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July 2020

A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

Many of the selkie stories we've been discussing in previous posts come the western and northern islands of Scotland, where they are rooted in the Gaelic storytelling tradition. Now a study from the University of the Highlands and Islands has warned that the Gaelic language is in serious decline. Without intervention, it could die out within the next decade, taking the heart of a culture and its worldview with it. In her book Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting writes: 

Love of Country"Every nation has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes:

"Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

For more on endangered and lost languages, I recommend Judith Thurman's poignant essay "A Loss for Words." She writes:

"There are approximately seven billion inhabitants of earth. They conduct their lives in one or several of about seven thousand languages -- multilingualism is a global norm. Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings. According to the calculations of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) -- a joint effort of linguists at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and at the University of Eastern Michigan -- nearly thirty language families have disappeared since 1960. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months."

Heather Altfelt's essay "Every Day Another Language Dies" is unusual and powerful. Here's a taste:

"It turns out that there was an ancient civilization that could speak Tree. They could understand the language of roots and the noise of the fungi, a highly developed tongue albeit difficult to translate. They refused to write down the sounds because they could hear the molecules of the papyrus crying. They also had one word that they learned from the wind that they only used with stones -- and absolutely never with each other -- that, if uttered, was a spell, a name you could carry with you that would open the gates to the city of forever. The word died with them, buried in the folds of old brains and skin, zippered into the earth beneath a tel somewhere between the Tigris and the Yellow River.

Altfelt's piece was selected for the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is simply exquisite.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The passages above are quoted from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016),  "A Loss for Words" by Judith Thurman (The New Yorker, March 30, 2015), and "Every Day "Another Language Dies" by Heather Altfelt (Conjunctions #70, and LitHub, May 29, 2018). The Kathleen Jamie poem in the picture captions is from Best Scottish Poems 2013, edited by David Robinson (The Scottish Poetry Library). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Sheep (and Howard) in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, 2017. A related post: True names.


A selkie tale

July Fields by Joan Eardley

In Salt on Your Tongue: Women and Sea, Charlotte Runcie wanders the coast of Scotland reflecting on the ways that sea has been depicted in literature, folklore, and myth -- but in contrast to David Thompson's People of Sea, discussed yesterday, Runcie's text is a more internal one: part literary meditation and part memoir, as the author progresses through months of pregnancy towards the birth of her first child. What the two writers have in common is an obsession with the sea that dates to childhood, and a compulsion to collect its stories like collecting sea glass along the shore.

Here is one such tale related in Runcie's book, a story reminiscent of the "Twa Sisters" ballad but with some interesting differences. She writes:

Salt on Your Tongue"There is a legend in the west coast of Scotland about two sisters who lived on an island. One of the sisters was very fair, and one of them very dark, and both were beautiful. Their father was a fisherman who had been lost during a storm, and they were brought up by their mother.

"When the girls were teenagers, they both fell in love with the same local boy who also worked as a fisherman. The fisherman spent lots of time away at sea, but when he came to shore, he made it clear that he was madly in love with the fair-haired daughter. And she loved him too, even though her dark-haired younger sister was obsessed with him. He was a good-looking lad. And though he was always kind to the younger girl, he paid much more attention to the older sister, which, of course, made the younger one jealous.

Field of Barley by the Sea by Joan Eardley

"Until one summer day, when the dark-haired sister picked her way along the stony beach, which was wreathed in tendrils of delicious edible seaweed, towards a house. There lived a wise old woman who was an herbalist (though some of the children whispered to one another that she was a witch, as children in small villages tend to do).

"I want you to teach me a song," said the girl.

"What kind of a song?" said the old woman.

"A song that will enchant whoever hears it, and make them fall asleep," said the girl. So the old woman taught her an old Gaelic song, which she practiced until she knew it by heart.

Rough Sea by Joan Eardley

"One day the girl asked her fair older sister to walk with her down on the seaweed-strewn beach. Her older sister was thrilled that the younger wanted to be friends again, and they went down to the rocks together, where the tide was out. They sat down on a rock, and the younger one took out a brush and began to comb it through her big sister's hair. And as she brushed her sister's shining blonde hair, she sang the song she had learned. Soon the older sister's eyes began to close, and she fell fast asleep.

"The younger one started to weaver her older sister's hair into intricately patterned plaits and braids. As she worked, the braids became more and more ornate, all twisting and knotting into one another. She began to weave the hair into the seaweed on the rocks.

"The tide began to turn, and then wash slowly in. The younger girl waited until all of her sister's hair was woven into seaweed, and the tide was lapping around her ankles. And then she ran up onto the cliffs and watched as the warm summer sea swirled around her sister's sleeping body.

The Sea No. 6 by Joan Eardley

"Just as the water was about to close over her sister's unconscious nose and mouth, she saw a grey shape moving quickly through the sea to the shore.

"It was a seal. When it reached the place where the sister, who was by this point completely submerged, had been, the seal dived under the surface. And then -- the younger sister couldn't believe her eyes at this -- two seals bobbed their heads up from the water. For a moment, both seals looked at the girl standing open-mouthed on the cliffs. She tried to speak, but couldn't. The seals turned, and swam out to sea together. And the girl -- as girls at the end of folk tales tend to do -- threw herself off the cliff.

