Coastal History: Who, What, and Why?

I’m absolutely delighted that the second post for ‘Firths and Fjords’ is a guest blog by Professor Isaac Land of the Department of History, Indiana State University. Isaac was one of our keynote speakers at the Dornoch conference, giving a presentation which was ‘inspiring’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘put everything into context’ to quote the words of several attendees. As well as being author of War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (2009), Isaac takes responsibility, in a 2007 article, for introducing the term ‘New Coastal History’ to history writing (see footnote one below for a full reference). This article ignited the ‘Coastal History’ debate that has proved so engaging and intriguing ever since. Isaac also runs The Coastal History Blog. I recommend it to all of you, along with his Twitter account (@IsaacLand2) as public history which is suitably challenging while being global and inclusive in its scope, reach and appeal. Best wishes, David


A number of scholars from quite varied backgrounds have independently been feeling their way toward coastal history in recent years.  I was the first to use the term as such in “Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History,” but unbeknownst to me, Michael Pearson’s “Littoral Societies: The Concept and the Problems” had appeared in the Journal of World History just six months before.[1]  John Gillis’ The Human Shore brought a coastal approach to wider attention. As a fierce advocate for coastal environmental issues, he would go on to receive a profile in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and write op-ed pieces for the New York Times.

Gillis quoted a Swedish proverb about people with “one boot in the boat, one boot on shore,” and this captures the spirit of the coastal endeavor.  It is helpful, at the outset, to point out that many—I would argue, most—of the coastal history topics are watery, but do not actually overlap with the concerns or methods favored by naval or maritime historians.

Land image

The three of us (Land, Pearson, and Gillis) had something in common: we, ourselves, had one boot on each side of the historiographical divide.  We looked to the coast to address research questions that did not necessarily originate at sea.  If the coast is the centre of the inquiry, we enter a different intellectual “neighborhood.”

Land image 2

This second diagram illustrates two of my favorite points. First, many people are already doing coastal history without knowing it (and consider the gigantic circles that are missing from this diagram, such as gender history!).  Second, a correctly-worded call for papers could easily summon a hundred people (on average) to an annual international conference.  It just requires that a small percentage of scholars in each of these very large “cognate” fields have some interest in watery topics. A coastal history conference is the natural home base for a number of topics that might look quirky, tangential, or “unmarketable” in another academic setting.

I believe Louise Moon’s dissertation has the distinction of being the first to openly affiliate with coastal history.  I write about historians because I know them best.  Yet, of course, the Firths and Fjords conference attracted many archaeologists, and I noticed a strong affinity for cultural geography in many of the papers.  It’s worth noticing the spectrum of disciplines beyond History with “coastal studies” potential—or which may be getting there ahead of us!  Here, for example, is Rebecca Shores, PhD candidate in English and Comp Lit, blogging about the soundscapes of the island-dwelling hermit-saints Cuthbert and Guthlac.  Anthropologist-turned-marine biologist María Early Capistrán offers a longue durée history of the human relationship with sea turtles off the Mexican coast. Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting Soledad Álvarez Martínez and Laura Mier Valerón, two art historians who have applied their special skill set to the urban planning (and glamorous travel posters) of Spanish beach towns in the Franco era.  In my keynote, I referenced the work of Fiona Handyside (French and film studies) and David Jarratt (tourism studies).

Someone has quipped that starting a new subfield is as difficult as getting a new sport into the Olympic Games.  After the roller coaster of the 1990s, some will resist any new term simply because they’re exhausted with new terms (and methodological “turns”).

Yet in this area, scholars have been shy about inventing useful labels, or promoting them. Greg Dening’s work, and Alain Corbin’s, appeared perhaps too self-contained to inspire a dialogue and a dynamic subfield.   Gérard Le Bouedec published on littoral societies and the paramaritime, but mostly in French, and in journals focused on regional, Breton history.  I have tried to introduce some new terms and debatable, “usefully wrong” propositions in “Doing Urban History in the Coastal Zone,” but this will only appear in print this year.[2]

In short: why is there a need for a new coastal history?  Because there was never an old coastal history.  I continue to run into fresh evidence of this.  Recently, I read a dozen academic books about “cosmopolitan port towns,” none of which cited each other.  During the Dornoch conference, I introduced Fiona Handyside and David Jarratt to each other via Twitter.  The fact that both of them wrote about the modern beach hadn’t been enough to help them meet on their own.

