Another Land Made of Water: Anthropocene Islands and Ecological Apocalypse in the Orcadian Folklore of Walter Traill Dennison

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage series edited by Caroline CE Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.

Shortly before his death in 1894, Orcadian folklorist Walter Traill Dennison’s writings became overburdened with the world-ending power of the sea. A tenant farmer and Justice of the Peace from the low-lying island of Sanday in Orkney, Dennison experienced a world transformed over his lifetime by changes in agricultural processes, the marginalisation of crofters, environmental degradation, and rapid coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels. In his final years, he published a series of popular articles on Orcadian folklore in The Scottish Antiquary, or Northern Notes and Queries reflective of his climatological anxieties.  His late and posthumously-published articles register the elemental and transformative nature of the sea, and are critically focused on the shoreline: a liminal interface between sea and land, and a space that, in Dennison’s writings, is productive of monsters.

Fig. 1. Nautical Chart of Otterswick Bay, Sanday, Orkney. Source: Admiralty Chart, Orkney Islands – Northern Sheet, Admiralty Charts of Scotland, 1795-1963 , National Library of Scotland, CC-BY.

In his final, posthumous article entitled ‘On the Encroachments of the Sea and the Subsidence of the Land as Seen in the Island of Sanday’ published in 1896, Dennison deployed island oral histories to convey his fears for the future.1 Accounts of of submerged former forests around the bay at Otterswick and the loss of properties and land to coastal erosion framed a sorrowful prediction of the total destruction of the island of Sanday within four hundred years:

Yes, our island home is doomed. In a few short ages the lobster and the crab will crawl on our cold hearthstones; whales and fishes will disport above where our chimney tops now reach; sea-weeds and limpets will grow on our gravestones, and our graves be nowhere.2

Fig. 2. Copernicus Sentinel Satellite Map of Sanday, Orkney. Source: European Union, Sentinel Hub 2019-04-06 Sentienl 2B L2A True Colour. For more information about Copernicus, please visit the Open Access Hub.

Dennison’s bleak vision was underpinned by the fragile sandstone drift geology of Sanday and its relationship with crofting. Much of the island is comprised of wind-blown sand barely a few metres above sea level and was therefore acutely vulnerable to the rising Holocene sea levels. During his lifetime, land was continually lost to coastal erosion or was consumed beneath the advancing dunes, becoming ‘blawn land.’ Pressure from landlords to improve the agricultural productivity of the land that remained fractured communities, disrupting traditional forms of tenure and  exacerbating the marginalization of agricultural labour on Sanday. As an improving tenant farmer who strongly identified with the landowning classes, Dennison found himself increasingly in conflict with his neighbours. The very peasant stratum that was the source for many of his folk tales were increasingly pushed onto marginal coastal crofts or forced to emigrate. Dennison’s forecast for a Sanday “submerged” in “every part” in less than four centuries was accompanied by a lament for the landlords of Sanday: “With the crofters on one hand, and the ocean on the other, their position is well described in the worlds of the old saw as being between the Devil and the deep blue sea.”3

Fig. 3. Derelict Croft, Boloquoy, Sanday, Orkney. Source: © Jonathan Westaway, 2021, CC-BY-NC 4.0.

Dennison’s folklore registers his own conflicted approach to local myth and legend, and ultimately attempts to reconcile us to the limits of human agency. In an approach characteristic of the Celtic and Norse folkloric revivals in Scotland — genres prone to a “fondness for the dim, the shadowy, and the evanescent” — Dennison’s mythography hovers uneasily between recovery, reinvention and critique.4 Class conflict and coastal erosion became personified in a highly localised mythos: his intense focus on the sea and its monsters can be read in Malinowskian terms as registering a lack of agency in the face of protean and elemental forces. In Dennison’s folkloristics, all ontologies are wet ontologies, and the sea operates metonymically, inundating all meaning.

Dennison’s folklore is characterised by both the personification of natural forces and the hybridizing power of the foreshore. The myth of the Mither of the Sea he explains as a personification of seasonality, noting:

Man in an untutored state personifies all the phenomena of nature, accounts for all the vicissitudes of weather, the succession of seasons, and all the marvels of nature with which he is surrounded, by creating a myth, which, being adapted to, explains every phase and reads every riddle in the mysteries of nature.5

Similarly, he suggests an origin for the myth of the disappearing island of Hildaland in “some atmospherical phenomena,” lamenting in reflection “alas! only presented to the wonder of people who at once converted a shade, or the image of shade, into a tangible reality.”6

