Two weeks ago, I promised one last post about Philip Marsden's extraordinary book The Summer Isles...and then illness struck, and it's taken me this long to recover. My apologies for the delay. It's good to be back in the studio at last.
In the following passage, Marsden discusses the "seal people" tales to be found on the wild west coasts of the Celtic Fringe. It comes from the final chapters of the text as he sails his boat through the Hebrides, spotting seals along the way:
"Seals were always selkies here along the Atlantic coast. They led semi-human lives. They lived in their own world beneath the waves, one that mirrored that of people's above. They were capable of human speech and human emotions, and they had underwater houses with doors and windows, the same as us. Once a year, they gathered at a place off the Donegal coast and elected from their number a leader, a selkie king. Sometimes they could be heard singing of the seal city underwater, its coral gardens and mother-of-pearl facades. To those who heard the song, it had a hypnotic effect: a delicate air, and words which spoke of a place ten thousand times more beautiful than the sky. The selkie world was a version of the otherworld.
"Selkies could make near-seamless appearances on land. Female selkies would slip out of their sealskins and take on the form of women and sleep with men. Male selkies would also take on human form and father children. They might take those children back to the sea, or they might leave them on land. You could never be sure which were the selkie children; they might be very good at swimming, or very small, or 'very sharp indeed at the learning...particularly at the Hebrew.' Then one day they'd just disappear. There were whole families in Ireland and Scotland who were known to have the seal blood in them, and the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell speaks of the Clann 'ic Codrum nan ron of North Uist, 'the MacCodrums of the seals', so named for their seal ancestry.
"In the 1950s, David Thomson travelled in the west of Ireland and Scotland gathering selkie stories. In the tender account of his journey, The People of the Sea, he tells of meeting a man of the road down in Kerry who was descended from seals. 'The seals are a class of a fairy,' explained the man. 'They come out of the north of Ireland, from some place by the County Donegal.' He then told Thompson about a boy who, collecting kelp one day, stabbed a seal. The boy watched as it turned into a red-headed man and ran away. Years later, when the boy was a man, he was fishing near Tory Island. When he went ashore, he saw that red-headed man, and the man said thank you to the boy for what he'd done years earlier. He'd been freed from his seal-state by the stabbing.
"...The selkie stories were sustained on these coasts by the constant presence of seals. Some strange congress takes place when you look at a seal, some hint of recognition, reinforced by the sense that it appears to be mutual. In many places, seals were believed to be fallen angels, the ones who, expelled from heaven, fell into the sea. But it was less their angelic nature than their human habits that were recalled again and again. Seamus Heaney said of the seal belief that it represents 'the old trope of human beings as creatures dwelling in a middle state between the world of the angels and the animals.'
"Yet shape-shifting is less about affirming man's separation from the beasts than the possibility that we remain part of them. It implies a world in which the boundaries between things do not -- or should not -- exist. It is the same parrallel country of fairies and angels, the spirit world, into which we might occasionally glimpse or even travel. We might be locked within our own frames, within our own mortality, but a bit of us remains mobile. 'Of bodies changed to other forms I tell,' Ovid declares in the opening line of Metamorphoses, and goes on to make the case that our souls are essentially fluid, and 'adopt / in their migrations ever-varying forms.' Introducing his own version of Metamorphoses, Ted Hughes reflects on the moment of transition, repeated in each of the poems: 'Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of the event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles into the mythic arena and is transformed.' The tales might be salutary, cautionary or retributive, but they hold out the promise of transformation -- and transformation answers to the perennial itch at the core of our condition: the dissatisfaction of being, and the promise of becoming.
"The endurance of the selkie myth can also be explained as an example of the poetic faculty, where everything can be revealed by finding its parallel. It comes from that strange region on cognitive territory where the chaos around us is briefly ordered by analogy, and the analogy grows into story and the story evolves and mutates into myth, a species in itself, both true and untrue. Selkie belief is a measure of the abiding need for such ambiguity. We might think that belief means certainty, but it doesn't -- it works better as the accomodation of paradox. Seals can be people and people can be seals . That's it."
I highly recommend listening to an interview with Philip Marsden on the Scotland Outdoors radio programme (BBC Sounds). The whole interview is engrossing, but from the 29:54 mark onward the discussion focuses on myth, folklore, the "thin" places where the borders between the mortal world and the otherworld is porous, and the particular pull of such stories during these months of pandemic lock-down.
"I think," he says, "that the quieting down of things -- the way we've had to slow down and lock into a daily rhythm of repeated things -- has opened up the imagination, and re-exposed us to ways of thinking that we lose when we rush around....We're re-discovering, perhaps, a layer of the imagination that used to be quite normal."
To end with: In the video below, Carolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie sing a classic selkie ballad from the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and explain its meaning to Phil Cunningam.
Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Wain: LGBT Re-imaginings of Scottish Solklore(The Emma Press, 2019). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The artwork above is "Daughter of the Sea" by Tristan Elwell, "Selkie" by Gina Litherland, "Selkie" by Katherine Soutar, "Selkie Boy" by Jackie Morris, and "Selkie Skin" by Alan Lee.All rights reserved by the artists.