As I’ve emphasized in this overview, the only way forward is to affiliate and organize.  For updates on all this and more, please follow The Coastal History Blog.

[1] Isaac Land, “Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History.” Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (Spring 2007), 731–743; Michael Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” Journal of World History 17, no. 4 (2006), 353-373.

[2] It is the final chapter in Brad Beaven, Karl Bell, and Rob James, eds. Port Towns and Urban Cultures (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Coastal Adjacencies

‘I thought the variety of subjects dealt with at the conference showed very clearly that there is a multitude of themes and disciplines affected by coastal management’

‘The concepts of coastal history and the themes of the diverse papers have given me some new perspectives.’

‘Great range of topics and variety of strands connected to the coasts.’

‘I am going to use the discussion about coastal history in the theoretical framework of my dissertation.’

These were just four comments received from hundreds of points made on our evaluation forms in relation to the recent ‘Firths and Fjords’ conference. It was the first ever conference on the Coastal History theme, and the biggest and most ambitious academic gathering to have taken place in Dornoch to this date.

Taken together with the Twitter archive – over 900 tweets in the week from 30 March 2016 using the #firths2016 hashtag – this feedback provided helpful, constructive and encouraging insights regarding, for example, the catering, live music, ceilidh, exhibitions, film screening, and excursion. All of these were integral to the event and involved support from numerous people and groups (highlighted during the three days but too many to list here). There were hitches along the way and there are lessons for us to learn. However, the responses do, I think, indicate the engagement with the theme felt by the diverse group of 100-plus people who took part.

Braw Chocolate made by Dornoch Academy students being put on display at the conference. Photo by Alison Munro – more conference photos here

And now this blog. I pondered with the rest of the organising team about trying to create a ‘Firths and Fjords package’, an overall presentation of ‘where we go from here?’. However, we’ve decided against that since, in terms of publication alone, we are already navigating steadily towards publishing an edited volume focused on the international aspects of the theme, cultural and environmental perspectives on ‘adjacent coast’ communities (those living around firths, sea lochs, sounds, straits, inlets, gulfs and bays, for example) and are keen to encourage and support other speakers to submit journal articles based on their papers. We also didn’t want to encroach on the wonderful range of themes covered in the Coastal History blog, run by Professor Isaac Land of Indiana State University (and hosted by the Port Towns and Urban Cultures project at the University of Portsmouth).

As you’ll see, the header for this site features a detail from Sue Jane Taylor’s outstanding art, based on the image from the Cromarty Firth which proved to be such a defining one for the conference. Several speakers have already indicated that they would be willing to write posts, so watch out for those over coming weeks and months.  Still, we’re very keen for the contributions to not be limited to them but to involve thoughts and pointers about all aspects of the three days of events (both indoors and outdoors since the weather was very kind) and the topics and debates I trust they helped highlight. So, if you have any blog-length reflections you’d wish to write up as an attendee, exhibitor, organising team member, musician, funder, as a member of Dornoch and District Community Association, Dornoch Allsorts, Dornoch Academy Parent Council, or as an academy student or staff member who was involved, I would be delighted to publish these. Please email me at the address provided at the bottom here.

In terms of broader content, we’d like to see posts debating and critiquing:

  • the concept of adjacent coasts in Scotland and beyond, about which I provided post 33 for Professor Land’s blog back in November, and which was expanded on by so many ‘Firths and Fjords’ speakers;
  • historical perspectives on firths, sea lochs, voes, fjords, inlets, sounds, straits, estuaries, bays, gulfs and their communities;
  • the social, cultural and economic history of the Dornoch, Cromarty, Beauly, Kessock and Moray Firths;
  • coastal ferries, transport and communications;
  • how medieval, early modern and modern Coastal History could connect further with a more cross-disciplinary Coastal Studies and how we historians might learn from other subject areas in terms of our approach to the littoral.

Struie Hill - looking west

There could (and will, we hope) be many others and I’m perhaps bound to say that academics working in university departments have a crucial role to play in this. However, as I see it, we do not in any sense ‘own’ history. When it comes to the ebb and flow of ideas, the blogosphere comes into its own as a dynamic, shared space. While I remember, please do, if you’re interested, have a look at the ‘Moray Firth History’ Facebook and Twitter accounts, which I run and which were set up to explore and contextualise the past of the Fraserburgh-Beauly-Wick indented triangle. Thanks for your support!

Dr David Worthington, Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands, Dornoch, Scotland