This summer’s fall-out from Brexit made me all the more determined to focus attention on our interconnected world, in particular with the often overlooked links we have along the Atlantic Arc. Over decades I have been a participant in celebrations of 'Atlantean' life and culture through music, travel and friendships among people of the Atlantic lands, especially a long association with Brittany.
In December 2015 I accepted an invitation to produce a paper for the Conference Internationale Bretagne-Ecosse being held at Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest on 30 June and 1 July 2016. I proposed the subject 'Scotland and Brittany – not always the periphery’ which led me back far before the Celts and right up till now to explore the intertwined yet separate histories of Scotland and Brittany as parts of a coastal continuity on the Atlantic Arc. It offered new strands of argument to resist the narrowing vision of London-centric British nationalism within which chaotic forces of reaction with a populist and racist edge were unleashed. My paper sought to promote greater understanding of the Atlantic archipelago and a modern response guided by two major studies and many other sources.
A wide-ranging study caught my eye. It was by Christopher Harvie. 'A Floating Commonwealth – Politics, Culture, and Technology on Britain’s Atlantic Coast, 1860- 1930' which was published in 2008. It weaves a complex decentred view of high industrial Britain focusing on the sea as connector, not barrier, i.e. the Atlantic and the 'inland sea’ from Cornwall to the Clyde. The transatlantic trade was the major source of its prosperity.
In the late 1990s I investigated the export of home-grown cattle and sheep from Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. This was prompted by musical links from Scotland and Ireland with the American West: in particular, a song written in Gaelic in Montana by a Highland stock drover around 1905 opened a forgotten circle of social and economic connections across the Atlantic.
'Plaids & Bandanas' traced strong Scottish influences across the Atlantic on their cattle industry. Each is an aspect of the cultural and economic wealth and people exported from the Highlands from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The crux of the story is that the bulk of the wealth produced by cattle and sheep was gained by middlemen and not the crofters and farmers who reared the stock. This attracted so much emigration to the British Empire and USA that it overshadows our thinking of the Atlantic to this day.
Subsequently, the shrinking of the Atlantic ports such as Glasgow and Liverpool to their current condition followed the closure of uncompetitive home industries, globalisation and the de-industrialising agenda set by successive London governments. The ship-building initiative was lost to Finland, Germany and Poland as well as the Asiatic competition for constructing super tankers, the kinds of specialist ships that oil and gas, renewables and short sea crossings most need.
The second inspiration was published in 2000. 'Facing the Ocean' by the distinguished archaeologist and historian Barry Cunliffe traces the experiences and development of the Atlantic and its peoples from megalithic times through to the Middle Ages. It gives measured, scientific proof that developments along the Atlantic were not due to a hub and spokes model which has long been the received wisdom of those whose world view follows classical Greek and Roman thought.
Cunliffe’s overview of the evidence of 5,000 years of life along the Atlantic Arc proves in the words of Bob Quinn back in 1986 that 'the notion of a land-diffused Celtic culture was replaced by a culture diffused by sea – a common inheritance of the people living on the western seaboard of Europe and the Mediterranean’.
In the 1980s Bob Quinn’s Channel 4 film 'Atlantean' had explored this thesis concerning Ireland’s North African and maritime heritage. He began in Connemara from two observations: first, that sean-nòs singing and Arab music have much in common; second, that in his Connemara home churches, shops and other services are based at the points of land which point to a seaborne community. The sea was the link.
His book 'Atlantean' (1986) explored the artificial concept of Celtic art, music and culture. Indeed the use of the term Celts, he argued, was derived from a classic centralist perspective. They were deemed the 'other’ by the Romans. Being a Celtic nation does not explain how Ireland and her neighbours with similar languages survived on the edges of Europe despite rule by an increasingly centralised imperial church followed by imperial nation states. Quinn saw Ireland as a 'traffic island’ on the sea routes that join the lands from Scandinavia to Morocco and on to Egypt along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
My investigations about the 'periphery’ hit time and again on the vessels used for cultural, trade and population movements on the Atlantic. Development of materials, methods of propulsion and seamanship led on to reflections on the numbers of re-enactments or replica boat buildings that have plied our coasts in recent decades. People in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Man, Brittany and now the Basques have all taken to the sea links that offer reminders of how we communicated over millennia. And still do today.
Back in the 70s I was enthralled by 'The Brendan Voyage', Tim Severin’s recreation of a leather-skinned curragh that sailed in 1976-7 from Brendan Creek in Kerry via the Hebrides, Orkney, Faroes, Iceland and finally Newfoundland.
I was equally smitten by Shaun Davey’s suite 'The Brendan Voyage' and his subsequent production 'The Pilgrim'. The combination of traditional instruments and classical orchestra were a first which played to acclaim around the world. They enhanced the role of intangible cultural heritage alongside the study of objects in museums which help us piece together a more accurate picture of life around these Atlantic shores through many ages. The Lorient InterCeltic Festival has championed that fusion style many times.
