For Martin Gray, one of the most experienced and well known explorers of Orkney’s shorelines, beachcombing is not simply the delight in finding an unexpected treasure, it is the intrigue of the story which lies behind it – how it got there, where it has come from and how it travelled. He is not simply foraging for treasure, he is foraging for the stories that lie behind each object. What influenced that journey? Was it the wind, the current, or perhaps a storm?
For example, an empty plastic bottle with lid screwed tight will float on the top of the sea and its journey will be driven by the wind. But something with a bit of weight to it, like a glass bottle, which sits in the water, will have its journey determined by current. All these aspects can be unravelled and interesting tales can emerge.
Some great stories and lovely mysteries have been solved, but one of the things I’ve learned about trying to interpret what you find is to keep an open mind. By all means, believe in something, but be prepared to have to change that because new things come to light all the time.”
Sharing the quest
In his own search for answers, Martin has found social media, particularly Facebook, a tremendous resource. There he is part of a loose affiliation of beachcombing enthusiasts right around the Atlantic from Florida, all the way up the east coast of the states, to the Faroes, Iceland and Norway, the west of Britain, all the way down through France and Spain to West Africa and the Azores.
We all chat to each other, compare finds and ask each other what it is that we’ve found that we don’t recognize. It’s just brilliant. I would be lost without Facebook as a tool to use almost surgically to get at something that I want to know.”
Patience is the key and Martin had to wait 25 years for one beachcombing mystery to be solved.
There were these big wooden hammers like a monstrous croquet mallet. I’d found a few of them but could not figure out what they were, so I put it on Facebook, where it eventually reached a ship’s captain who used to work on fishing vessels in Newfoundland’s Grand Banks area. Those vessels used to ice up and the crew would have to go out with these big wooden hammers and knock the ice off the superstructure and rigging of the ship to keep its balance and that’s what these are.”
Not all finds are as large or exciting as that and sometimes it can be the most mundane objects that create the greatest interest. Items like a plastic bottle from Haiti in the Caribbean, a beer crate from the Dominican Republic, or a little plastic coil flask from Venezuela, all hold a fascination.
Stories from a distance
Martin takes delight in items which have travelled long distances, as well as sea beans – the seeds of tropical plants from that same area, which have dispersed into the sea and floated away on the Gulf Stream. They have the added attraction of being rare, tactile and nice to look at, and even merit a place in the house, on the dresser, rather than being confined to the shed with many of his other finds, which include asthma inhalers and crisp packets which have been tied in knots before being thrown away.
While these are not the kind of treasure most people would be delighted to find on the beach, it is worth remembering Martin’s philosophy of patience and curiosity about the story which has not yet been revealed.
I don’t beach clean as such, but at the end of my walk I fill up a net bag with stuff off the beach and last winter I suddenly started seeing these asthma inhalers, an abundance of them where I’ve never seen them before and I just started collecting them. I have a mini collection in the shed now and some day I might be able to show something from it ….. or not.”
As for the crisp packets, he has dozens and dozens of them which he is collecting for Norwegian students who are conducting a study into the phenomenon of people who tie crisp packets in knots and then chuck them away – a serendipitous connection that came about through Facebook.
There’s a lot of very interesting psychology out there and I’m sure in here as well. A psychologist could have weeks of fun in my shed.”
With the wind in the west
As a rule the beaches of Orkney’s west coast tend to yield the most treasure and, according to Martin, all have slightly different characteristics. Marwick, for instance faces more south west so is not as good in a north westerly wind, whereas a north westerly is the best wind direction for Birsay, Skaill and Billiacru, and of those three Skaill is probably the best, because it catches everything from north west to south west and is a good, open, sandy beach.
The belief that it has to be stormy and strong winds is a hangover from the days of sail, when massive storm events caused shipwrecks, which in turn provided the best beachcombing, but that’s not true anymore. What I look for now is sustained light winds from one direction, so all I need is for it to blow from the west for four to five days steady, and that’s perfect.”
Although the east coast beaches may not yield the same richesse, they are by no means useless. They are generally affected by the North Sea with just a little bit of a warm water current, coming around the top of Orkney, that was once part of the Gulf Stream. It comes down between Fair Isle and North Ronaldsay, Martin explains, and deposits oceanic material along Orkney’s east coast. This coast is also receptive to matter which comes through the Pentland Firth, as well as from the Atlantic, into the North Sea, but it does unfortunately tend to be quite rubbishy.
