Nels Pearson

“A dream of far sea surge”: Water as Place in Scottish Modernism

So was life on this bare land and on this wild sea. To her own generations and to the children of her blood. Time and chance happened to them all

– Neil Gunn, Morning Tide

Arturo Escobar defends the notion of culturally distinct “place” against charges of parochialism and provincialism by noting that “it is our inevitable immersion in place, and not the absoluteness of [abstract] space, that has ontological priority in the generation of life and the real.” Place is “the experience of a particular location with some measure of groundedness (however, unstable), sense of boundaries (however, permeable), and connection to everyday life, even if its identity is constructed, traversed by power, and never fixed” (140). Place is therefore not fixed, bounded, and essentialized, but “characterized by openness”.

Drawing from Escobar’s definition as well as developments in the Blue Humanities, this paper explores the ways in which Scottish literary modernists developed a watery poetics of place—one that sought to include coasts, seas, and maritime histories as part of a culturally distinct, but also more broadly connected and open, understanding of distinct space. This is a crucial counterpart to the more often observed significance of land and landscape in Scottish Renaissance texts, not least because the shore and offshore in Scottish writing complicate nation / world binaries, require archipelagic thought, and compel more nuanced approaches to Scotland’s engagement in and losses to maritime imperialism.

Rather than confining their imaginative reclamation of space to land, and hence to territorial ideas of the anti-imperial nation, Hugh MacDiarmid and Neil Gunn, in particular, extend it to include waters inland and offshore, weighing Scottish complicity in and subjection to hydrocolonialism while offering alternatives to a British oceanic poetics that tended towards binaries of center and periphery, island and water, meaning and void. From divining a mythos in the idea of Celtic and Norse cultures as inherently seafaring and archipelagic, to connecting the present to local histories of maritime labor and trade, to seeking alternative, archipelagic routes between home and places beyond, these writers each become invested in exploring the watery spaces between the abstractions of nation and world.

Nels Pearson, Fairfield University, USA