In so doing Davey includes lands and sources far flung from the insular Celts. One instance: Himilco, the 5th century BC Phoenician explorer from Carthage, sailed along the trade route to the coasts of Cornwall and Ireland and appears as an early motif in 'The Pilgrim'.
St Efflam commemorated the Celtic saints’ voyages and sailed from Oban to Douarnenez in 1999, Odin’s Raven sailed from Norway to the Isle of Man in 1979 and now the Basques are intent on building a replica 15th-century fishing ship which would have crossed the Atlantic before Columbus. They underlined that sea routes were much easier to follow than land routes in past times and down to the present.
The Basque port of Donostia/ San Sebastian was the European City of Culture 2106. One of its initiatives was TOSTA, a cultural tour of Europe to disseminate the central message of tolerance and diversity. This became a cultural cargo containing a pop-up festival for communities across Atlantic Europe.
I became aware of TOSTA in August from an article entitled 'Another Europe: An Atlantic Archipelago in Planet' in Welsh Internationalist No. 223. Striking pictures of the pop-up festival in Wales, of pieces of art produced and in particular sculptures of Crodh Mara (sea cattle) made in Skye by Cornish artist Zenna Tagney grabbed my attention.
What Zenna Tagney envisaged at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in the spring of this year was the folklore of water horses, kelpies, and other old Gaelic phenomena. Her sea cattle have seaweed for hair. Zenna has also made language links as Cornish revives and has derived strength from the Scottish Gaelic revival so manifest in south Skye.
These kinds of cultural links deserve development far beyond one European City of Culture project. The word 'tosta’ means the bench in a boat, and is present, with small variations, in many minority languages along the European Atlantic coast. The communities visited responded very positively. Follow on stand-alone projects are in gestation.
Meic Llewellyn tells us in a Planet article on TOSTA that on medieval maps of Galicia, Ireland was shown just over the horizon, a day’s sail away. His Galician informant went on – 'we small cultures were an archipelago then, a hub, not the marginalised appendages of mighty nation states.' This outlook is the latest example of the 21st-century reappraisal of how those that 'face the ocean’ have so much in common from as far back as 5,000 years ago.
On returning from Brittany late last July I clocked a feature byKevin McKenna in the Observer about the Neolithic communities on Orkney which gave up-to-date assessments of the sophistication of the culture and its export – by sea – of the Orkney community’s knowledge and skills.
My letter to the paper expanded on the relevance of the Atlantic archipelago theme post-Brexit.
In Focus - Archaeology 24.7.16 rightly celebrated Britain's Festival of Archaeology this July by visiting Orkney's World Heritage site at Ness of Brodgar. What could be more appropriate in the wake of Brexit? Neolithic Orkney was a centre of innovation whose ideas spread south. However the bigger canvass is the Atlantic coasts from Morocco to Norway along which ideas and skills travelled freely so long ago. We Scots wish that to continue and I'm sure so do most open-minded folk. Orkney's European Maritime Energy Centre continues that outlook today. Kevin McKenna points to the importance of EU funding for scientific projects that amount to 28% overall in the UK. No result of Brexit could be more inward looking than to lose that wider funding stream, the international partners and the perspective that ancient and modern Orkney is part of an Atlantic cultural and economic zone.
Soon after, I submitted references for the European and external relations committee of the Scottish Parliament. The subject was the implications of Brexit on Scotland. In essence I pointed out how the EU had sponsored the European sustainable islands group, the Atlantic Arc and after the referendum its conference of peripheral maritime regions which had expressed disappointment that the UK had voted to leave. Archaeology shows us how ancient peoples cooperated; with huge resources in common the Atlantic coastal communities and islands must strive to keep these links alive today in our common interest.
Much the same can be said for the fishing communities around our coasts to this day. Bess Ross from the Seaboard of Easter Ross summed up so much of the Scottish outlook up till the revival of communal self-belief in the independence referendum campaign. In a play called 'The Land' she has one character 'Looking at the hills of Sutherland and dreaming of Montana.'
It is hard in the popular mind to equate the links along the European Atlantic shores against the heyday of world trade links. However, I believe that the cultural and economic potential from Morocco to Iceland has the ingredients of a very positive orientation today. Bob Quinn writes: 'The peoples of the Atlantic seaways are isolated by modern communication systems: to visit each other they must travel uncomfortably by secondary routes. These areas form what has already been described as a cultural archipelago, having more in common with each other than with the centralised governments that control them – and have written their history.'
We have to write our own history. It is timely to seek connections of many kinds with peoples across the world. For my part, helping Scots to see their place in Europe as a long-standing and lively connection is paramount. This is explicitly part of our Atlantic geography and the cultural influences it has brought to us.
I recommend Alan Riach’s enjoinder in 'The Arts of Independence' to learn from all the positions of our neighbours when it comes to making a case for independence. To that end he states, '…we can learn from all their positions, and we can start with common cause, shared purpose, the priorities of humanity.'
That seems to be patently obvious along the Atlantic archipelago.
Rob Gibson was an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament from 2003 to 2016