Scotland’s ‘surf lit’ canon just got one book bigger

The north-east of Scotland has produced some of Scotland’s best surfers over the years, and now it is the setting for surf novella Sans Peur, writes Roger Cox

Fraserburgh surfer Lester Cruikshank competes at the 2009 Scottish Surfing Championships. The north-east of Scotland has produced some of Scotland's best surfers over the years, and now it's the setting for the surfing novella Sans Peur. PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media

Eleven years ago, writing in The Surfer’s Path magazine, the journalist and author Alex Wade set out to answer two questions: “Is there such a thing as ‘surf lit’? And if there is, is it any good?”

In his introduction, he lamented the fact that, on the surface at least, “surfing seems to stand alone among the mainstream adrenaline sports in not having produced a discernible literary tradition”. And he also wondered whether “surfing’s image of beach-brained vacuity and endless hedonistic summers deters writers from tackling the subject”. As he worked his way through a modestly-sized “to read” pile, however, Wade discovered that there were indeed some surf scribes worth reading, ranging from Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Jack London in the early days, to Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, Kem Nunn in the 1980s, Dan Duane in the 1990s and Tim Winton in the 2000s. Surfing’s literary tradition, he concluded, was “sparse, but notable”.

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Given that the entire surfing world has produced relatively little in the way of reading matter, then, it should come as no surprise that Scottish surf lit is particularly thin on the ground, Scotland, after all, occupying a position in the sport of surfing of roughly equivalent importance to Hawaii’s place in the sport of curling. Still, if you’re prepared to look hard enough, and you’re not too fussy about Scotland playing a bit-part in a larger narrative, there’s more writing about Scottish waveriding out there than you might think.

Norhaven, a collection of writing by Mark Jackson and James T Duthie featuring the surfing novella Sans Peur

Chris Nelson provides a good potted history of Scottish surfing in a chapter of his 2010 book Cold Water Souls, as does Roger Mansfield in his 2009 tome The Surfing Tribe: A History of Surfing in Britain. The second chapter of Tom Anderson’s round-the-world surf odyssey Riding the Magic Carpet (2006) sees him searching for waves on Mainland Orkney and Westray before sampling a few roaring barrels at Thurso East, and Alex Wade concludes his own 2007 book Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland with colourful tales of visits to Lewis, Orkney, Shetland and, of course, Thurso.

Anyone looking for a pure, visceral hit of the Scottish surfing experience, meanwhile, would do well to get hold of a copy of David C Flanagan’s 2015 book Board, in which the Orkney resident provides a refreshingly honest and ego-free account of what it was like learning to surf on the often lonely and frequently storm-thrashed reefs of the Bay of Skaill.

Beyond that, however, Scottish surf lit is tricky to find. At a push, we could perhaps include Kirsty Gunn’s 2006 novella The Boy and the Sea, but although Gunn herself is based in Scotland, her story isn’t. Either way, considering how few Scottish surf books are currently available, the recent publication of a new novella about two surfing fishermen from Aberdeenshire is a bit of an event.

Written by award-winning short film maker Mark Jackson and the late fisherman, playwright and political activist James T Duthie, Sans Peur appears in a collection of their work titled Norhaven, published by Troubador. The title is a reference to the fictional fishing town where Sans Peur and all the other stories in the collection are set – a place that might almost be Fraserburgh, were the Broch not mentioned as a nearby location in the text.

The Sutherland brothers, Alan and Graham, are the frequently warring duo at the centre of the action. Graham is the eldest, known to everyone as Suds, but although he has made the family name his own, in many ways Alan is the head of the clan: a better surfer than his brother, captain of their boat, the Sans Peur, while Suds is only a crewman, and married while Suds remains stubbornly single.

In fact, the Sans Peur is not really theirs at all: when their father died they inherited his fishing license, but his partner Peter took the boat for himself. Now a big noise in the local business community, Alan and Suds both work for Peter, and he seems determined to make their lives difficult at every turn – not least by making them work more and surf less. To make matters worse for Alan, he’s married to Peter’s daughter, Yvonne, so when the story begins his father-in-law seems to be holding most of the cards.

Sans Peur is billed as a “saltwater fairytale”, however, and the little bit of magic required to mix things up comes in the form of a group of travelling surfers from Ireland, who arrive in Norhaven just in time to compete in the local surfing contest. Among them is Abina, a surfer and folk singer who Alan finds strangely captivating, and her estranged partner Erin, who turns out to be Alan’s main rival in the surf.

As the two communities collide sparks fly, much alcohol is consumed and two old gadgies sitting smoking on the pier act like a Chewin’ the Fat-style Greek chorus. The text might have benefited from tighter editing in places, but the characters are so well-drawn and the plot so absorbing it doesn’t really matter. A notable addition to the small but slowly growing canon of Scottish surf lit.

Sans Peur is published as part of Norhaven, a collection of writing by Mark Jackson and James T Duthie, Matador, £9.99

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