are normally given credit for.

    If Gange’s aim is praiseworthy, his approach has been nothing less than audacious. He admits that the sensible thing would be to kayak south to north with the prevailing winds at his back. Instead, he chose for disorientation by total immersion, jumping into an alien ocean world like “the hare-brained, ill-prepared flop” of a guga (a gannet chick). Starting from the northernmost tip of Shetland in July 2016, he paddled south, passing Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, the whole western coast of Scotland (just for good measure), the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland, and, finally, the coasts of Wales and Cornwall. Nicely prepared maps of the route open each chapter.

    Tackling the journey over the course of a year in two-week intervals, Gange wrote up the book in the two weeks between each period at sea. As a consequence, The Frayed Atlantic Edge starts off as a travel narrative, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the sea soon take a backseat to historical research and arguments, as well as critical analysis of literature and poetry. During landings and short trips inland he talks to village elders, poets, artists, farmers, historians, archaeologists, naturalists, etc. and scours local archives, picking the brains of archivists.

    Gange channels his trip in evocative prose. On launching from the Shetland Islands, he is accompanied by “flocks of gannets [that] form like cyclones overhead.” Battling around the northernmost headland of the Orkneys he reflects on the changing coastlines, musing that “if timelessness exists anywhere on earth, it is not in sight of the sea”. The Scottish mountains on Skye, Rum, and Mull are “young rock cascades suspended in motionless pouring”. Off the coast of Ireland “horizons bright with golden light spilled between pewter sky and iron ocean”. While off the coast of Munster sits the stupendous skerry (a small, rocky island) of Skellig Michael. Home to a tiny 6th-century monastery, it is so jagged that only small boats can land here, “all pilgrims sit small and low in the water as if in supplication at these immense altars in the ocean”.

    There is plenty here for readers of nature writing to enjoy, and Gange’s trip is studded with wildlife encounters; curious sea-otters, seals, dolphins and whales aplenty. Two colour plate sections contain breathtaking photographs, while the accompanying website contains hundreds more and has other interesting background material. Though the natural beauty and the battle with the elements is a continuous backdrop, this is no mere adventure story. His mission as historian quickly takes over but is no less fascinating.

    The big theme of this book is the marginalisation of coastal communities in historical narratives. Obviously, fishing has always been an important activity (see also my review of Fishing), as have other subsistence activities such as collecting of bird’s eggs and feathers, hunting of seals and cetaceans, and harvesting of seaweed. But, often overlooked, the Atlantic coast has long been an international trade hub, and Gange traces threads to Iceland, the Americas, Scandinavia, and Africa. Historian Barry Cunliffe has done much to highlight this in his book Facing the Ocean, and Gange mentions recent works such as Vast Expanses as a sign that the tide for oceanic histories is turning.

    According to Gange, the period leading up to the 19th century marked a sea change. He scoffs at terms such as “the Enlightenment” and “Renaissance” as “an identity politics that values the rich alone”: while big cities such as London and Edinburgh flourished, coastal communities went into near-terminal decline. The modernisation of this era affected numerous aspects, customs, and habits. Modern agricultural methods led to the decline of old farming practices, often degrading the land. Only in the last decade has there been a recognition that traditional crofting practices are the only sustainable form of agriculture in this kind of marginal landscape.

    Many historic episodes Gange touched on were new for me. I was particularly shocked reading the effect of the Education Acts in the 1870s which sought to standardise education across the British Isles and went hand-in-hand with anti-Gaelic propaganda. It resulted in children who were ill-prepared to value or comprehend local life and who, in the words of an embittered older generation, were educated for one purpose only: to leave their communities to work in the cities.

    More recently, Ireland joining the European Economic Zone opened up its waters to international fishing fleets, resulting in “resource-raids inspired by short-term profit in contrast to the long-term custodianship” by local communities. Gange is level-headed enough to not lay the blame with European administrators, but with Irish regulators, insensitive to the needs of their islanders. Similarly, plans by multinationals such as Shell to drill for oil off the Irish coast have met with fierce resistance.

