The language of whales

Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

Marine biologist Eva Saulitis studied killer whales (or orca whales) in the coastal waters of Alaska for over thirty years, while also writing poetry and nonfiction blending nature writing and memoir.  The following passage is from her first collection of essays, Leaving Resurrection:

Standing Raven by Preston Singletary"During my first summer out in Prince William Sound as a volunteer, one of my tasks was to decide on a project for my master's thesis. Initially, I felt drawn to the quieter ways of humpback whales, who stayed in protective areas near Whale Camp to feed. But small groups of killer whales kept passing by camp, hugging the shoreline. They were AT1 transients, mammal-eaters about which little was known except that they were mostly silent and difficult to follow....

"One day, my friend and I followed two AT1 transients from a small inflatable as they hunted harbor seals along an island shore. We lost them for several minutes, and then spotted silver mist above a rock. We let the boat drift near. Clinging tightly to the rock, its head craned back, eyes huge and black, a seal pup crouched above the water line. A transient nudged the rock, but couldn't reach the seal, at least not yet; the tide was rising. Abruptly, the whale turned, joined the second whale, and swam rapidly across an open passage. We left the lucky seal and raced to catch the transients, but they'd vanished. Cutting the outboard in mid-passage so we might hear their blows, we stood up, scanning with binoculars.

"I felt something through the bottom of my feet before I heard it. From the inflatable's wooden floorboards, a wail rose, and another, and another. My friend and I stared at each other.

"'It's the whales. They must be right under us. Let's drop the hydrophone,' I said.

"I scrambled for the tape recorder, and we huddled over the small speaker adjusting knobs as long, descending, siren-like cries reverberated against underwater island walls. In the distance, other whales answered, faintly. I'd never heard transients call before. It was like a stone had sung. I knew then. I wanted to learn the language of the whales that were mostly silent.

Side view of the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

"In grad school, I learned the art of detachment, learned to watch how I said things, to listen for anthropomorphism, like applying the word language to non-humans. As scientists, we distinguish ourselves from whale huggers, lovers, groupies, and gurus, from those who think of whales as spiritual beings. We learn the evolutionary, biological basis for an animal's behavior. We study the various theories and counter-theories and debate their merits: reciprocal altruism, game theory, optimality theory, cost-benefit analysis.

Raven by Preston Singletary"At scientific meetings, in animal behavior seminars, we don't debate whether animals have feelings. It's terra incognita. But on the research boat, or at the breakfast table, before the meeting begins, some of us talk about these things. One non-scientist friend, puzzled by the ways of science, asked, 'Isn't it strange to assume that humans are the only creatures with feelings, that we are so different from other animals?' Is it 'animapomorphic' to ascribe animal behaviors to humans? If it's wrong to suppose animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves? Alone at the tip of some renegade branch of the tree of life?

"Out in the field, summer after summer, we search for knowledge, employing the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, data collection, analysis, discussion, conclusion. Poet and biologist Forrest Gander says that this method 'has endured as a scientific model, and a very successful one, for it predicts that when we do something, we will obtain certain results. But if we approach with a different model, we will ask different questions.' To create a new model: that prospect challenges all of the questions I've learned to ask -- and not to ask."

Detail from the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

As the book goes on, Saulitis returns to this subject again and again. Is the language of science the only way, or even the best way, to understand the whales she is studying? What about the language of poetry, song, and story? What about the tales told about the whales by indigenous peoples whose lives have long been entwined with them?

In the book's final essay she reflects on local stories about the whales, such as this one:

"Very long ago, when someone died, the killer whales would come take them to a certain cove, dress them like killer whales, and release them into their new form. According to this story, the only difference between whales and humans is our skins. Zipping and unzipping this skin is like lifting up the cloth of the sea to go under, to effortlessly enter the killer whale realm. It seems magical, this lifting of cloth, this zipping on of skin. But it's much like the evolution story, in which killer whales shed body shapes to become what they've been now for five million years. Killer whales know some things about living here. Maybe we have to shed the skins we're wearing, find our way back into the weave, rejoin the ecosystem, put back on our animal skins....

Kéet by Preston Singletary

"A woman from Dolovan, near Nome, told me of a time that killer whales helped her people to find food. When she was a baby, her family was moved from Elim to Dolovan. Some people went overland. Her grandmother and others went by rowboat around Cape Darby, in the Bering Sea. She herself was in the boat, wrapped in a rabbit-skin parka. The people were hungry and cold, so someone called to the killer whales and asked them for food. The next day, big pieces of muktuk washed up on the beach. The people ate it raw, they were so hungry, and the oil stained their clothes, which had to be burned.