Seascape by Joan Eardley

"As she fell, the wind caught her woolen cape, and lifted her up. And as she floated in the sky, she became a cormorant, the ugliest bird of the sea, whose cry sounds like someone saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!'

"The two seals were long gone. To this day you can hear the cormorant saying sorry to the seals, and whenever it gets too close you can see the seals snapping at the cormorant to keep it away. And the delicious seaweed on the beach is never eaten anymore by the locals who live on the island. They call it fair maid's tresses.

"The oldest stories of the sea involve songs and sounds, and the magical power that comes from combining the sea with human music. From Scottish legends to Biblical psalms, we've always understood the sea by singing about it. The legend also warns us of the power and danger of music when it comes to the sea. The song the youngest daughter sings in the story enchants her sister, but it's overpowered by the far greater enchantment of the persistent Scottish sea-myth of magic: selkies who can turn into seals and live their lives half in water, and half on land, whose existence takes the shape of water above and below, this life and the next. Their disappearance into the water is the end of one life, and the beginning of a new one."

Wild Sea by Joan Eardley

The imagery today is by Scottish painter Joan Eardley (1921-1963), an artist whose extraordinary body of work has only recently been reappraised and given the attention it deserves. Though Eardley was born in Sussex, her family moved to Glasgow when she was a teenager; she studied at the Glasgow School of Art and spent most of the rest of her life in Scotland. Eardley's oil paintings and pastel drawings are divided into two very different strands. In her Glasgow studio she created portraits of children from the city's poorest neighbourhoods, producing a record of mid-century poverity that is poignant and painful, but also aesthetically powerful. In the small fishing village of Catterline (near Aberdeen) she worked outdoors painting the land, the sea, and the elemental forces of nature.

Little Girl in Glasgow Back Court by Joan Eardley"If Eardley had worked in London, lived long and been male, she would now be as esteemed as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff for her expressive, luminous figurative paintings," writes Jackie Wullschlager. "Like them, she launched a career in the 1940s-50s, working exclusively from life on a few motifs she cared passionately about. Like them, from a frugal, secluded studio, she dug deep into her subjects to bring a whole world into existence through the material handling of pigment as a transforming, living substance.

"Catterline, where Eardley bought a cottage with earth floors and no electricity or running water, is half that world. Its urban mirror is Glasgow’s slums, where, in a tenement building in Townhead, a troop of young siblings climbed the steep staircase to a candlelit studio, to be paid in threepences for being depicted in what turned out to be the 20th century’s most memorable British child portraits. Taken together, the two parts of Eardley’s oeuvre declare a singular vision of close-knit communities under extreme pressure from harsh conditions; one is emptying out, the other is overcrowded, and nothing is still, the instability of weather and waves paralleled by restless children who twist, fidget and grow up fast. Eardley was painting against obsolescence: by 1963, when she died aged 42 of cancer, Townhead had been razed; soon afterwards the last fishing boat left Catterline."

To see more of Eardley's work, and to watch a short film about her life by the sea, go here

Catterline Cottages by Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley at work in Glasgow and Catterline

Seascape by Joan Eardley

The Charlotte Runcie passage quoted above is from her book Salt on Your Tongue (Canongate, 2019). The Jackie Wullschlager passage is from "Joan Eardley at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art" ( The Financial Times, December 16, 2016). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


Following the seals

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People of the Sea by writer, naturalist, folklorist and radio producer David Thompson (1914-1988) is one of the best sources we have for the selkie (or selchie) tales of Ireland and Scotland. Thomson's obsession with the seal folk started as a child, but it was not until the 1940s, after the war, that he began to wander the western coast and isles in search of their stories. People of the Sea, published in 1954, contains the lore he coaxed out of farmers and fishing folk, along with vivid portraits of the storytellers themselves and the wild landscape that formed them. The legends range from enchanting to brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of life lived on the ocean's edge.

Fellow-folklorist Stewart Sanderson describes this classic book beautifully:

People of the Sea"On one level it is a masterpiece of literary craftsman ship, the product of a disciplined literary intellect. At other levels, it reflects the author's singularly imaginative engagement with his subject, and his sympathetic rapport with the men, women and children encountered on his travels in quest of seal legends and traditions. 

"David Thompson's curiosity about the seals seems to have been aroused at a very early age through overhearing, and only half understanding, largely frivolous gossip in his grandmother's drawing room in Nairn [a Scottish coastal town]. But it was starkly reinforced a year or two later when, playing truant froma children's party and wandering the shore at dusk, he came to a remote salmon fisher's bothy. Torn between curiosity and fear, since he was trespassing where he had no business to be, he let himself in, and panicked on stumbling across something moving on the bothy floor in the dark. It was something wet but warm; he could hear heavy breathing; suddenly he felt an old man's hairy head pressing against his bear ankle. He was rescued from his terrors by the return of a Gaelic-speaking fisherman, who violently despatched a seal which had been stunned and left for dead by the rest of the bothy crew, and who got the young boy to help him drag the body to the midden. When this gruesome task was done and the bothy cleaned up, the fisherman brewed mugs of tea and talked about the selchies.

