In their introduction to a recent edition of Gothic Nature, Jimmy Packham, Emily Alder, and Joan Passey make a persuasive case for the value of Gothic and ecoGothic approaches to coastal studies. The shore, they argue, is ‘a space that troubles notions of boundaries and limits’; the liminality or permeability of the coast allows new ways of thinking with and about human/nature relations, and reveals the extent to which they cannot be conceived of in simple binaries (2022, p. 7). The troubled relations between land and sea, and human and nonhuman, are a frequent feature of both older and contemporary Scottish Gothic texts. In the arresting opening of Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth (2021), for instance, the devil’s daughter arrives in Leith from the sea, travelling in a floating coffin, while in T.L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights series (beginning with The Library of the Dead (2021)) climate change has resulted in the reinforcement of sea barricades at Leith, as well as the flooding of the Nor Loch (currently Princes Street Gardens). In both novels, the mixture of natural and supernatural, and the living and the dead, is predicated on this meeting of land and sea. The boundaries of urban space, Fagan and Huchu suggest, are always subject to change; the sea is both alien and everpresent.
The idea of the sea as an infiltrating power can equally be seen in Glasgow-set fiction, particularly dystopian works ranging from Julie Bertagna’s Exodus (2008) to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) where the Necropolis, the city’s central cemetery, is envisioned as a place not of death but safety, because of its elevation in times of mass flooding. While these texts are not coastal in a traditional sense, they demonstrate the extent to which the coast can shift and change, and in doing so show the precarity of many other foundational elements. Whether examining flooding or subterranean rivers, as in Camilla Grudova’s Children of Paradise (2022), contemporary Scottish Gothic frequently suggests that the sea is much closer than we think.
Islands, too, can be a place of change and uncertainty. In texts as diverse as Louise Welsh’s Naming the Bones (2010), Jess Richard’s Snake Ropes (2012), and Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island (2013), as well as forerunners such as Ellen Galford’s The Fires of Bride (1986), islands are places of myth and magic that operate by their own rules. Islands provide new ways of thinking about the relation not only between land and sea but also individual and community. Islands are frequently figured as places of both geographical and cultural contestation and change. In other Scottish Gothic texts, stasis can be as alarming as change. One can think of the uncanny frozen sea in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Captain of the Pole-Star’ (1914), where ice is seen as an end to all life: ‘No lapping of the waves now, no cries of seagulls or straining of the sails, but one deep universal silence’ (1914, p. 22). The icy landscape, neither land nor sea, is a place only of death. In her introduction to Helen Douglas’s collection of photographs of the Hebridean shoreline Unravelling the Ripple (2001), Rebecca Solnit highlights that the shoreline is not only a ‘place that is noplace’, but ‘the site of the mutual offerings of the dead, our drowned, their beached, another edge effect, this washing up of corpses, metaphors, myths’ (2001, n.p.). The shore is where we meet the dead, and perhaps our own death; it is a place that challenges our ideas of linear progress, and invites new – Gothic – tales.
Yet while these texts, and many others, share key features with a number of other coastal Gothic works, Scottish Gothic also emphasises a principle of vertical orientation that, while not unique, is worth addressing further. While cliffs and lighthouses are not exclusively Scottish settings, of course, the prominence of height as feature of boundary-breaking is surprisingly common. The opening of Ann Radcliffe’s The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), one of the first Gothic novels to be set in Scotland, suggests the importance of this orientation:
On the north-east coast of Scotland, in the most romantic part of the Highlands, stood the Castle of Athlin; an edifice built on the summit of a rock whose base was in the sea. This pile was venerable from its antiquity, and from its Gothic structure; but more venerable from the virtues which it enclosed. (1995, p. 3)
The Highlands, Radcliffe suggests, are naturally inclined to the sublime, and are intrinsically romantic. As Ian Duncan, among others, has noted, Scottish Gothic frequently traces the tension between multiple ideas of the nation, one – frequently, if not necessarily, aligned with the Highlands – tied to ancestral identity and the other – again, not necessarily but frequently linked with the Lowlands – tied to modernity. Radcliffe’s castle, romantic and venerable, clearly represents this dynamic. It is crucial in this context, however, that the castle is also between land and sea. The venerable Gothic, in all senses, arises from the sea and is still part of it. While the modern city might resist or be transformed by the tides, the Gothic edifice is formed by them: emerging from the sea but not separate from it, Radcliffe’s castle shows the impossibility of clear division.
Verticality is central to many thinkers in the blue humanities. Steve Mentz argues that ‘the ocean’s verticality plunges down into hidden ways of thinking, including histories of change and human suffering’ (2020, p. 7). The theologian Catherine Keller goes further, arguing that ‘it is the tehomophobic imaginary that has energized western civilization and its heroic subjects: to master the chaos, perchance to destroy it, to flush it from the universe’ (2003, p. 31). ‘Tehom’, the Hebrew word for ocean, also carries meanings of ‘deep’ and ‘abyss’; in her reading of Biblical creation stories, Keller argues that one of the central movements in Western thought is a fear of not simply the ocean, but the ocean as unknown. Coming from different disciplinary perspectives, Keller and Mentz both highlight the way thinking of the ocean not in terms of its surface but its depth generates new ways of thinking and imagining. Considering the sea in terms of depth as well as expanse allows for thinking of hidden legacies of suffering, not least Transatlantic slavery. It allows for new perspectives on the way knowledge is constructed, and the relation between apparent chaos and order. Highlighting verticality does not simply add a new dimension to traditional land-based ways of thinking, but challenges them entirely.
