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Ferries in the Firthlands: Communications, Society and Culture along a Northern Scottish Rural Coast, c. 1600 to c. 1809

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2016

The Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands, Cnoc-an-Lobht, Dornoch, Scotland, IV25 3HN,


This article identifies the social and cultural history of the early modern tidal water ferry, its skippers and passengers, by way of evidence from a northern Scottish rural coast. Evidence from the region's ‘firthlands’ reveals an amphibious communications network which transformed gradually prior to the early nineteenth century. The article argues that the defining local topography of coastal adjacency both influenced, and was influenced by, the people who lived their lives within and around the littoral. A system of short range communications over and between the estuaries and firths is highlighted from a Coastal History perspective, leading to the examination of a ‘pluriactive’ microhistorical space, linking south-east Sutherland, the eastern edges of Easter Ross and the Black Isle and the Nairnshire seaboard. The article thereby opens up possibilities for comparison with other peoples, places and periods, in which being ‘alongshore’ was integral to rural community construction, coalescence, dynamism and friction.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1. 25th August 1809, D77/1 Meikle Ferry Relief Fund, First Report, The Highland Archive Centre; 3rd March 1810, Second Report; 5th November 1811, Third Report.

2. Meikle Ferry Relief Fund, Third Report. For more on ‘repatriations’ from this region's diaspora, see Kehoe, S. Karly, ‘From the Caribbean to the Scottish Highlands: Charitable Enterprise in the Age of Improvement, c.1750 to c.1820’, Rural History, 27:1 (2016), 3759 Google Scholar; Alston, David, ‘A Forgotten Diaspora: The Children of Enslaved and ‘Free Coloured’ Women and Highland Scots in Guyana before Emancipation’, Northern Scotland, 6:1, 4969 Google Scholar.

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9. Eric Graham's valuable work on maritime history focuses on national and international politics and commerce. See, Graham, Eric, A Maritime History of Scotland 1650–1790 (East Linton, 2002)Google Scholar. For Durie's land-focused analysis, see Durie, Alastair, ‘Movement, Transport and Travel’, in Foyster, Elizabeth and Whatley, Christopher, eds, A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800 (Edinburgh, 2010), p. 254 Google Scholar.

10. M. W. Weir, ‘Ferries in Scotland between 1603 and the Advent of Steam’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1985); Weir, Marie, Ferries in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1988)Google Scholar; Veitch, Kenneth and Gordon, Anne, ‘Traditional Ferries’, in Veitch, Kenneth, ed., Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology – Volume 8 – Transport and Communications (Edinburgh, 2009), pp. 191226 Google Scholar; Gordon, Anne, To Move with the Times: The Story of Transport and Travel in Scotland (Aberdeen, 1988), pp. 6577 Google Scholar. A forthcoming work, ‘The Highland Ferries of Inverness, the Black Isle and Easter Ross’, by local historian, Jim Mackay, will, without doubt, supply significant additional information.

11. Land, Isaac, ‘Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History’, Journal of Social History, 40:3 (2007), 731–43Google Scholar; (accessed 31st October 2015); Gillis, John, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago, 2012)Google Scholar; Gillis, John and Torma, Franziska, eds, Fluid Frontiers: New Currents in Marine Environmental History (Cambridge, 2015)Google Scholar; David Worthington, ed., The New Coastal History: Environmental and Cultural Perspectives (forthcoming). This latter publication has developed out of the ‘Firths and Fjords’ international conference which took place in Dornoch, Scotland, from 31st March to 2nd April 2016.