Importantly, for Dennison, the foreshore and intertidal zone are also a place to explore the boundaries of the human. In an article on Sea Trows – in Dennison’s formulation a kind of lumbering aquatic troll with a face “like that of a monkey” –  he reflects on the attraction of the spaces between land and water,  populated as they are by theriomorphs and human-animal hybrids:

His favourite rendezvous is the foreshore, so dear to all supernatural beings – that is, the ground between high and low water.7

This focus on the foreshore shows a clear typological resemblance to the Icelandic supernatural lore examined by Terry Gunnell, a shared heritage across the Norse Atlantic World.8 Class conflict also surfaces in the other-than-human elements of Dennison’s Coastal Gothic, complex societal relationships irrupting in myth. Dennison’s writings on the Nuckelavee, a uniquely Orcadian human-animal hybrid with a strong distaste for the smell of burning kelp may be a mythic registration of crofters’ widespread dissatisfaction with having to provide free labour for their landlords in kelp gathering and processing.9

Fig. 4. Burning Kelp, Birsay, Orkney. Source: Univeristy of Aberdeen, GB, 0231 MS 3792/C6171. Cited as included in the collection: Envisioning Women’s Places. University of Aberdeen image and collections CC Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Dennison’s interpretation of folklore is itself a hybrid. Strongly driven by a desire to re-enchant modernity, Dennison’s work blends empiricism and mysticism to make the case for regional exceptionalism. Even so, he firmly believed that contemporary folklore was establishing itself on scientific principles. As the anthropologist Stuart Maclean has noted, Dennison believed that the Orcadian repertoire of folklore about the denizens of the sea “represented a series of cultural strata (or “survivals”, in Edward Tylor’s influential phrase) extending back to the earliest human conceptions.”10 Identifying the similarities between Dennison’s folkloristics and the theories of cultural evolution proposed by anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Maclean draws attention to the intellectual basis of Dennison’s belief that “vestigial traces” in the folklore he assembled “could be read a history of the evolution of human thought and imagination… a progression tending […] toward the increasingly anthropomorphizing personification of elemental forces.”11 He applied this evolutionary theory to his accounts of the development of myth:

The unlettered mind, in its superstitious beliefs, seems to have had a shadowy foreboding of the modern idea of evolution. First, we have the Mother of the Sea, answering all the purposes of protoplasm. Then we have Terran, the Stoor Worm/ and Nuckelavee, to eradicate all inferior types of existence. So much for natural selection. In evolution we have, by a great bound, Nuckelavee, half man half beast; next we have the Sea Trow, in the form of a man, with the mind of a beast; next the Seal, a beast, yet able to assume the form of man; next comes the Fin Man, with astute mind, and well developed human form, yet with all the conveniences of a fish for aqueous existence and locomotion. And all is crowned by the lovely Mermaid, with her captivating charms, and unrivalled beauty.12

For Dennison however, both cultural evolution and ideas of progress were doomed. His ambitions to synthesise this body of folklore attempted to bear witness to a world he thought would disappear. We can view Dennison’s folkloristics as a salvage ethnography, driven by a sense of cultural loss and haunted by the prospect of the total annihilation of his island home. Importantly, Dennison’s mythography can also be viewed as an early figuration of the Gothic Anthropocene, a mode “uniquely haunted by the prospect of its own undoing.”13 Dennison’s anthropomorphizing of nature registers the decentring of the human and “the active complicity of Anthropos in its end”, an early example of the environmental anxiety that Jeffrey Weistock identifies as characteristic of the Anthropocene.14 Indeed, Dennison’s folklore draws “repeatedly upon the gothic as a means through which to express concerns about human impotence, hubris, and our future disappearance.”15

Fig. 5. Sand Dunes at Cata Sands, Sanday, Orkney. Source: © Jonathan Westaway 2021, CC-BY-NC 4.0.

Unaware of the complex interactions between rising sea levels and isostatic mechanisms, in his final article “On the encroachments of the sea,” Dennison turned to catastrophism to explain the evidence of environmental change all around him.  In a recent article ‘Anthropocene islands: There are only islands after the end of the world’ Jonathan Pugh and David Chandler argue that “the figure of the island as a liminal and transgressive space has facilitated Anthropocene thinking, working with and upon island forms and imaginations to develop alternatives to hegemonic, modern, ‘mainland’, or ‘one world’ thinking.”16 Islands experience accelerated change and adaptation and are more responsive to emergent effects. Islands decentre modern reasoning. They are also places where stories stick around and their effects“circulate in weird or strange ways, transforming our understandings of entities and of relations.”17 Dennison’s natural and supernatural histories are both generative and accommodating of these island “entities”, providing him with pathways to explore and explain the relentless rising of the sea.

