Following the seals
A language of land and sea

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.

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