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14. Cerasi, Maurice, ‘Istanbul, 1620-1750: Change and Tradition’, in Jayyusi, Salma K., Holod, Renata, Petruccioli, Attilio, Raymond, André, eds, The City in the Islamic World (Leiden, 2008), p. 477 Google Scholar; Zanelli, Guglielmo, ‘The Ships, Shipyards and Ferries of Jacopo de’ Barbari’, in Emmer, Michele, ed., Imagine Math 3: Between Culture and Mathematics (London, 2015)Google Scholar; Navi, squeri, traghetti da Jacopo de' Barbari (Venice, 2011); Vries, Jan de, Barges and Capitalism: Passenger Transportation in the Dutch Economy, 1632–1839 (Utrecht, 1981)Google Scholar; Hell, Maarten, ‘Trade, Transport, and Storage in Amsterdam Inns (1450–1800)’, Journal of Urban History, 40:4 (2014), 751 Google Scholar. Christiaan van Bochove of Radboud University is currently undertaking a research project which will reveal more on coastal ferries and finance within the Dutch context. For London, see Wigglesworth, Neil, The Social History of English Rowing (London, 1992)Google Scholar; David Blomfield, ‘Tradesmen of the Thames: Success and Failure among the Watermen and Lightermen Families of the Upper Tidal Thames 1750–1901’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Kingston, 2006); Tucker, Joan, Ferries of the Lower Thames (Stroud, 2010)Google Scholar; Ackroyd, Peter, Thames: Sacred River (London, 2007), p. 127 Google Scholar.

15. For North America, see, Edward Salo, ‘Crossing the Rivers of the State: The Role of the Ferry in the Development of South Carolina, circa 1680–1920s’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Middle Tennessee State University, 2009); Cecelski, David S., The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (Chapel Hill NC, 2001)Google Scholar; Harris, Lynn B., Patroons and Periaguas: Enslaved Watermen and Watercraft of the Lowcountry (Columbia SC, 2014)Google Scholar; Simmons, Clara Ann, Chesapeake Ferries: A Waterborne Tradition, 1636–2000 (Baltimore MD, 2009)Google Scholar; Lipman, Andrew, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven CT, 2015)Google Scholar. For a conceptually sophisticated ethnographic analysis of a modern ferry network in British Columbia, see Phillip Vannini, Ferry Tales: Mobility, Place, and Time on Canada's West Coast (accessed 20th January 2016). For India, see, Sinha, Nitin, ‘Contract, Work and Resistance: Boatmen in Early Colonial Eastern India, 1760s-1850s’, International Review of Social History, 59 (2014), 1143 Google Scholar; Guite, JangkhomangFrom Fishermen to Boatmen: The Mucquas of Madras, 1650–1750’ in Sharma, Yogesh, eds, Coastal Histories: Society and Ecology in Pre-Modern India (Delhi, 2010), pp. 181207 Google Scholar. For Japan, see Waley, Paul, ‘By Ferry to Factory: Crossing Tokyo's River into a New World’ in Fiévé, Nicolas and Waley, Paul, eds, Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective: Place, Power and Memory (London, 2003), pp. 208–32Google Scholar.

16. Brewer, John, ‘Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life’, Cultural and Social History, 7:1 (2010), 89 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a recent survey of early modern Scottish historical writing focusing on social and cultural themes, see Foyster and Whatley, A History of Everyday Life in Scotland.

17. CRC/1/1/1/2, Commissioners of Supply Minutes – Ross, 1765–1926 [less 1798–1804], Highland Archive Centre; CI/1/1/1, Commissioners of Supply Minutes – Inverness, 1761–1890, Highland Archive Centre; CS/1/1/1, Commissioners of Supply Minutes - Sutherland 1736–1929 [less 1791-1812], Highland Archive Centre.

18. Westerdahl, Christer, ‘The Maritime Cultural Landscape’, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 21:1 (1992), 6 Google Scholar; Waley, ‘By Ferry to Factory’, p. 208.

