Seeking Soul and Salt Spray

A senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham, David describes himself as “a writer, historian, sea kayaker and human seal”. Most recently, in a marriage of professional and personal interests, he has worked on the histories of coastlines, oceans and the communities that rely on them – exploring the past by ‘doing’ as well as researching.

Such an approach saw David spend a year kayaking the Atlantic coastlines from Shetland to Cornwall, travelling slowly and close to the water as a means of connecting with the natural world and the histories of the coastal communities he passed. “I spent as much time in coastal archives as in the boat, gathering stories and learning what Britain and Ireland look like with oceanic geographies at the centre,” he explains.

The resulting book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge – an evocative intertwining of storytelling, ecology, history and poetry – became a joint winner of the Highland Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.

David is now travelling further afield for a new book project, called Afloat, that uses traditions of boat building and travel by small boat alongside the folklore of coastal communities to explore the ocean-going cultures of the North Atlantic.

Its chapters cover South Connemara and Fair Isle, then regions of Faroe, Greenland, Newfoundland, Maine, the Carolinas and the Caribbean to form an arc from the northeast end of the Gulf Stream to its origins 5,000 miles to the southwest.

“There’s something uniquely evocative about tiny boats afloat on oceans,” believes David. “Despite their fragility, these small shells of wood, seal skin, cow hide or canvas can cross vast seas in any weather. In isolating their occupants amid the mightiest forces on the planet they reveal humanity at its smallest and most delicate.

“They immerse humans in the wild worlds of whales, sharks and shoals that are, despite their size and charisma, among the least understood species on our planet. They spell adventure and exploration – but also risk and hardship – on exceptional scales.”

Back on dry land for one weekend, David appears at the Peebles Outdoor Film Festival between boat journeys in the Faroes and Greenland to present Atlantic Journeys (7.30pm, Sat 18 June) – a magical weaving together of stories and images that explore people, place, ecology, adventure and history. For tickets, call Box Office on 01721 725777, or go online