Importantly, the argument that islands provide a unique analytic frame to observe the Anthropocene “because they appear to be literally generative of new and creative forms of life” pairs well with Dennison’s aqueous folklore.18 They are home to weirder relational ontologies, with island cultures able to “offer us insights into worlds which cannot be reduced to the binaries which sustained the modernist imaginary (subject/object, mind/body, human/nature).”19 Drawing on the work of Timothy Morton, Pugh and Chandler argue that Storiation is the means by which islands:

[…] most powerfully enable the rewriting of modernity’s attempts to construct a linear temporality in which the past and the future point in opposite directions. In the Anthropocene, whatever they say is ‘over’ or ‘finished’ is very much still with us.20

Fig. 6. Walter Traill Dennison’s Family Tomb, Cross Kirkyard, Sanday, Orkney Source: © Jonathan Westaway 2021, CC-BY-NC 4.0.

Standing beside Walter Traill Dennison’s grave in the small kirkyard at Cross, Sanday, I think he would have understood this.  The past circles back to enfold us.  All our past actions are still with us.  We do not stand apart from nature.  We are submerged in an ocean of stories.  The kirkyard at Cross now sits next to the sea, its walls reinforced with concrete sea defences against the winter storms.  Sea levels are rising.  A new kirkyard has been built inland.  At some point the graves will have to be relocated.  Walter Traill Dennison understood his fate.  It is only a matter of time, he said, before “sea-weeds and limpets will grow on our gravestones, and our graves be nowhere. But our dust will be safe in that most glorious of all sepulchres – the mighty ocean.”21

Fig. 7. Walter Traill Dennison’s Family Tomb, Cross Kirkyard, Sanday,
Orkney. Source: © Jonathan Westaway 2021, CC-BY-NC 4.0.


1 Walter Traill Dennison, ‘On the Encroachments of the Sea and the Subsidence of the Land as Seen in the Island of Sanday,’ The Saga Book of the Viking Club: or Orkney, Shetland, and Northern Society, vol.1 (1896): 75-91. 
2 Ibid., 89.
3 Ibid., 88.
4 Mark Williams, Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 410.
5 Walter Traill Dennison, ‘Orkney Folklore: Sea Myths’ The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries 1890 5, no.18, 68-71 at 70.
6 Walter Traill Dennison, ‘Orkney Folk-Kore. Sea Myths’, The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries 1893, 7 no.27 112-120 at 112.
7 Walter Traill Dennison, ‘Orkney Folklore. Sea Myths’ The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries 1891 5 no.20,  167-8.
8 Terry Gunnell, ‘On the Border: The Liminality of the Sea Shore in Icelandic Folk Legends of the Past’ in Andrew Jennings, Silke Reeploeg and Angela Watt (eds) Northern Atlantic Islands and the Sea: Seascapes and Dreamscapes (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017). 
9 Walter Trail Dennison, ‘Orkney Folklore: Sea Myths’ The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries 1891 5 no.19, 130-133 at 132.
10 Stuart McLean, Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 244-245.
11 Ibid.
12 Walter Trail Dennison, ‘Orkney Folklore: Sea Myths’ The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries 1891 5 no.20, 167-171 at 167.
13 Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, ‘The Anthropocene’, in Justin D. Edwards, Rune Graulund, and Johan Höglund, (Editors) Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022). 
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Jonathan Pugh, David Chandler, ‘Anthropocene islands: There are only islands after the end of the world’, Dialogues in Human Geography, 2021 11 issue 3, 395-415 at 395.
17 Ibid., 408.
18 Ibid., 399.
19 Ibid., 400.
20 Ibid., 209
21 Dennison, ‘On the Encroachments of the Sea’, 89.

Feature Image: The Beach at Backaskaill, Sanday, Orkney. Source: ©Jonathan Westaway, 2021, CC-BY-NC 4.0.
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Dr. Jonathan Westaway is a Senior Research Fellow in History in the School of Humanities, Languages and Global Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, UK and is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers, the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Royal Asiatic Society. He is a cultural and environmental historian. His research focuses on imperial cultures of exploration in both polar and mountain environments. A recent article in Atlantic Studies entitled ‘The Inuit discovery of Europe? The Orkney Finnmen, preternatural objects and the re-enchantment of early-modern science’ has explored the early-modern scientific fascination with the circulation of Inuit artefacts and culture throughout the North Atlantic World and its subsequent impact on regional identities in the Northern Isles. He is currently writing a book for Manchester University Press about Orkney’s cultural and environmental links with the Arctic entitled Worlds Made by Winter: A Journey into Arctic Orkney.

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