19. While there is nothing to compare with Dutch artistic depictions of ferries and barges from the period, visual sources such as paintings, maps and estate plans can be employed to indicate something of the way the matrix worked. These are also revealing of ferry sites and crossings if not of boats or their users. For John Slezer,’s 1693 work, see,; (accessed 21st March 2016); (accessed 21st March 2016). See also, National Library of Scotland, EMS.s.493, van Keulen, Gerard, Afteekening van de Noord Oost hoek van Schotland, Vertoonende The Firth of Murray, en daar in de Riviere Invernness, Cromertie, Tarbet of Tayne: t'vervolg van de Kust by Ord Head met de Letter ‘A’ geteenkent, vervolgt boven met de Letter ‘A’ tot de hoek (Amsterdam, c.1734)Google Scholar; Acc.10497 Wade.58d, George Wade, ‘Plan of the Murray Firth and Cromarty Firth, with Parts of the Shires of Inverness, Sutherland, Ross, Nairn, and Elgin’ (1730); MS.1650 Z.46/57c, Charles Shipley, ‘A Proposed Prolongation of the Pier head, by a single row of Piles, & Planking, to be drove with the same Slope, as the Pier Viz: one foot in five [Fort George Ardersier]’ (1787); MS.1650 Z.46/57d, Andrew Frazer, ‘[Plan of Fort George, Ardersier, showing] Present Road leading Through the Gancion[?] [and] Proposed Road to the Ferry’ (1787). See also National Records of Scotland, RHP 37985, ‘Copy of a Plan of the Lands and Estate of Invergordon, Delny (Delnie) and Rosskeen with the Lands of Priesthill, All Belonging to Sir John Gordon’; RHP3513, ‘Plan of the Estate and Barony of Findon the Property of Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Scatwell’. Also useful is Sir John Sinclair, A General View of the Agriculture in the Northern Counties and Islands of Scotland (London, 1795).

20. At its northernmost point, the Little Ferry (Unes) to Embo connection, unsurprisingly, relied on one short crossing. The Dornoch Firth services comprised five to six crossings, if you include all tidal water routes as far inland as Invershin, albeit with a heavy reliance on the Meikle Ferry-Portnaculter (Cambuscurrie) service. Moving southwards, the Black Isle was a major intersection point, connecting at least six routes to the north via the Cromarty Firth, and four via the Inner Moray Firth. The former group of ferry sites are: Nigg to Cromarty; Inverbreakie (Ness) to Balblair; Alness to Ferryton or Alnessferry; Foulis to Castlecraig or Findon; Dingwall to Alcaig or Scuddale (over the tidal River Conon). Those spanning out from the south part of the Black Isle are: Chanonry to Ardersier (Blacktown); North Kessock to South Kessock, and the River Beauly estuary service. The routes towards the outer firth limits, so near the eastern edge of the peninsulas in question, are more frequently referred to in contemporary sources than the ones further inland, and are those which lend themselves most, according to surviving evidence, to the concept of a dynamic east-Sutherland-west Moray communications, social and cultural network.

21. William Macgill, ed., Old Ross-shire and Scotland, As Seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents, 2 volumes (Inverness, 1909), 1, p. 96.

22. Donald Beck Adamson, ‘Commercialisation, Change and Continuity: An Archaeological Study of Rural Commercial Practice in the Scottish Highlands’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow, 2014); Logue, Kenneth J., Popular Disturbances in Scotland, 1780–1815 (Edinburgh, c.1979), p. 43 Google Scholar; Elizabeth Beaton, ‘Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Estate Girnals in Easter Ross and South-East Sutherland’ in Baldwin, Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland, pp. 133–45.

23. Adamson, ‘Commercialisation’, p. 296.

24. 15th November 1731, Tain Presbytery, Nigg Old Kirk Session, CH2/1438/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 173; National Library of Scotland, MS.108, ‘The Diary of Sir John Gordon’, f. 154; Stevenson, John Horne and Dickson, William Kirk, eds, The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland under the Commonwealth, AD 1652–1659 (Edinburgh, 1984), p. 50 Google Scholar; Craven, J. B., ed., Journals of the Episcopal Visitations of the Right Rev. Robert Forbes (London, 1923), p. 169 Google Scholar; Sage, Memorabilia, p. 187; ‘Kilmuir and Suddy, County of Ross and Cromarty’ in Sir John Sinclair, ed., The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791–1799, 20 volumes (Wakefield, 1973–83), 12, p. 266.

