Whose Western Edge?

There is always a cliched poignancy about a deserted and ruined village. Here on the island of Isay in the entrance to Loch Dunvegan, maybe eighteen roofless remains of cottages and blackhouses line the shore each side of a landing beach. Large stones have been neatly assembled into substantial walls up to eighteen inches thick, creating a living space about eight metres long by three across, with rounded corners at each end. I found myself marveling at the solidity of the construction, gazing in fascination inside and wondering how a family would have lived in such a space. And then I felt rather heartless as it came home to me that this had been home for that family, who would have loved and laughed and fought and struggled here. I have similar feeling when I see pictures of wrecked houses in war zones, Sarajevo, Grozny, Syria, Gaza: deep sympathy alongside a curiosity, “Is that how they live?” I felt even more heartless as I took a picturesque shot of the heather growing in the walls with my iPhone.

There is a convenient landing beach by the old houses, and another one further south near the bigger ‘laird’s house’. Each one has a crude stone pier or breakwater leading out into the shallows, no more than a line of heavy stones, which would have given the fishing boats some protection from any fetch coming round the headland. The shoreline is heavy with seaweed which threatened to tangle up in the propeller of my outboard, but I thought I could detect a clear path through the weed to the beach just by the breakwater. Was this my imagination? And if there was a path, is it a leftover from the times when this was a busy fishing community, or is it maintained today by the visits of local boats?

Hamish Haswell-Smith’s book on Scottish Islands gives a potted history. Dastardly deeds were committed in the laird’s house in the 16th century; Dr Johnson visited in 1773 and was offered the island as a gift, so long as he lived there for three months each year. But the history really belongs to the families who lived in the street of now-ruined houses who, as on so many of these Scottish islands, prospered when times were good and starved when times were bad.

As Adam Nicholson points out in his book about the Shiant Islands, not so long ago the sea was the main path of communication and transport. Islands were not ‘remote’, they were always on a path to somewhere else as well as destinations in their own right. This was not the ‘western edge’ of a European land civilisation but rather at the heart of a society based on the seaways running from Iceland and Scandinavia in the north, through Wales and Ireland, the Cornish Peninsular, Brittany, Galicia and the straights of Gibraltar. If eighteen or more families lived here in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this must have been in its way a prosperous fishing community, only cleared out when the herring were fished out and a modernising and finance-driven economy made sheep farming more profitable to those who supposedly owned the land (reading the history of land ownership in Scotland I am inclined to take seriously the maxim ‘property in theft’; not that it is any better in England).

My visit raises the question (which has to some extent haunted me through the whole of this voyage) “whose western edge?”



  1. Malcolm Parlett says:

    Away first in Japan, and now in Croatia, teaching on both occasions, I have usually found time to connect to you, Peter, and your own very different travel going on in parallel with my own. My travel has been through the mediums (the more correct ‘media’ sounds pretentious) of aircraft, taxis, and buses and occurs mostly between hotels. Yours has been the very opposite kind of travel and adventure in terms of its entirely different meanings of comfort; of what constitutes felt ease and satisfaction at the end of a day; and its proximity to the Earth’s surface features, as opposed to the insulated human-made conference and professional ‘world’ which I have been inhabiting. This latter ‘substitute world’ – almost a universe apart, it seems – is almost wholly dependent on what lies BELOW the surface of the Earth: namely drinkable water, oil, clay, rock, coal, and a whole variety of mineral elements, all of which have to be brought to the surface and ‘processed’ in order to help feed humans, and provide the comforts, luxuries, and delusions of ‘modern life’ to become an unquestioned norm.
    When, on beloved Coral, you collect fish or fight the weed that accumulates on the propellor, or drop anchor till it attaches itself to the ground beneath the water, you too are going below the surface of the planet – but to a tiny, temporary, and human-scale extent. Your boat – as you have reminded us yourself – is a beautifully designed extension of our technological world enabling you to move around safely on the turbulent and constantly changing watery surface with its ever-changing relationship to the wind, the forces of the moon, and affected by shapes of land and seabed.
    Although in your capsule of modernity we are sharing in the manufactured, seductive, and entrapping brilliance of humanity, you are at least heir to the traditional practices of human beings down the ages, in coracles, hollowed out trees, crafted wooden boats (or craft), and a multitude of other floating devices driven by wind or human strength or the currents of the sea. I, meanwhile, am either cooped up in a tube of compressed air (entirely passive and for the most part sitting), or on the land surface I am inside the present-day orchestrated ‘reality’ of air-conditioned hotel rooms, consuming unbelievable varieties (and amounts) of pre-prepared food, hot-showering, and swimming in the pool, in other words sampling comforts that would have been unimaginable to our forebears (and to millions of other human beings alive now) and which can be so easily taken for granted and regarded as of right. In this wholly different world to yours in Coral, ‘the outside’, ‘the elements’ become foreign, distant, usually unwanted reminders of an ‘alien’ world of winds, rain, baking sun, that lies beyond the realm of our so-important present concerns – as questions of our survival as a species also disappear into the far distance, as remote from the usual conference agendas as heated towel rails and air-conditioning are alien to you in Coral.
    Please keep writing and reminding me, Peter, of my own divided nature and humanity’s utterly confused values.
    Malcolm Parlett
    [P.S. I hope that my book, now undergoing final editing: ‘Future Sense – Five explorations for an awakening world’ will be published later this year or at the beginning of 2015]

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Rain on Arrakis

I'm Franklin Ginn, a cultural geographer at the Unviersity of Bristol. My research interests are in multispecies landscapes, plant politics, environment-society relations, Anthroposcenes/ Chthulucenes and philosophical questions concerning the nonhuman.


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