" 'You never play with or harm or hunt or harass a killer whale,' she said, 'because they are so close to people.' She told me that a woman in Dolovan married a white man who didn't know all of the traditional rituals or rules, and one day he shot a baby killer whale. 'A person who harms a killer whale will die,' she said. An adult killer whale showed up and started swimming through the bay back and forth. The white man finally confessed to his wife what he'd done. She blamed herself for failing to teach him properly, so she went to a point far out in the water and apologized to the killer whale, saying that her husband didn't know, that it was her fault. The whale eventually forgave them and left.

Family Story Totem by Preston Singletary

"Inupiaq people say that killer whales drove seals onto the ice for hunters to catch. Tobacco was thrown into the whales' open mouths, in thanks. Those stories from many places in coastal Alaska, of killer whales opened mouthed, lips pulled back, revealing their teeth to hunters in boats, remind me of Matushka. We first saw her in Prince William Sound in 1987 with some of her relatives on my first day volunteering on a research project with Craig. While some of the whales swam rapidly around us, Matushka breached and tail-slapped repeatedly within a few meters of the skiff, dousing us with water. I was twenty-three and naive, didn't know this wasn't ordinary killer whale behavior, so I screamed and jumped around and tried to touch her. Finally, I looked at Craig, salt water dripping from his beard, and saw his unease. It was weird, he said, for transients to interact with a boat this way. We couldn't even take identification photos for fear of ruining the camera, but more so, because the whales were too close. We finally had to back away from them, but they charged after.

Killer Whale by Preston Singletary"That was my initiation into killer whale research, and I see it now as both a welcoming and a warning, a warning that my stories would have to change. My imagination would have to expand to include Matushka as she glided along the hull of the boat, her mouth wide open, showing me her teeth. I would have to look into my own animal nature.

"It's not impossible to imagine killer whales and humans having once spoken the same language, interchanged body forms. We are still dependent on each other, and the stories tell us that we must act that way, unless we want killer whales to exist only as mythical creatures, like the thunderbird, who, in one story, did battle with a killer whale, driving it into the sea, where it's lived to this day. Our big, imaginative brains define us. Deprived of the creatures who inspire our stories, will we be human? Or will we be proto-something else?

"Just as language shapes our thoughts, the way we tell stories shapes the way we see, and the way we see -- what we look at, the amount of time we spend on the water, in the woods -- shapes our imaginations. Jurgen Kremer asks, 'What if we have established a big thought system at the foundation of which is one giant rationalization? What if we need to turn things upside-down?' Is that the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Is wisdom knowledge turned upside-down? 

"I write poetry these days, a craft that encourages the holding of opposing truths in the mind at the same time. While my logical mind grapples to reconcile the Tlingit story of the origin of the killer whale with the paleontological story, in my other mind, they coexist. Both are essential."

Killer Whales photographed by Eva Saulitis

Killer Whale Canoe by Preston Singletary

Eva Saulitis died of breast cancer four years ago, at the age of 52. She wrote about her illness as she wrote about her whales: with the clear observations of a scientist and the emotional depth and language of a poet. (For example, see her gorgeous piece on nature and dying, "Wild Darkness," in Orion magazine.)  

I highly recommend Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist; Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discover and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas; and her last essay collection, Becoming Earth -- as well as her poetry, published in Many Ways to Say It and Prayer in the Wind.

X'aat by Preston Singletary

The imagery today is by Preston Singletary, a Tlingit artist based in Seattle who primarily works glass. His creations often feature killer whales because of the whale's significance as one of the crests of his clan.

"When I began working with glass," he says, "I had no idea that I'd be so connected to the material in the way that I am. It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction. Over time, my skill with the material of glass and traditional form line design has strengthened and evolved, allowing me to explore more fully my own relationship to both my culture and chosen medium. This evolution, and subsequent commercial success, has positioned me as an influence on contemporary indigenous art. Through teaching and collaborating in glass with other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists, I've come to see that glass brings another dimension to indigenous art. The artistic perspective of indigenous people reflects a unique and vital visual language which has connections to the ancient codes and symbols of the land. My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people -- affirming that we are still here -- that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to
our culture."

To see more of Singletary's beautiful, deeply spirited work, go here.

The Air World by Preston Singletary

Words: The passages quoted above are from Leaving Resurrection by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2008); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The Jurgen Kremer quote is from Indigenous Science: Introduction (ReVision 18, no, 3, Winter 1996).

Pictures: The art above is by Preston Singletary; all rights reserved by the artist. The name of each piece is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The Outermost House

Cannon Rock by Winslow Homer

In previous posts we've been discussing the oceans and islands of Ireland and Scotland, but there is a wealth of good writing about the sea from North America too -- such as The Outermost House by Henry Beston, first published in 1928.