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"Killing a selchie, he said, was an unlucky thing to do. His grandfather, however, had earned his living in the old days as a seal hunter; and he showed David Thompson the old man's tobacco pouch made of a seal's paw, telling him how the hair on the skin would sometimes lie smooth and sometimes stand on end, as if it were still alive. He also told a story about another seal hunter who wounded an old seal which escaped. A stranger came to the seal hunter's door and carried him off to a land beneath the sea where he was led to the wounded seal. He was asked to heal the wound by drawing its edges together with his hand. On promising never to maim or kill a seal again, he was returned safely to his own door and rewarded with a purse of fairy gold."

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Although Thompson's family was of the professional class, a childhood accident had harmed his eyesight, causing the boy to be withdrawn from school and sent off to live with his grandmother in a fishing port east of Inverness. There, writes Sanderson,

"he became acutely aware of the social constraints which both bound together and separated his family and their servants, and which divided him from the farm workers, tradesmen and their children amongst whom he spent much of his time, helping with the horses and the harvest on a nearby farm and driving the milk cart on its daily round. Genuine friendships were of course built across the dividing gulf; but still the gulf remained, separating people whose habits and assumptions were often remarkably different from each other. This was particularly true of the inhabitants of the fisherrow, whom townsfolk and farmers in those days generally thought of as almost an alien race.

Seal"Though no doubt Thomson often felt embarrassed, not to say isolated, by these perceptions as an adolescent, the effect on his imagination and ability to empathise with all sorts and conditions of people were to prove an asset later. Folklorists need sensitive antennae if they are to win the trust, and be admitted to the confidences, of those amongst whom they work; and though sadly all too many of the people who figure in The People of the Sea -- fisherman, crofters, ferrymen and folklorists -- are, like David Thomson himself, no longer with us, he is remembered affectionately by the survivors and their families as a man who was always keen to hear stories of the seals and, in the words of Tadgh the South Kerry schoolmaster, to gather up the bits he could about them....

"The rich harvest of folklore in The People of the Sea is fascinating in itself, with its tales of seal maidens and sea views, ancient kings of Ireland and Norway, families who are descended from marriage with seals, melodies learnt from the singing of the seals while fishing in the dangerous waters round the Atlantic cliffs and skerries. But readers will be equally fascinated by David Thompson's vivid recreation of the settings in which this harvest was gathered, of the people who welcomed him to their hearths, of those who gently prompted reminiscences and stories, and of the storytellers own thoughts about the things they told him."

David Thomson's People of the Sea is an old-fashioned book, in all the best ways, and full of the sound, the scent, the magic of sea. I recommend it highly.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

P1120608

People of the Sea

Words: The passage above is from Stewart Sanderson's Afterward to People of the Sea by David Thomson (Cannongate Classics reprint edition, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Yolen's poetry collection The Last Selchie Child (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Last week's post on selkies, in case you missed it, is here.

Pictures: Although we've not far from the north and south coasts of Devon, we haven't been to the sea since the UK's pandemic lockdown began and must make due with fresh water here on Dartmoor. This waterfall at the edge of our hill roars with life during the winter rains, but slows to a trickle at this time of year. It's an beautiful place nonetheless to sit and dream of selkies.


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Last week we were looking at "animal bride" figures: selkies, swan maidens, crane wives, and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin or cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing the enchanted spouse back into wild....

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). 

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

Mary O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso. For more about her beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup

Words: "The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley is from The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based in the English south-west. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The first otter photograph is by Mark Hamblin,  based in Scotland. The second is from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited. All rights reserved by the artists.

 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Seal Children by Jackie Morris

Above: "Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa" performed by Zoë Conway and John Mc Intyre, a husband-and-wife folk duo from Ireland. The song appeared on their second album, Allt (2018).

Below:  "Tàladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm" performed by Julie Fowlis (Scotland),  Pádraig Rynne (Ireland), Aoife Ní Bhríain (Ireland), and Kris Drever (Scotland) at the Sugar Club, Dublin, in 2016. The video was filmed by John Gray and Annie Baylis.

Above: "Fill a Bhruinneall" sung by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (Ireland),  Julie Fowlis (Scotland), and Aodán Ó Ceallaigh (Ireland) for the Port television programme, BBC Alba. The song is followed by a strathspey and two reels performed with Liz Doherty, Duncan Chisholm, Bruce MacGregor,  Mike Vass, and Mhairi Hall.

Below: "Blackwaterside," a traditional Irish song (in English) performed by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, from her new album Thar Toinn/Seabourne (2o2o)

Above: "Fear a Bhata (The Boatman)" sung by Irish singer and banjo player Alison Helzer. The song appeared on her debut album, Carolan's Welcome (2010).

Below: "Lament for Lost Friends" by Alex Cumming & Nicola Beazley, a folk duo from Somerset and Rochdale, England. The song appeared on their debut album Across the Water (2016).

Selkie Swimming by Jackie Morris

The beautiful art today is from The Seal Children by Jackie Morris.