25. Mackie, Euan W., ‘Some Eighteenth Century Ferryhouses in Appin, Lorn, Argyll: the Development of the Single-Storeyed Mortared Stone Cottage in the West Highlands’, The Antiquaries Journal, 77 (1997), 243–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Simmons, Chesapeake Ferries, p. 44.

26. Macgill, Old Ross-shire, pp. 211–12.

27. Craven, Journals, p. 151.

28. Ibid., p. 271.

29. Brown, Peter Hume, ed., Tours in Scotland, 1677 & 1681 (Edinburgh, 1892), p. 27 Google Scholar.

30. Barrett, John R., ed., Mr James Allan: The Journey of a Lifetime (Kinloss, 2004), p. 119 Google Scholar.

31. Local place names attest to the coastal perspective as well as the linguistically-diverse nature of the region's population in the pre-Clearance period. See, Watson, W. J., Place Names of Ross and Cromarty (Inverness, 1904)Google Scholar.

32. Wilson, Noell, Defensive Positions: The Politics of Maritime Security in Tokugawa Japan (Cambridge MA, 2015), p. 7 Google Scholar.

33. For the slang of River Vistula boatmen, see Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Third Edition (Aldershot, 2009), p. 77 Google Scholar.

34. Veitch and Gordon, ‘Traditional Ferries’, p. 207.

35. Craven, Journals, p. 176.

36. 13th October 1779, ‘Copy regulation by Ross JPs and commissioners of supply, ordering ferrymen at Meikle ferry to obey signals from the Sutherland side’, National Records of Scotland, JP32/7/2, p. 7.

37. Ibid.

38. Weir, ‘Ferries in Scotland’, p. 446.

39. Veitch and Gordon, ‘Traditional Ferries’; Miller, Hugh, My Schools and Schoolmasters, Or, The Story of My Education (Boston, 1857), p. 44 Google Scholar.

40. Barrett, Mr James Allan, p. 119.

41. Forsyth, Isaac, A Survey of the Province of Moray: Historical, Geographical, and Political (Aberdeen, 1798), pp. 338–9Google Scholar.

42. 22nd October 1765, CRC/1/1 Commissioners of Supply Minutes – Ross 1765–1926, pp. 8–9.

43. Ibid.

44. At times, cattle were taken across to Moray, however. See 15th November 1731, Tain Presbytery, Nigg Old Kirk Session, Highland Archive Centre, CH2/1438/1, p. 173.

45. Craven, Journals, p. 178; ‘Dornoch, County of Sutherland’ in Sinclair, The Statistical Account, 8, p. 2.

46. Sage, Memorabilia, pp. 146–7.

47. Craven, Journals, p. 216.

48. ‘Dornoch, County of Sutherland’ in Sinclair, The Statistical Account, 8, p. 2.

49. Hume Brown, Tours in Scotland, pp. 6–7.

50. Barrett, Mr James Allan, p. 274.

51. Craven, Journals, p. 167.

52. Ibid., p. 151.

53. Loch, James, An Account of the Improvements on the Estates of the Marquess of Stafford (London, 1820), pp. 1719 Google Scholar.

54. Herford, C. H., ed., Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819 (London, 1929), p. 121 Google Scholar.

55. Saunders, A., A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441–1555 (Cambridge, 1982)Google Scholar. See also, Catterall, Douglas and Campbell, Jodi, eds, Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500–1800 (Leiden, 2012)Google Scholar.

56. See footnotes 14 and 15 above.

57. Miller, Hugh, Scenes and Legends from the North of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1869), pp. 323, 478-9Google Scholar; Macgill, ed., Old Ross-shire, p. 390; Cérino, Christophe, Geistdoerfer, Aliette, Bouëdec, Gérard Le and Ploux, François, eds, Entre terre et mer: Sociétés littorales et pluriactivités (XVe–XXe siècle) (Rennes, 2004)Google Scholar. For an interpretation of this latter work by Isaac Land, via his excellent ‘Coastal History’ blog, see: (accessed 28th February 2016).