Beston was born to a French and Irish family in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1888; he attended Harvard, and served in World War I as an ambulance driver (for the French army) and war correspondent (for the US Navy). Upon returning home, he worked as a magazine editor while also writing two books of fairy tales (The Firelight Fairy Book and The Starlight Wonder Book), and finding solace for wartime trauma through a love of birds and the natural world. In the 1920s, he built a tiny house on an isolated stretch of Cape Cod beach, then spent a year living alone there, observing the sea through four full seasons. He writes:

Henry Beston at the Fo'castle"My house stood by itself atop a dune, a little less than halfway south on Eastham bar. I drew the homemade plans for it myself and it was built for me by a neighbor and his carpenters. When I began to build, I had no notion whatever of using the house as a dwelling place. I simply wanted a place to come to in summer, one cozy enough to be visited in winter could I manage to get down. I called it the Fo'castle. It consisted of two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen-living room, and its dimensions over all were but twenty feet by sixteen. A brick fireplace with its back to the wall between rooms heated up the larger space and took the chill off the bedroom, and I used a two-burner oil stove when cooking.

"My neighbor built well. The house, even as I hoped, proved compact and strong, and it was easy to run and easy to heat. The larger room was sheathed, and I painted the wainscoting and the window frames a kind of buff-fawn -- a good fo'castle color. The house showed, perhaps, an amateur enthusiasm for windows. I had ten. In my larger room I had seven; a pair to the east opening on the sea, a pair to the west commanding the marshes, a pair to the south, and a small 'look-see' in the door. Seven windows in one room perched on a hill of sand under and ocean sun -- the words suggest cross-light and glare; a fair misgiving, and one I countered by use of wooden shutters, originally meant for winter service but found necessary through the year. By arranging these I found I could have either the most sheltered and darkened of rooms or something rather like an inside out-of-doors. In my bedroom I had three windows -- one east, one west, and one north to the Nauset light....

"I had two oil lamps and various bottle candlesticks to read by, and a fireplace crammed maw-full of driftwood to keep me warm. I have no doubt that the fireplace heating arrangement sounds demented, but it worked, and my fire was more than a source of heat -- it was an elemental presence, a household god, and friend."

Northeaster by Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer

The Maine Coast by Winslow Homer

Beston began his year of solitude on the dunes almost by accident:

"My house completed, and tried and not found wanting by a first Cape Cod year, I went there to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.

"The world is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dune these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year. The flux and reflux of the ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of the birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the spendour of autumn and the holiness of spring -- all these were part of the great beach. The longer I stayed, the more eager I was to know this coast and to share its mysterious and elemental life; I found myself free to do so, I had no fear of living alone, I had something of a field naturalist's inclination; presently I made up my mind to remain and try living for a year on EasthamBeach."

I highly recommend this quietly beautiful, influential book, by an author now recognized as a pioneer of American nature writing.

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

The New Novel by Winslow Homer

The art today is by American painter and printmaker Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Born (like Beston) in Massachusetts, Homer began his career as self-taught illustrator for newspapers and magazines, including a stint as a war artist on the front lines of the American Civil War for Harper's Weekly. After studying oil painting in New York and France, he gave up illustration to focus on landscape painting full time. Retreating from urban life from the 1870s onward, Homer lived a series of fishing villages in New England and northern England, finally settling on the coast of Maine, while also travelling extensively to paint and fish in Key West, Cuba, the Carribean, and the Adirondack Mountains. To see more of his work go here.

The Mussel Gatherers by Winslow Homer

Summer Squall by Winslow Homer

Looking Out to Sea by Winslow Homer


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets over St Kilda by Jill Harden (BBC)

The music today is from an extraordinary musical project: The Lost Songs of St Kilda.

The islands of St Kilda, at the westernmost edge of the Scottish Hebrides, were continuously inhabited for over two millenia until its last residents were officially evacuated in 1930. As Patrick Barkham writes in The Islander:

"St Kilda is the most famous island -- or islands -- in Britain. Hiort, as it is known in Gaelic, is an archipelago containing Hirta (in Gaelic, Hirte), Borerary (Boraraigh), Soay (Sòthaigh) and Dùn. It is the most peripheral of British isles, fifty miles west of the Outer Hebrides, a hundred miles from the Scottish mainland. Plenty of islands lost their people in the early 1900s, particularly the smaller islands of the Outer Hebrides -- Berneray, Mingulay, Sandray, Taransay, Scarp and Boreray -- but St Kilda has become the generic example of small-island extinction. A pinprick on any map, alone in the Atlantic, it is much more prominent in many mental cartographies, an object of obsession and longing -- 'as much a place of the imaginationas a physical reality', as Madeleine Bunting says in her tour of the Hebrides. St Kilda is Britain's only dual World Heritage site, protected for both its nature and its culture; and archaeologists, geologists, ecologists and historical anthropologists have poured over it, subjecting it to more than seven hundred books and scholarly articles. Its story is told and retold, polished and revised, mostly by outsiders like me, who wonder: Were the Hiortaich unique, or rather like us? And why, after so many generations of habitation, did they abandon the home they loved?"

