Wednesday, 16 June 2021

A Sea Full of Selkies with Steve Gladwin and Co.



For those people a little late to the party, (what kept you!), this is the second in a series of five on the subject of 'Selkies' - the strange, halfshaping creatures that are found in many traditions- half seal and, during their rare ventures on to land, half human. In the first article I talked about the particular selkie story, 'The Woman From the Sea', which, although it inspired me to become a storyteller, also left me with a tricky problem to solve. Kevin Crossley Holland, who has adpated the old tale several times in different versions, will be talking about it and his own meetings with the seals at the end of this month. Then, in July we will be hearing from the award-winning film-maker Sophia Carr Gomm about the inspirations for her acclaimed selkie film 'The Wider Sun', and storyteller and swimming enthusiast Sharon Jacksties about her one particular encounter and her deep attachment to David Thomson's classic book 'The People of the Sea.', which Kath taks about here.

But now it's a quick welcome back to Kath - and it's time to meet Granny Greenteeth!


Second is 'Statue of the selkie "Kópakonan",  Mikladalur, Kalsoy, Faroe Islands','



Singing for the Seals – Katherine Langrish 


Stories about selkies are ambiguous, evocative, sad.

            This is largely because of the way seals themselves affect us. Bobbing curiously up around boats, they seem to show as much interest in us as we have in them, and there is something mysteriously human about their faces and their mournful cries. Basking on sunlit rocks, they are part of our world, yet they’re natural inhabitants of the unseen, underwater world in which we’d drown. Only in imagination can we follow them down there…  

My mother used to sing a song called Song to the Seals (words by Sir Harold Boulton, set to music by Granville Bantock) about a sea-maid sitting on a reef and calling the seals in a long, lilting, melancholy refrain: ‘Hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oirain ee la leu ran…’ The sheet music includes an introductory note: ‘The refrain of this song was actually used recently on a Hebridean island by a singer who thereby attracted a quantity of seals to gather round and listen intently to the singing.’

            With this two-way fascination going on, it’s not surprising there are so many legends and songs about selkies – seal-people who can cast off their thick pelts and appear in human form. The ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry exists in a number of variants, but the earliest we have was written down in 1852 by Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy: it was dictated to him by an old lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland. The core of the ballad is the tragedy of a woman who has borne a child to a unsettlingly Other selkie man – ‘a grumlie guest’ who brings a waft of salt-sea terror as he appears. ‘I am a man upo’ the land, he announces,

            ‘An’ I am a Silkie in the sea;

And when I’m far and far frae lan’

            My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’


As Lieutenant Thomas explains:



The story is founded on the superstition of the Seals or Selkies being able to throw off their waterproof jackets, and assume the more graceful proportions of the genus Homo… Silky is a common name in the north country for a seal, and appears to be a corruption of selch, the Norse word for that animal. Sule Skerry is a small rocky islet, lying about twenty-five miles to the westward of Hoy Head, in Orkney, from whence it may be seen in very clear weather…

And he tells of coming in from the cod-fishing on a foggy, windless morning, rowing ‘for nearly a mile through the narrow channels formed by a thousand weed-covered skerries’ and hearing the seals’ ‘lullaby’: ‘groans and sighs expressive of unutterable torment… followed by a melancholy howl of hopeless despair’.

A few years ago, wandering the fractured rocky shore of Longstone Island off the coast of Northumberland, I too became aware of this eerie sound. Keening, moaning, huff-huff-huffing – hooting like children who make long quavering ghost noises – a group of twenty or so seals were crying to one another as they lay on a ridge at the edge of the tide.

            The unnamed woman in The Great Silkie loses both her child and its selkie father: the Silkie predicts she will marry a mortal man, ‘a proud gunner’ who will shoot them both as they play together in the bright summer sea.

The Silkie of Sule Skerry is male, but the best-known selkie tales tell of a seal-woman captured by a fisherman who spies her dancing on a moonlit beach. He steals her discarded skin, preventing her from changing back into seal form. Such stories generally end when the selkie bride discovers her hidden sealskin and returns to the sea, abandoning her human husband and children. ‘I loved you well,’ she sometimes calls, ‘but I loved better my husband and children in the sea.’ Unions between humans and faerie creatures rarely turn out well. These are disturbing stories of constraint and capture, power and powerlessness, and they are haunted by loss: the selkie’s longing for her own element, and the heartache of man and children left behind. 