58. 26th November 1750 / 25th June 1751, Tain Presbytery, Tain Kirk Session Minutes, Highland Archive Centre, CH2/349/1, pp. 90–3, 101.

59. MS.108, ‘The Diary of Sir John Gordon’, National Library of Scotland, pp. 217, 394.

60. Sutherland Papers, Dep. 313, National Library of Scotland, has extensive detail on trade between south-east Sutherland and the rest of the firthlands. Another excellent starting point is Mackay, William, ed., The Letterbook of Bailie John Steuart (1715–1752) (Edinburgh, 1915)Google Scholar. The south-western part of the Highlands, so effectively brought to life by Neil Munro's ‘Para Handy’ stories, offers further possibilies in this regard. For recent studies of the early modern ‘coastal trade’, variously defined, elsewhere in the Anglophone world, see Armstrong, John, ed., Coastal and Short Sea Shipping (Aldershot, 1996)Google Scholar; Armstrong, John, The Vital Spark: The British Coastal Trade 1700–1930 (St John's NL, 2009)Google Scholar; Shepherd, James F. and Williamson, Samuel H., ‘The Coastal Trade of the British North American Colonies, 1768–1772’, The Journal of Economic History, 32 (1972), 783810 Google Scholar; Hipkin, Stephen, ‘The Coastal Metropolitan Corn Trade in Later Seventeenth-Century England’, The Economic History Review, 65:1 (2012), 220–55Google Scholar; Cook, Bronwen, ‘“A True, Faire and Just Account”: Charles Huggett and the Content of Maldon in the English Coastal Shipping Trade, 1679-1684’, The Journal of Transport History, 26:1 (2005), 118 Google Scholar; Barrow, Tony, ‘Corn, Carrier and Coastal Shipping: The Shipping and Trade of Berwick and the Borders, 1730–1830’, The Journal of Transport History, 21:1 (2000), 627 Google Scholar; Skidmore, Peter, ‘Vessels and Networks: Shipowning in North-West England's Coasting Trade in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, Mariner's Mirror, 99:2 (2013), 153–70Google Scholar.

61. 12th July ?, Darnaway, Lady Anne Stewart to David Ross, Balnagown Castle manuscripts, Tain Museum, fo. 115; ? 1686, Balnagown, the same to the same, Balnagown Castle manuscripts, fo. 117; 7 Jun 1686, Balnagown, the same to the same, Balnagown Castle manuscripts, fos. 175–6.

62. Gillis, The Human Shore, p. 76.

63. CI 1/1/2 Commissioners of Supply Minutes – Inverness 1774–84, Highland Archive Centre, pp. 120–2. This concerns a January 1784 ‘application to be made to Parliament for having the limits of the Estuary Rivers or Friths in Scotland ascertained to distinguish them from open sea’ in relation to coal duty. As regards the firthlands, the focus was grain, regarding which it was ‘the smallest quantity of Corn the natural produce of the Northern Counties cannot be put in a Boat to cross any of the five, narrow ferries twixt this and the county of Caithness much less any part of the Murray Frith, without being liable to seizure’.

64. 18th May 1733, Middleton, Robert to the Customs Commissioners of Inverness, Custom House, Inverness, in Shaw, William A., ed., Calendar of Treasury Books and Papers (1731–1734) (London, 1898), p. 381 Google Scholar.

65. Macgill, Old Ross-shire, p. 88.

66. (accessed 14th March 2016); Fraser, William, ed., The Sutherland Book, 3 volumes (Edinburgh, 1892), 1, p. 414 Google Scholar; Fraser, William, ed., The Earls of Cromartie; Their Kindred, Country, and Correspondence (Edinburgh, 1876), 1, p. 207 Google Scholar.