Why, indeed. That's a question journalists and scholars have been asking since the evacuation, with complex and contradictory answers.

Inhabitants of St. Kilda

The Lost Songs of St Kilda is a collection of traditional tunes from the islands -- all of which would have been lost forever were it not for Trevor Morrison, who had learned them from his piano teacher, a St Kilda evacuee. Morrison made a home-recording of the songs, and after his death, in 2012, the recording eventually found its way to the offices of Decca Records. Decca then asked Sir James Macmillan and other Scottish composers to develop the St Kildan tunes, aided by the Scottish Festival Orchestral and additional musicians (including Julie Fowlis, from North Uist). The result is this very beautiful album: a tribute to a lost musical tradition and a vanished way of life.

Women & girls of St Kilda

Above, a short video about the project.

Below, the returning of the Lost Songs, after all these years, to the place where they were born.

Above, "Soay," a tune named after one of the smaller islands of St Kilda. The name is derived from Seyðoy, meaning the Island of the Sheep in Old Norse. The piece is performed by composer Sir James Macmillan on Hirta, the largest of the islands. (If you live in an area where this video won't play, you can access an audio-only version of the song here.)

Below, "Hirta," with film footage from the 1920s, and contemporary photographs. There are several theories about the orgins of the island's name, including its possible derivation from Hirt, the Norse word for shepherd, or from h-Iar-Tìr, a Scots Gaelic word meaning "westland." (An audio-only version of the song is here.)

To learn more about the Lost Songs project, go here.

I also recommend Hirta Songs (2014), a fine album of music by Aladsair Roberts and poetry by Robin Robertson. The piece below is "The Leaving of St Kilda."

And one more recommendation: Night Waking (2011), a novel by Sarah Moss that was partially inspired by St. Kilda's history. The story takes place on a fictional Scottish island, split between contemporary and Victorian narratives: darkly comic and mysterious by turns. It's the first in a sequence of interconnected novels, followed by Bodies of Light (set in Victorian Manchester and London) and Signs for Lost Children (set in Cornwall and Japan). I personally think Moss is one of the best writers working in Britain today.

Children of St Kilda

St Kilda islanders


The man who loved islands

Puffins on the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides

For arm-chair explorations of the islands of Great Britain, I have one more recommendation for you: Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago by natural history writer Patrick Barkham. The structure of this quirky and engaging book was inspired by a D.H Lawrence story, "The Man Who Loved Islands" (1928). As Barkham explains:

Islander by Patrick Barkham"Lawrence's fictional hero, who is called Mr. Carthcart, buys a haven of gorse, blackthorn and granite, four miles in circumference, somewhere beyond the British mainland. For a while, he adores his island home, working alongside the thirty-odd people who are his tenants and employees. Soon, though, he realises one inescapable truth about small islands: living on a rock surrounded by the ocean is prohibitively expensive. His capital disappears in renovations. Projects fail. 'His' islanders quietly mock and exploit him.

"Our hero's solution is to downsize. He takes his most fanciful carpenter, and a widow and her daughter to keep house for him, to a smaller island. For a while he finds peace, and compiles a list of every flower in this tiny place. Things take a typically Lawrentian turn, however, for our island idealist sleeps with the widow's daughter, Flora. She has a child, and the man who loves islands realises that he has sabotaged his quest for peace. So he removed himself once more to a concrete hut on a bleak island-rock on which he no longer does anything but dream, living alongside a cat, and then alone. He sleeps, hallucinates and, eventually, goes mad and dies.

"It is a simple story of disillusionment and, like the best kind of fable, niggles away at the reader."

Herm in the Channel Islands, once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Channel Island seal

Jethou in the Channel Islands  one of the islands once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Digging into the history of the story, Barkham learns that Lawrence based its details on real life. He writes:

Compton Mackenzie"The man who loved islands, Mr. Carthcart, was a real man, a friend, fellow writer and rival. Compton Mackenzie is barely known outside Scotland these days and is not much remembered within it. The name rings a bell for those who have watched the film or read the book Whiskey Galore -- his 1947 tale of fictional islanders salvaging thousands of bottles of whiskey from a wartime shipwreck -- but I wonder why he is not better known. He was admired by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell. He averaged more than a book each year of his long life, an unceasing flow of four million published words, including ten -- ten! -- volumes of autobiography he penned in his eighties. He also played a major role in many of the great events of the 20th century -- he was a brilliant spy in the First World War, an inventor of bureaucracy, a founding father of the Scottish National Party (despite being born in England), a pioneer of music journalism, and an early entertainer on BBC radio and television. Here was a feted author and brilliant raconteur, a handsome if rather bird-like man with a mop of black hair that his friend Eric Linklater once likened to a raven shot on its nest. Sir Compton Mackenzie was clever, witty, well connected and celebrated in his lifetime. Now, less than five decades after his death, he is vitually forgotten. Are islands something to do with it?