    Besides the geopolitics, Gange explores the legacy of literature, art, poetry, and (particularly overlooked) oral history. Obviously, they offer a window onto a different era, but recently they have become a vehicle for a renewed interest in local languages. Local archives and historical societies are seeing much footfall, and the opening of local universities means there is a renewed interest in local cultural heritage. I admit that I found some of these sections a bit abstruse, although that reflects on me not being much of an arts and literature buff, rather than on Gange’s writing.

    English kayaking literature has a long history, going back to the 1934 book The Canoe Boys. Since then, plenty of people have taken to Scottish waters or paddled around Ireland. Although all of these contain some of it, The Frayed Atlantic Edge stands out for its focus on history over adventure. I expect that those with an interest in the local communities at the margins of the British Isles will devour this book, and it powerfully argues its central message for a rereading of history. But thanks to its evocative writing, it succeeds both as a history book and a travel narrative.
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David Gange was born in the Peak District. He is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham and has published history books with Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Oneworld Publications. He has appeared on BBC2 and Smithsonian television as well as at the Hay Literary Festival and in the TLS. His writing as published nature writing and photography in various books and magazines. Recently, he held a research fellowship at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Nature Writing
By: David Gange(Author)
404 pages, 16 plates with colour photos
Arguing that history is marginalising coastal communities, The Frayed Atlantic Edge is as much audacious travelogue as it is a powerful historical counter-narrative.
Media reviews

– Collective winner of the Highland Book Prize 2019
BBC Countryfile Magazine Book of the Month

"An impressive intellectual and physical journey, allowing the reader to experience the Atlantic Coast from a fresh, deeply informed and invigorating perspective; rarely have our coastlines and cultures been explored with such understanding and respect."
– Highland Book Prize

"A tour de force"
– Moya Cannon

"This book is the product of a considerable physical achievement [...] A brilliant book, and a major step towards a genuinely radical reimagining of the history of the British Isles."

"The strength of Mr Gange's account is his generosity. His own wry persona never overshadows the voices of past and present inhabitants [...] [his] prose is itself poetic and precise [...] His enthusiasm for snoozing in soggy sleeping bags is infectious [...] A dunking in the freezing sea, off the coast of County Mayo, leaves the author shivering but "ignited, elated". Surfacing from the book, the reader is invigorated, too."

"An intensely political book [...] there is uncomplicated beauty as well as wonderful descriptions"
Country Life

"Gange is both extraordinarily intrepid and deeply attentive to all he encounters [...] worth attention for its deeper argument as well as its thrilling surface."

"This is the book that has been wanting to be written for decades: the ragged fringe of Britain as a laboratory for the human spirit, challenging, beautiful, a place where sea and land are deeply interpenetrated, often materially impoverished and half obscured by a mawkish romanticism, but actually rich and inevitably complex: and here is the man to do it – physically resourceful, articulate, clear-eyed, informed, attentive to the realities, and crucially at home in all the elements. A book reliant in the end on one key fact: edges are revelatory."
– Adam Nicolson, winner of the Wainwright Prize 2018

"Some books are about the sea. David Gange's book is in the sea. He climbs through it, navigating fascinating stories that pop up like distant islands coming suddenly into view. Whales become living history, otters ribbons of water, geology and literature and especially poetry are drawn together by the intimate witness Gange bears to the ocean's edge. This beautifully written and grippingly researched book shows us that our shores are the beginning, not the ending, of things."
– Philip Hoare

"Energetic, entertaining and erudite – David Gange helps us to see these islands in a new and exciting way, taking us round its coastline, from Shetland down to Cornwall, in a journey that is sometimes boisterous, sometimes lyrical but always engaging."
– Donald Murray

|A wonderful blend of history and travelogue. Gange is such an attentive, generous writer. From his close and vivid observations of the natural world, to his championing of artists, writers and activists, this book feels like a timely reappraisal of how we think about the Atlantic coast, its communities and their languages, its history and its future. It is a perspective-shifting work."
– James Macdonald Lockhart

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