67. Sage, Memorabilia, pp. 146-7.

68. Franck, Richard, Northern Memoirs, Calculated for the Meridian of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1821), pp. 205–6Google Scholar.

69. Hume Brown, Tours in Scotland, pp. 26-7.

70. Craven, Journals, p. 150.

71. MS.108, ‘The Diary of Sir John Gordon’, National Library of Scotland, pp. 221–2, 396, 471.

72. Barrett, Mr James Allan, p. 105; Ross, Sinclair, The Culbin Sands – Fact and Fiction (Aberdeen, 1992)Google Scholar.

73. Yeoman, L. A., ‘Ross, Katherine (c.1635–1697)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), (accessed 30th January 2016)Google Scholar; Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Thomas Hog, Minister of the Gospel at Kiltearn, in Ross (Edinburgh, 1756), p. 10.

74. The Diary of Alexander Brodie of Brodie, MDCLII-MDCLXXX., and of his son, James Brodie of Brodie, MDCLXXX-MDCLXXXV (Aberdeen, 1863), p. 378.

75. MS 14279, ‘The Diary of John Calder’, National Library of Scotland, pp. 35, 39, 60, 65, 73.

76. Gordon, To Move with the Times, p. 72.

77. Sage, Memorabilia, pp. 117, 187, 247, 348.

78. Synod of Ross, Chanonry Presbytery, CH2/66/1, Highland Archive Centre, pp. 69, 133, 191, 264; Synod of Sutherland, Dornoch Presbytery, CH2/1290/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 99.

79. Synod of Sutherland, Dornoch Presbytery, CH2/1290/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 118.

80. Mackay, William, ed., Chronicles of the Frasers: The Wardlaw manuscript entitled ‘Polichronicon seu policratica temporum’ or ‘The true genealogy of the Frasers’, 916-1674 (Edinburgh, 1905), p. 471 Google Scholar.

81. Ibid., p. 492.

82. Dornoch Presbytery, Golspie Kirk Session Minutes, CH2/615/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 103; Tain Presbytery, Nigg Old Kirk Session, CH2/1438/1, Highland Archive Centre, pp. 55, 57. For an analysis of the travelling poor in England during this period, see Hitchcock, David, ‘Editorial: Poverty and Mobility in England, 1600–1850’, Rural History, 24:1 (2013), 18 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83. Tain Presbytery, Nigg Old Kirk Session, CH2/1438/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 173.

84. Invernesss Presbytery, Kirkhill Kirk Session Minutes, CH2/675/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 121. Thanks to Debbie Potter, archivist at the Highland Archive Centre, for this reference.

85. ‘Bill of Mortality – containing all yt died Natives and Strangers in 48 years’, Old Parish Register Inverness, 52, Highland Archive Centre. Thank you to Dave Selkirk for his comments on this.

86. Tain Presbytery, Nigg Old Kirk Session, CH2/1438/2, Highland Archive Centre, p. 91.

87. Dornoch Presbytery, Golspie Kirk Session Minutes, CH2/615/1, Highland Archive Centre, pp. 42-3.

88. Golspie Kirk Session Minutes, CH2/615/1, Highland Archive Centre, p. 85.

89. Ibid., p. 133.

90. Ibid., p. 59.

91. Dingwall Presbytery, Kiltearn Kirk Session Minutes CH2/569/1, Highland Archive Centre, pp. 61, 90; Tain Presbytery, Nigg Old Kirk Session, CH2/1438/2, Highland Archive Centre, p. 17; Dornoch Presbytery, Golspie Kirk Session Minutes, CH2/615/1, Highland Archive Centre, pp. 38, 63.

92. Sinclair, A General View, p. 287.

93. The phrase is from the Reverend James Allan, cited in Barrett, Mr James Allan, p. 274.

94. Charles Cordiner, Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant (s.n., 1780), pp. 65–6.

95. Beaven, Brad, Bell, Karl, and James, Rob, eds, Port Towns and Urban Cultures (Basingstoke, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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