Kisimul Castle on Isle of Barra in Outer Hebrides

Hebridean seal

"The island-infatuation of idealist, extravagant, egotistical, foolish and tragic Mr. Carthcart -- or Compton Mackenzie -- fascinated me. Why did Lawrence write so unsparingly about a friend? What became of their friendship? And how did Mackenzie's life on small islands actually unfold? I also ponder the universal truths in Lawrence's brief exploration of small-island life. His story reveals the lure of islands for idealists, the clash between dreams and financial reality, and the tension between the individual's need for liberty and his or her need for society. In Lawrence's view, the past is unusually present on small islands. They are dangerously seductive places for people seeking to escape the mainstream who swiftly discover they cannot escape themselves."

Compton Mackenzie's home of the Isle of Barra

St Barr's Church on the Isle of Barra and Sir Compton Mazkenzie with his wife, Faith.

Hebridean seal

Wondering if Lawrence was correct, Barkham travels to eleven islands throughout the British archipelago. Moving, like Carthcart and Mackenzie, from large islands to those that are smaller and smaller, he seeks to understand the dream and the reality of island life, historically and today.

The story of Compton Mackenzie is colourful, loopy, and fascinating, and Barkham tells it well. If you, too, love islands and odd corners of literary history, I recommend Islander. It is a delight.

The Shiant Islands

Atlantic Puffins on the Shiants

Puffins

Words: The passage quoted above is from the introduction to Islander by Patrick Barkham (Granta Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Herm and Jethou in the Channel Islands, owned by Mackenzie in the 1920s; the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where he lived from the 1930s onward (and on which he is buried); and the Shiant Islands (near the Isle of Lewis), which he owned from 1925-1937. The Shiants are an important breeding place for Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds.


On the Isle of Jura

George Orwell's desk on Jura

Three years ago when Howard and I travelled up to the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, I took Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey to read on the long train ride north, and found it to be a perfect introduction to the landscape and culture I would soon be immersed in. Bunting's book is lighter in tone and scope than those previously discussed (Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles and David Grange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge), but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. If her book has more of a travelogue quality, it's nonethess informative, perceptive, and engaging, providing a good overview of an archipelago rich in history and story.

Like Marsden and Grange, Bunting writes about the western islands from an outsider's perspective, following the footsteps of authors who've been drawn to these wild shores for generations. In her chapter on the Isle of Jura, example, she visits Barnhill, the ramshackle farmhouse where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell's day, Bunting tells us,

"there was no daily postal service, no telephone and no electricity at Barnhill. The nearest shop was a twenty-five mile round trip, the nearest doctor was on Islay. Orwell was delighted: the place was 'extremely unget-at-able' he declared. He had fled the telephone, the requests for journalism and the busy chatter of London life, he explained in letters. Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting His recurrent fear of assassination since his time in Barcelona in 1936-7 abated, although he still kept a gun at hand. But he wanted his friends to visit and gave detailed instructions for the forty-eight-hour journey from London, with train and ferry times. What resulted were some tense ménages with assorted friends and relatives, which [his sister] Avril was left to deal with when Orwell retreated to his room with his typewriter. One visitor, a young student, David Holbrook, reminisced, 'I wanted to talk to him about life, about politics, Spain and that sort of thing, but he was wheezing away about an Arctic tern.'  

"Orwell's letters portray Barnhill as a powerful emotional counterbalance to his pervasive pessimism in those years. After an autumn spent in bed in the damp house in 1947, he was taken to a Lanarkshire sanatorium for treatment [for tuberculosis] and he wrote to a friend, 'Not much use worrying about Palestine or anything else. This stupid war is coming off in about 10-20 years and this country will be blown off the map whatever else happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb. If the show does start and is as bad as one fears, it could be fairly easy to be self-supporting on the island provided one wasn't looted.' His comments owed much to that mid-20th-century British conception of islands, and the Hebrides in particular, as salvific, the last refuge. 'When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization,' he wrote. The first title he had considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. On stormy nights in Barnhill, his sense of foreboding may have led him to think he was writing about himself....

Orwell at Work  photographed by Vernon Richards

Barnhill on the island of Jura

"Jura's remoteness was Orwell's only explanation for his decision to move there. But given his deep love of the English countryside, it was an intriguing choice. There were plenty of remote houses in England where the farming and gardening might have been more productive. Jura was a landscape unlike any other he had lived in, and it enabled him to produce a novel which was quite unlike anything else he had ever written, and at a speed, despite his illness, which he had never managed before.