You’re dealing with a fairly small basin, but with a huge human population beside it – all the rivers in Britain that drain east and all those on the continent that drain west or north into the North Sea basin – so there can be a lot of land-based rubbish which washes up on the east coast.”
Bottles, rope and plastic
As a beach-lover, nature-lover and environmentalist, Martin has a degree in Environmental Science, has worked for the RSPB, run his own nature and heritage tour business in Orkney and worked as a nature guide in the Arctic, on a ship which sailed around Spitzbergen and Greenland. Environmental issues are always on his mind, but he is past the point of moral outrage at the pollution he sees on the beaches, he says.
In many respects the situation has improved enormously since the 1970s, when all shipping dumped their refuse overboard and every major town and city on the coast pumped sewage and effluent directly into the sea.
There are basically two types of pollution that are washed ashore today, one fishing related and the other is everything else. The fishing stuff can be picked out because it is readily identifiable, it’s bright coloured, it’s twine, nets, floats, ropes, obviously connected to the fishing industry and we hear an awful lot about that, but not so much about the everything else which comes from us, from you and me, from the rivers, that blows off the land, that washes out from landfill sites. It’s just general human detritus, general human waste, whether it has been dumped casually, deliberately or accidentally, but we pick on the fishing stuff in order to avoid facing up to the fact we are actually responsible for everything else.”
It is this kind of finger-pointing and moralizing which cuts across all communities and nations which Martin feels is completely unproductive, stifling debate, discussion and constructive action.
The sad fact remains that the best weather conditions, which bring interesting things ashore, also bring pollution and there are times when the beaches are strewn end to end in bottles, rope and plastic. While in general there is raised awareness worldwide of the environmental impact of litter at sea, it is, to a great extent, still self-policing and while the beaches are considerably better than they were in the 70s, there is still a long way to go.
But there can also be stories and intrigue lurking among the detritus, including the mystery of the 16 bore shotgun cartridges found on beaches in Shetland in the mid 1990s. Concerns of possible illegal wildlife shooting led to an investigation by the Shetland police, who discovered the cartridges were not on the database of legally held weapons in Shetland, so the search became national. A further revelation that the shells were foreign led to the involvement of the FBI who found batch numbers showing the ammunition had been made and sold in Canada.
The case was then handed to the Mounties, who tracked the ammunition to Newfoundland, where at the end of each summer people take to boats to hunt seabirds. The empty cartridges are thrown over the side, where they are taken by the Gulf Stream and eventually to the shores of Shetland and Orkney.
Watching for what comes in
These days, for most people beachcombing is more of a hobby or a pastime. Nobody does it for utility anymore, like the heroes of Martin’s youth.
In my young life there were proper beachcombers who would go out at night with a torch or a lantern if there was wood coming ashore. They had really detailed knowledge of the conditions and they would go out in all weathers collecting the wood and putting it above the beach to collect in daylight hours. These people were my heroes. It was wonderful hearing their stories and watching their example. They would bring the wood home either for building or fence posts or making things. The last thing they would ever do was burn it.”
When Martin goes, he looks for things he can use, or if he can’t perhaps someone else can, or something he knows someone else has been looking for, or something odd, strange or peculiar; perhaps a bit like the prosthetic leg he once found; or the coconut, pumice and whale baleen; or even an addition to his knotted crisp packet and inhaler collections.
The best find of the day can be something very mundane, but something that just happens to tickle me.”
This particular day he had just been to Skara Brae to pick up a buoy he had found washed ashore. It will join the rest of the fishing items in his shed and every now and then he will get rid of them to a fisherman who can reuse them, so they will go back into the industry. Any monetary value in the exchange goes to charity.
Martin’s father was also a beachcomber, a child of the war, “a scavenger” who used to make do and mend.
I see the beach as a place where things wash ashore, have a potential use and are available to take with you. Maybe I’m just a scavenger like him.”
With the wind in the west Martin will be keeping a close eye on the beaches over the coming days. As long as the wind is blowing from that direction there will be things coming ashore and even if he doesn’t find anything he will still have had a day at the beach.
You can’t lose and we are so lucky, just extraordinarily lucky here, particularly in the current global climate, having this world class coastline so near to be able to go to and just relax, and the benefits for mental health are just tremendous.”