In preparation for my first residency visit to Dunbar - some geeky research.
How do you get to know a place without actually visiting it? Surely, it’s not possible. Because how could you possibly get the sense of an environment without first meeting the people that live and work there? Patrick Geddes was pretty succinct about that idea some time ago.
So here’s another question - how can you possibly try to understand what a place was like in a time that is long gone? Because you can’t visit that. How do you get a sense of how people were feeling? How they were thinking? What was important to them?
A map carefully details a specific perspective that serves a particular purpose. It is familiar and selective. Once we begin to think a map not as objective documentation, but subjective, it immediately throws light back onto its source or sources - the cartographer that drew it, the organisation that commissioned it, the communities that cultivate and evolve the language that describes and annotates it. All of these names of rivers, hills, hamlets, harbours, sea roads, woodlands - they all tell us something about the people that have settled there overtime, and their relationship with their environment.
That is why in preparing for my first residency visit to Dunbar, I have been letting myself get lost on the National Libraries of Scotland maps website. There I have found charts that annotate the Firth of Forth, showing that all the deep channels that lead ships to the various communities along the coast were called the ‘Roads’. I have read a descriptive 400 year-old text atlas that has informed me of all the different plants that grew on the Isle of May at that time and that if I want to anchor my ship to do so on the east side when the wind is blowing from the west - to mention but a couple.
Some things I picked up about Dunbar whilst searching through old maps:
1. Apparently the sea around that bit of coast was at one point called 'The German Ocean'
2. It’s on the edge of the map. The jumping off point of the estuary, the last twist in the coast before it heads south, if you are heading eastwards in your ship, you’re about to hit the wide open water.
3. One map maker even gave it its own glorious compass rose (see pictured)
From all the information I find in these documents, I want to get a feel for the complex relationship people have had with this river estuary and what makes it such a fascinating urban seascape.