"Barnhill gave him the vantage point from which to create its opposite in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Julia offers the one glimmer of hope in the book; her unabashed love of sex was 'above all what he [Winston] wanted to hear' because it was 'not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct'. Living at Barnhill gave Orwell an experience akin to Julia's 'animal instinct', of a deeply experiential, instinctive world away from abstractions.

"In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell describes people who can no longer understand freedom or truth because history has been corrupted, repeatedly rewritten in the 'Records Department', and in the process their identity and that of England has been erased. Freedom is no longer imaginable because there is no language to describe it; as the state functionary Syme says, 'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' At one point, Orwell's character Winston Smith can no longer remember his parents. He asks himself, 'Did his parents live in England? England was its name, he thought, or Britain.'

Orwell and goat

"Orwell was writing these lines when living amongst a Gaelic community; the neighbouring crofters with whom he shared the tasks of harvesting would never have been allowed to forget their parents, or where they had lived, given the Gaelic emphasis on genealogy and place. Did Jura and its losses -- of language and history -- creep into the background texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, providing small details in the vision of how identity -- and thus freedom -- were lost?

"Literary critics of Orwell's work tend to regard Jura as incidental, no more than a backdrop, and their focus has been on Orwell, the man. Their references to Jura have often been simply comments on its remoteness. But Orwell had an acute sense of place; he understood how it expressed history and generated identity. He used vivid evocations of both city and countryside to express his most important political ideas in books such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Down and Out in Paris and London. This Atlantic edge of Britain has been a battleground for different interpretations of freedom, and how history and identity create the conditions for them, as I was to discover several times on my journeys. What Orwell found on Jura were reminders of those freedoms which had been lost in urban Britain, and which sustained and inspired him."

George Orwell at Barnhill.

Bunting's book is full of vivid snapshots like this of people, places and stories throughout the Hebrides. She's a fine raconteur and a good traveling companion for readers who prefer some gentle island-hopping to vigorous journeys by sailboat or kayak, or as a follow-up to such epic adventures.

For more on Orwell and other writers on islands, follow the links in this previous post.

Small Isles Bay  Jura  photograph by William Herron

Words: The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: George Orwell on the Isle of Jura in the 1940s.


A figment of fog

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Gange

Following on from yesterday's post...

Here's one more selection from David Gange's excellent book The Frayed Atlantic Edge , weaving history, literary reflections, and vivid descriptions of the natural world into the story of a year-long journey down the coast of Britain and Ireland by kayak. In the following passage, the author is heading to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides:

''A folk history of the wests coasts of Great Britain and Ireland like no other.''"The long, dark night I spent between knuckles of knock and lochan on the edge of the Inner Sound was intensely atmospheric. I hunkered down against a thin smurr of rain, sometimes caught in moonlight, with the thick smell of sodden peat eclipsing the salt of sea just feet away. And I read about the most celebrated boats to have plied this water. The book I read, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's The Birlinn of Clanranald, is one of the great Gaelic seafaring epics: an Iliad in which the Troy to be stormed is this Hebridean sea itself. Written in the 1750s, it's set at a time before Culloden, when islanders still wore kilts and chain shirts: its symbols often seem to belong to the 15th and 18th centuries simultaneously. The author was a Jacobite who commanded fifty men and tutored Prince Charlie. When Hanover triumphed at Culloden he left the mainland for the Hebrides to escape recrimination for the scathing verse he'd aimed at the new royals. His world remained that of the seafaring clans MacDonald and Clanranald: the north of Ireland, Argyll, Islay, Uist, Canna and Skye.

Birlinn"The birlinn was bigger than the sixareens of Shetland, comprising twelve to eighteen oars and a square sail. Although clinker-built in the Norse tradition, it was a further step removed from Norway, not double-ended but with a flat sterm to permit a steering oar or a rudder. Sailing seas north from Ireland, birlinns became a currency of leige and lordship: the number of galleys a clan could muster defined its prestige. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. Just as the culture of Sutton Hoo dragged boats up hills for symbolic burials, the societies of these islands brought the sea ashore, placing symbolic ships at the centre of their towns, castles and churches. In this way, the birlinn became an icon of the Atlantic ties that bound Ireland, Man, Argyll and the Hebrides. It recalls cultural formations, such as the Lordship of the Isles, that show Scotland -- like England, Wales, Ireland and Britain -- to be an idea moving through these islamds only a little slower than a ship at sea. Before these nations, each only really united by modern legal codes, there were, for millenia, loose confederations of multilingual, multi-ethnic interest groups.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Tradition holds that, seeking inspiration for The Birlinn of Clanranald while he was baillie of the isle of Canna, Alasdair lay beneath an unturned vessel on a Hebridean shore. Entombing himself in darkness, with only the smell of the boat for company, was a strategy to spark imagination. The principle became an idée fixe among Atlantic aficionados. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, channelled Alasdair when he claimed to 'only think clearly in the dark' and, in 1948, fled the street lamps of south-east England for waters the birlinns had travelled: he noted, with approval, that the Irish Atlantic he found was 'one of the last pools of darkness in Europe'. Seamus Heaney, at his most elemental and earthy, wrote himself into this proud tradition. Flight  photograph by David GrangeThe final lines of 'North' are set on a long strand with only the 'secular powers of the Atlantic thundering'. The sea inspires reverie that sends the poet spiralling back centuries to see the water as the road of Norsemen. The 'swimming tongue' of a historic longship speaks to Heaney and invokes the poetic darkside:

   ‘Lie down
   in the word-hoard, burrow   
   the coil and glea
   of your furrowed brain.
 
   Compose in darkness.   
   Expect aurora borealis   
   in the long foray
   but no cascade of light.
 
   Keep your eye clear
   as the bleb of the icicle,
   trust the feel of what nubbed treasure   
   your hands have known.’


"It is perhaps surprising that the poetic fiction born of Alasdair's self-imposed enclosure contains such detailed description of the birlinn's structure and the actions of its crew. It is the best evidence we have for the facts of what this vessel was. No examples of the boat -- even wrecked -- survive: in 1493, When James IV absorbed the Lordship of the Isles under the Scottish Crown he demanded that all birlinns be burned to end the power of the sea lords.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Alasdair's birlinn moves through a Hebridean sea that's as cunning and wise as human or animal. It's an old manwith streaming grey hair and a creature with gaping jaws and matted pelt. As a respected foe, the sea's will is pitched against the desires of the boatmen. It responds to being struck with oars until, eventually, it submits to human strength. The boat is also alive, crying out like a person and whinnying like a mare, treading waves not with planks and thwarts but shoulders and thighs. Boat and boatmen are one: the sweat on the sailors' brows is the brine foaming around the bow. And the boat becomes their homeland as they climb creaking mast and ropes 'as quickly as May squirrels on the trees of a dense forest'. At sea all distinctions between animate and inanimate, sentient and insensible, human and animal, flounder. In these verses, as in much writing on its waters, the Minch is layered with metaphor; the inter-island seas are known like friends and rivals; waves and tides are feared or loved like animals of hill and forest. Here is humanity engaged in the quest for mastery over nature: for separation from the seething conflicts of the bestial, elemental world. But to Alasdair's protagonists, before the age of steam and steel, that quest still seemed impossible; dividing lines, distinctions and disentanglements can rarely survive a single line of verse.

Western-isles-385

Western-isles-383

"Next morning, I prepared my own encounter with the grey-haired sea in mist that made me alert to animal encounters. Before I even hit the water, a brute of a dog otter surfaced on its back, scarred snout and crab catch raised above the waves. It didn't bother to acknowledge my presence but rolled like a thing uncoiling, then lolloped noiselessly into brown remains of bracken. It took seconds from its departure for its passing to feel mythic, and moments later I was moving through cold smoke-like rain towards a lunchtime landing beneath the Rona lighthouse.

"This night in the fog had established the tone for the month. As I crossed the Inner Sound and kayaked each long finger of Skye's western edge I breathed mist, drifted through sweeping rain, and saw the island only as shape-shifting cliffs that loomed, suddenly, from saturated skies. Headlands were bands of thick dark haze, and I found I could judge my distance from them not by their size but by the degree to which they blackened the otherwise featureless pall of grey.

photograph by David Grange

"The otter felt like an appropriate sigil of this place because it has long been treated as hybrid and unknowable. Like the barnacle goose, otters were a conumndrum for the monkish administration of Lent: both seemed more fish than bird or mammal. Some Carthusian monks were forbidden meat all year round. Instead, they ate otter. In Norse and Celtic story otters, particularly otter kings, change form and grant wishes, but only in the unlikely event of their capture: the animal's fluidity gives it the character in water of intangible smoke in air. The otter is its element: 'ninety per cent water', to the poet Kenneth Steven, and 'ten per cent god'. But they are also friendly 'water dogs'. They brought St Brendan fish and firewood; they warmed and dried the feet of St Cuthbert when he finished his nightly vigils waist-deep in sea. In the work of the great poet-naturalist Colin Simm the otter is a boat that's 'all rudder'; it is Mesolithic, belonging in an ice melt 'a few thousand years back' when elver-silvered rivers still thronged the landscape. Simms has written hundreds of closely observed otter poems, and in many, floods are the creature's medium. Water sweeps land when, in acts of drainage and deforestation, 'a balance of centuries to the balance-sheet yields'. When otters twist and tumble through redrowned vales a historic ordering of water, earth and animal is reprised in a beautiful unplanned catastrophe of rewilding.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"As poets make otters into ribbons of water, so they make Skye a figment of fog, a realm subject not to divine or human law but to 'amorphous rules of light.' When Richard Hugo, poet of the Pacific Northwest, came to live on Skye he wrote that the shifting mists alter the colour of the island a hundred times a day and 'never stop changing the distance to the pier from your front door'. Skye's epithets -- to the Norse, Island of Cloud; Misty Isle to the Gaels -- are aerial and never earthy. The prevalent sou'westerlies are 'the grey wind' that scoops the otherworld of the sea ashore. This island is the grand centrepiece of the Hebridian world, straddling the Minch both north-south and east-west. Smaller than the land mass of Lewis and Harris, its coastline is far longer: its gangly peninsulas intercept fog-bound vessels on a hundred different inter-island routes.

