The term “blue space” refers to all visible water sources, like oceans, rivers, lakes, and lochs. Blue space has had the ability to deeply touch our lives for centuries and continues to do so. While a significant connection between humanity and water has always existed, initiatives such as the BlueHealth project have begun delving further into this phenomenon. In recent years, projects in the UK, Spain, and Greece have investigated how the blue spaces around us result in psychological and physical benefits.
Researchers have also explored the benefits that living near and visiting the coast have on physical and mental health. A BlueHealth project study led by Dr. Lewis Elliot of the University of Exeter found that visiting the seaside twice per week resulted in a greater sense of well-being. Those living within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the coast also appear to benefit from improved mental and physical health.
The perceived interconnectivity between blue spaces and human health is nothing new.
Even in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the benefits of life by the seaside were lauded as the trend of taking a beach holiday starkly rose in popularity in the late eighteenth century. Around this time, cold bathing in sea waves was prescribed to alleviate “melancholy,” believed to be caused by an excess of black bile. The discovery of oxygen in 1778 by Antoine Lavoisier also drew visitors to the seaside as theories began to emerge about the specific health benefits of sea air, which was thought to be more oxygenated and pure. Humans have relied upon water throughout history to bring about well-being through bathing pools, convalescing by the sea to reap the benefits of “sea air”, cold-water therapy, wild swimming, and more.
Rough Waves, Anstruther, c. 1983-1984 Richard Wemyss (b. 1965)
These photographs were taken at a wintry East Pier by the former curator of the Scottish Fisheries Museum. The dynamic crashing of the waves reminds us of the sea’s great power and capacity for destruction.
ANSFM: 2694, 2695, 2697, Scottish Fisheries Museum
Anstruther from Billowness Bathing Pool, 1971
This photograph was taken in the summer of 1971 while Verbraak was researching East Neuk fishing for the thesis: “Some Aspects of the Fishing Industry in the East Neuk of Fife,” submitted to the Institute of Cultural Anthropology at Leiden University.
ANSFM: 2013.2.30, Scottish Fisheries Museum
Water has many positive impacts on the human body and mind. It has been known to lower stress levels, improve mood and sociability, encourage physical activity, and benefit brain health. Interestingly, in 2020, BlueHealth researchers discovered that even virtual simulations of blue spaces can decrease sadness and boredom.
Sources of water can have a democratizing influence, and being near blue spaces is a beneficial pastime with no price for admission. Therefore, it is important to consider who has access to this nourishing life source. Recent studies have found that the benefits of coastal living are strongest for people living in the poorest areas. Access provisions planned under the UK’s revised Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 ensure that all people be given equal access to blue spaces so that seashores do not become sites of gentrification and exclusivity in the years to come
Stillness and Occurrence #2, 1995-2000
David Williams (b. 1952)
analogue C-type photographic print
Stillness and Occurrence is a series of fifteen photographic seascapes undertaken over a five-year period with the vantage point being a small stretch of beach at Portobello, situated on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The images were shot on medium format film using long exposures on sunny days in conditio
Motifs of waves and water have arguably been some of the most prevalent thematic elements throughout the entire history of art, appearing in ancient myths and folklore, Romantic and Impressionistic paintings, sea shanties, and sonnets. Perhaps most famously, Virginia Woolf’s wave imagery looms large in To the Lighthouse while Melville and Hemingway craft daring tales of humanity’s struggle with the sea as well as the wonder at its harshness and beauty. Scottish author Neil M. Gunn’s The Silver Darlings does the same, exploring the lives of villagers in northern Scotland as they fight to survive as herring fishermen and balance hope and despair. This combination of fear and awe is prominent in the works of the British Romanticist painter J.M.W. Turner, for whom the sea was a frequent muse. Downie’s Gale Force Nine captures this same electric atmosphere of “the sublime”.
Some creative individuals repurpose items from the sea itself, such as seashells and driftwood, breathing new life into these forms in order to create art. This practice serves as an innovative way of expressing a personal link to blue spaces while also allowing individuals to interpret broader cultural movements and trends in art. The KY12 model ship in a bottle seen below is a wonderful example of creating a personalised miniature. Mythology and folklore, like the inspiration behind William Rackham’s Rhine Maiden Lamenting, is another means of this collective cultural distillation, with tales passed from generation to generation and evolving with each storyteller’s flair and imagination.
Fifies Leaving Buckhaven Harbour, 1960
John MacKenzie (1933-2002)
MacKenzie’s painting evokes a pensive feeling; an old man watches boats leaving the harbour with his hands in his pockets, likely reflecting on the passage of time. However, the scene is also suffused with a kind of peace and acceptance as the sun peeks through the clouds.