While there are, to my knowledge, relatively few underwater Scottish Gothic novels, this question of vertical orientation as a way of rethinking chaos and order, or history and change, is omnipresent. The theological and historical impact of thinking vertically, for instance, are foregrounded in Alice Thompson’s Pharos (2002), a ghost story examining Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade. Jacob’s Rock, the novel’s setting, is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, home to a lighthouse, as well as a crypt and a ruined chapel. Each environment and building allows for different ways of thinking, operating on a largely vertical axis.
The lighthouse in the novel, for instance, appears ‘as if it had always been a part of the landscape, a natural formation’ (2002, p. 6); it is frequently subsumed by enormous waves, but also towers above everything else. Cameron, the lighthouse keeper, sees his task in religious terms – ‘God came first, the lighthouse second’ (p. 2) – and throughout the novel frames light in opposition to darkness. Cameron presents himself as a force of light in both religious and literal terms: light challenges the destructive power of both sin and the sea. Modernity, technology, light, and Christianity all operate at the top of a vertical axis.
The sea, on the other hand, is framed in terms of the unknown: ‘where there was no light, the sea wasn’t just in shadow but […] ceased to exist altogether’ (p. 78). The sea is a source of horror and mystery, and consequently the shore is a place where rationality and chaos, or light and darkness, are not kept firmly separate, but are allowed to mingle. The shore, as in Solnit’s formulation, is ‘a place of death’ (p. 17), and crucially where the body of Lucia, a mysterious woman with amnesia, washes up at the novel’s opening. Simon, the novel’s ostensible protagonist, is introduced climbing on clifftops and diving under the sea to collect crustaceans and seaweed. For Simon, the world ‘was not something to be controlled or managed or done to’ (p. 11), as can be witnessed in his facility moving between different environments.
The secrets of slave trading, however, are revealed only in the island’s crypt. The crypt lies between the human and the nonhuman, encrusted with shells and filled with seaweed, giving it ‘the aura of an underwater cave’ (p. 9). The crypt is the home of a ghostly young girl, and is consistently framed as transforming between land and sea; it is also, ultimately, the home of buried secrets.
Thompson’s novel does not only, as many critics have observed, highlight the way rationality and religion have been used as a way to obfuscate cruelty, but also suggests that the secrets of the past can be understood spatially as much as chronologically. The shore, as the meeting place of living and dead, becomes a way of navigating between old and new, or order and chaos. The shore is where what has been buried comes to light. As Jean Sprackland writes at the close of her beachcombing memoir Strands (2012), however, part of what makes shores such dynamic environments is the contingent nature of encounter: ‘Things arrive unannounced, then disappear again under the waves; buried history comes to the surface; traces of the past are exposed and erased’ (2013, p. 236). The shore is an ideal space for Gothic unease and the uncanny precisely because it highlights the instability of any knowledge system.
Vertical orientations, once you look for them, are everpresent in Scottish coastal Gothic. Most recently, C.J. Cooke’s The Lighthouse Witches (2021) juxtaposes a clifftop lighthouse with a cave underneath which has its own particularly uncanny relation to history, although to say more would be a spoiler. Cooke’s, Thompson’s, and Radcliffe’s novels are centred around very different versions of the Scottish past, and use their Gothic devices in markedly different ways. Yet each of them suggests the importance of thinking of height and depth in the construction of shoreline geographies as well as encounters with the past. The shore, and the lighthouses and castles above it, and the abyss beneath, becomes a way of wrestling with historical secrets. While Scottish Gothic continues to be thought of in terms of mountains and cities, then, thinking of the shore as a place of encounter and change allows for a new perspective on Scottish Gothic. At the same time, the preponderance of cliffs and lighthouses in these texts, while not far removed from, say, Cornish Gothic, also allows for new dimensions in coastal fiction. Thinking of verticality not simply as a fixed spatial feature, but both fluid and symbolic, suggests a potential area of enquiry into both Scottish Gothic texts and those beyond.
Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Captain of the Pole-Star (London: Hodder, 1914).
Douglas, Helen, Unravelling the Ripple, int. Rebecca Solnit (Edinburgh: Pocketbooks, 2001).
Keller, Catherine, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2003).
Mentz, Steve, Ocean (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
Packham, Jimmy, Emily Alder and Joan Passey, ‘Creeping Along the Endless Beach’, Gothic Nature: Haunted Shores 3 (2022): 2-18. https://gothicnaturejournal.com.
Radcliffe, Ann, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, ed. Alison Milbank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Sprackland, Jean, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (London: Vintage, 2013).
Thompson, Alice, Pharos: A Ghost Story (London: Virago, 2002).