By kind permission of the artist Kate Leiper, copyright 2009



I was thinking about selkie stories while I was writing Troll Mill, the second book of my ‘Troll Trilogy’, and it seemed to me that somewhere within them was a metaphor for post-natal depression. That’s not to pin them down. Folk and fairy tales are open to many interpretations. But the thought gave me the heart of the book. Kersten is a seal-woman stolen by Bjørn, a fisherman. One stormy evening she finds her sealskin cloak, races to the shore and thrusts her new-born child into the arms of the young hero Peer, before throwing herself into the sea. ‘Where are you going?’ he stammers, and: ‘She looked at him with eyes like dark holes. “Home.”’ Left literally holding the baby, Peer cannot catch her; he yells a warning to his friend Bjørn, who runs to intercept her –

And Kersten stopped. She threw herself flat and the wet sealskin cloak billowed over her, hiding her from head to foot. Underneath it, she continued to move in heavy, lolloping jumps. She must be crawling on hands and knees, drawing the skin closely around her. She rolled. Waves rushed up and sucked her into the water. Trapped in those encumbering folds, she would drown.

‘Kersten!’ Peer screamed.  The body in the water  twisted, lithe and muscular, and plunged forward into the next grey wave.

I wanted to leave a element of doubt. Is Kersten really a selkie? Or is it only a story the other characters make about her, a way to explain what she did and why? A great part of the book (I realised, after I’d written it) is about motherhood and what it does to you, and how differently it can turn out. There is Kersten, the mother who goes missing, who cannot manage, the mother lost or dead. There is Gudrun – older, capable, hard-working and tired, the nurturing mother. There’s a troll princess, drama-queen mother of the kind of spoiled brat other mothers dread. And there is Granny Greenteeth, my version of the dangerous English water-spirit Jenny Greenteeth. She can shape-shift into an eel; she drags children into the green depths of stagnant water because she wants company, and she claims Ran, the motherless half-selkie baby, as her lawful prey even though the child will drown. She is the destructive mother:  

Peer saw her, or thought he did: Granny Greenteeth in human form, sitting at the bottom of the millpond with Ran in her arms. A greenish light clung around them. Granny Greenteeth’s hair was waving upwards in a terrible aureole and she bent over Ran, rocking her to and fro.

Granny or Jenny Greenteeth is a fresh-water spirit, a nixie not a selkie: her origin in English folklore is likely to have been a sort of bogey created to frighten children away from dangerous ponds. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology (1835) says that the Danish water spirit, the nøkke, wears a green hat and that ‘when he grins you see his green teeth’. Grimm adds that ‘there runs through the stories of water-sprites a vein of cruelty and bloodthirstiness which is not easily found among daemons of mountains, woods and homes… To this day, when people are drowned in a river, it is common to say: “The river-sprite demands his yearly victim,” which is usually an innocent child.’

            Unlike nixies, selkies aren’t cruel (although sometimes they take revenge). They are not spirits but creatures of flesh and blood like ourselves. The Shetland and Orkney islanders with whom David Thomson talked in the 1940s for BBC radio (later published as his book The People of The Sea) knew this well. One story told to Thomson in the radio age was already over a century old, for it can be found in Samuel Hibbert’s Description of the Shetland Islands (1822). And it couldn’t be plainer about the physicality of the selkie race. Thomson was told by a Shetlander Gilbert Charleson, how a band of men landed on the Ve Skerries (the ‘Holy Skerries’) to stun and skin the seals there:

‘Ye’d no sooner stun your seal than you’d set to and skin him, you understand, for if you left him there he might come back to life and go back into the sea while you turned around. T’was hard to be sure if they were dead or no, for it’s very hard to kill them…’

Hibbert’s older account is just as graphic:

They … stunned several of them and while they lay stupefied, stripped them of their skins, with the fat attached to them. They left the naked carcasses lying on the rocks, and were about to get into their boats with their spoils and return to Papa Stour, whence they had come.