ANSFM: 1991.14, Scottish Fisheries Museum.
Gale Force Nine, 1973
J. W. Downie (active 1973-1990s)
The swirling colours and brushstrokes Downie uses evoke a sense of danger as well as awe, gesturing to the Romantic concept of the sublime. The artist reminds viewers of how small the tempest-tossed vessel is in comparison to the broad expanse of nature both above and below.
ANSFM: 1977.414, Scottish Fisheries Museum.
“The Silver Darlings” Play Programme, 1994
Annette Gillies (b. 1944)
The play, adapted by John McGrath and directed by John Bett, was performed by Wildcat Stage Productions in Glasgow’s Citizen Theatre. It concerns the triumphs and tragedies of everyday men and women devoted to herring fishing and navigating survival in spite of brutal natural elements, adapted from Neil M. Gunn’s famous novel.
Rhine Maiden Lamenting, 1910
Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
Rackham depicts a moving scene taken from Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), which borrows from Norse mythology and German legends. The three rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, act as guardians of the Rhine gold and are the first and last characters seen in the four-opera saga. One of them is shown here, mou
Ship in a Bottle, 1968
A "KY12" model boat, 2-masted, rigged with 2 lug sails, in a Haig's dimple bottle. The cork and top of the bottle are painted gold, accompanied by gold sand and a painted green sea.
ANSFM: 1968:18, Scottish Fisheries Museum.
A series of colourful painted shells: one bears the message “LOVE ONE ANOTHER” while the others depict scenes in St Andrews—Castle Sands and the Pends, respectively. Clamshells are an unconventional medium but a charming response to the sea’s beauty and serve as a means of repurposing a material that would often be cast away or passed over.
ANSFM: 2012.211, 213, 218, Scottish Fisheries Museum
Aquatic leisure takes many forms, including water polo, surfing, wild swimming, sailing, and countless other beloved activities. Though the sea can be fierce, it is also playful and often evokes this sense of carefree enjoyment in others. As William D. Henderson depicts in Swimming Pool, the water is widely seen as a place to relax, peacefully coexist, and release inhibitions.
For years, locations such as Aberdour, Anstruther, St Andrews, and Peterhead in Aberdeenshire have received flocks of visitors seeking Scottish sun, recreation, and delicious fish and chips. The East Neuk area of Scotland in particular has a rich history in sea-related leisure activities and as a holiday destination; old photographs capture the bathing huts, adults lounging in the sun, and atmosphere of cheery camaraderie. Model boat sailing, swimming, and fishing were all extremely popular pastimes, and an open air pool in Cellardyke, Anstruther was created in the 1930s for leisure purposes.
As time progressed, conventional seaside fashion drastically evolved. The flowing bathing costumes of the early 1900s eventually shed their ostentatious collars and skirts. Necklines fell and hemlines rose, leading to a series of arrests beginning in the 1920s for “indecent exposure” which raised questions about the policing of women’s bodies. The bikini was popularised in the 1940s and, by the 1950s and 1960s, women’s swimsuits were often colourful and form-fitting—as seen in Swimming Pool.
The image seen above is courtesy of University of Dundee Museum Services, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design Collection.
East Pier Bathing Station, Anstruther, 1920
This photograph captures Brattesani’s Bathing Boxes near Harbour Beach. Giovanni Brattesani (b. 1880) was a significant figure in Anstruther’s past, remembered for opening the local ice cream parlour in 1919 that is now part of Anstruther Fish Bar. He was born in Buffalo, New York but moved with his family to settle in Scotland around the turn of the cent
Pittenweem Bathing Station, c. 1920s
A group of men and boys pose in front of the Pittenweem Bathing Station, which successfully operated from the 1920s-1980s. A community project is currently underway to refurbish and reopen the historical site in 2021.
ANSFM: 2163, Scottish Fisheries Museum
Findhorn Village, Moray Postcard, c. 1980s
Printed and published by J. Arthur Dixon Ltd.
This postcard depicts a busy beach and shoreline with many individuals and families sunbathing and playing in the sea. Their clothing suggests the time is around the 1980s. On the card, it is printed: “The village stands on Findhorn Bay, the estuary of the river Findhorn, with extensive beaches, making it an ide
Guidebook for East Neuk of Fife, post-1969
The guidebook’s cover features a red sailing boat gliding over blue waves. The booklet contains advertisements for local businesses and potted guides and histories of Anstruther, Crail, Elie, Pittenweem, St. Monance, Largo, and Lundin Links, as well as lists of local sights, amenities, and walking trails.
ANSFM 2015.33, Scottish Fisheries Museum.
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