As they prepare to leave, a huge swell rises. The men all leap for their boats… The Ve Skerries are the very ones though which Lieutenant Thomas RN rowed in the 1850s, coming back from his cod-fishing expedition, and he described them as “almost covered by the sea at high water, and in this stormy climate, a heavy surf breaking over them generally forms an effectual barrier to boats.” No wonder the men are swift to leave, but one too slow is left behind, Unable to get close enough for him to jump, his friends give up and row for home, knowing he’ll be washed away.

            Now the seals return to the skerry, moaning and crying for the deaths of their kin; crying even more for those still alive, for without their skins they can never return to their home in the sea. And the one crying the most is a selkie called Geira in Thomson’s version, Gioga in the older one: for her son Hancie has lost his skin and must now be forever exiled.  



            Then she sees the shivering, stranded fisherman, waiting to die by cold or drowning. She speaks to him, offering to carry him on her back all the way home to Papa Stour, if in return he will find and restore her son’s sealskin. The man is willing, but when he looks at the turbulent waves, he’s afraid. So he asks her permission to cut slots in the thick sealskin of her shoulders and flanks, two for his hands and two for his feet, so that he can hold on firmly ‘between the skin and the flesh’ and will ‘no slip in tae the sea’. So dear is her son to Geira/Gioga that she agrees, and carries the man away through the storm and all the way back to Papa Stour. The story ends:

‘And this man went across the island in the night, when he landed. He walked down by the Dutch Loch and on to Hamna Voe. He made sure his comrades were sleeping. And he went there to the skeo (a little stone house used for the curing of fish). And he chose out the longest and bonniest skin out o’ a’ that lay there and took it to the old mother selkie, Geira. It was the skin o’ her son, Hancie, and away wi’ that she swam.’

            David Thomson: The People of the Sea

So there’s a tale of co-operation between human and selkie, even though the man was part of a team slaughtering and skinning the seals. The relationship between the two races is not equal. The men prey upon the seals in order to live – to sell the skins, to make shoes and garments from them. They use the seals, but also they depend upon them: they owe them. And they are uneasy about it, uneasy about killing these creatures who seem so much like – people. One more quotation from The People of the Sea, from eighty year-old Osie Fea:

‘It’s no wonder they were thought to be like us,’ he said. ‘For the seals and ourselves were aye thrown together in our way o’ getting a living, and everything we feel, they feel, ye may be sure o’ that.’

            ‘I wouldna care to be near them,’ said Margaret Fae.

            ‘I have watched them,’ said Osie, ‘as near as I am to you. I have seen a mother out by the Seal Skerry when the sea was full o’ wreckage. There was a ship wrecked out by and it was rough, and this wreckage was tumbling her young one about so he couldna win ashore. I could see the anxiety gazing out o’ her eyes like a woman’s. The very same. The very same as a woman’s.’

It is surely from this sense of identification – empathy, recognition, responsibility and guilt – that the stories were born.    


Many thanks, Kath. And on the 28th June I'm pleased to be welcoming back another regular contributor, Kevin Crossley Holland, who will be talking about selkies, 'The Woman From the Sea', and the story of St Cuthbert and the seals.









Susan Price said...

I loved that. Thank you, Kath and Steve.
I went to the Isle of Mousa. to see the broch but the whole island was worth the trip. There was a small beach full of seals and we were able to creep very close to them. I was thrilled to hear them singing. I'd heard of their singing but had never imagined it sounded so musical and human.
Personally, I didn't find it particuarly sad (but perhaps they sing differently at different times?) I thought it ethereal, a little eerie and beautiful -- oh, for whole seconds at a time, before they coughed, spat or snorted.
I thought then that it must surely be this singing that gave rise to the Selkie myth, more than anything. There are other animals who are curious about humans and have large eyes. But I can't think of another that sings like that, with apparent intent to be musical.

Katherine Langrish said...

I found their singing eerie - strange - rather than sad, I think. But yes, musical! Maybe one day I'll try my mother's song on them and see if they like it.

Sue Purkiss said...