"Skye's geography has long been mystified: it is '60 miles long', according to the mountaineer W.H. Murray, 'but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state'. This is perhaps why Skye is the most the most zoomorphic of landscapes: an animal island. When factual delineation falters on its ragged edges, diverse living things scuttle in."

photograph by David Grange

Skye-55 (1)

Seal...or selkie? Photograph by David Gange

The passage quoted is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019).  The photographs are also by Gange; visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website to see more. All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the author/photographer.


More tales from the sea

The sandstone stacks of Northmavine (Shetland Mainland), photograph by David Gange

Shetland coast, photograph by David Gange

Having sailed up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland in Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles, I'm now kayaking down the same coasts in David Grange's engrossing book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge -- starting in the far north of Shetland this time, and ending up down south in Cornwall.

During a period when physical journeys are hard-to-impossible due to health concerns and travel restrictions, this is arm-chair traveling at its best: mixing robust adventure with reflections on the history, culture and literature of the coastal lands and islands of the Celtic fringe. What is the difference between the two books? Marsden delves more deeply into myth, folklore, and the ancient texts of the regions he travels through, whereas Gange responds to the landscape around him as an historian -- but both books are well worth your time. They compliment rather than compete with each other.

Shetland puffin, photograph by David Gange

The following passage from The Frayed Atlantic Edge will give you a taste of the book. Gange writes:

Frayed Edge of the Atlantic by David Gange"This journey involved arriving, dripping and bedraggled, in dozens of coastal communities. When I set out, I hadn't imagined just how generous the people whose homes and workplaces I dampened would be: without such openness, particularly evident on small islands, this project would never have gotten far. I learned as much through long evenings of discussion as through the other three resources on which the book is based: libraries, archives and the observation of land and sea from the kayak. It wasn't just the spectacles of sea cliffs, nor the drama of ocean weather, but also those social occasions that meant I ended the journey with greatly intensified enthusiasm for scattered Atlantic islands like Foula, Barraigh and Thorai. 

"Such conversations worked to strengthen the conviction I set out with: that British and Irish histories are usually written inside out, perpetuating the misconception that today's land-bound geographies have existed forever. Despite the efforts of authors such as Barry Cunliffe, whose Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500 (2001) inspired much debate among historians, the significance of coasts is consistently underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of their histories is rarely explored. 

Orkney in August, photograph by David Gange

Orkney dwelling, photograph by David Gange

"This book sets out to put some of that imbalance right, showing not only that Atlantic geographies have been crucial to British and Irish life but that they continue to be so. It is structured by region, because part of its purpose is to show how similar ingredients of wind, wave and rock have been transformed into entirely different island and coastal cultures by the divergent processes of history. The chapters were written in order, while I travelled, so my process of learning runs parallel to the reader's experience of moving through the book: burrowing gradually deeper into the many ways that the shorelines are significant. This allows the narrative to follow a trajectory in which the opening chapters evoke the act of kayaking, establishing sounds, smells, sights and stories of the venerable tradition of travelling at sea level. Only gradually does the balance shift towards historical research, literary criticism and argument, revealing the implications of new perspectives picked up through slow travel.

Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Seal colony in the Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Skye, photograph by David Gange

"The final section, 'The View from the Sea', completes the transition. It switches to a different register as it unpicks historical significance from the chapters. It argues that the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role. The implications of key historical moments are problematised or reversed. The so-called Enlightenment, for instance, might best be interpreted as the triumph of a few cities -- Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Birmingham -- at the expense of other regions. For coastal communities it was the beginning, and the cause, of a lengthy dark age. In contrast, much of what were once referred to as Dark Ages had been eras of great coastal strength and enlightenment, when the intellectual traditions of the Irish Atlantic were the most advanced in Europe. Such reversals abound. The widely celebrated Education Acts of 1870 and 1872 were unmitigated disasters for many coastal zones, while the grim economic recession of the 1970s saw an island renaissance unprecedented for two centuries. All British history looks different when inland cities are made remote by seeing them from Atlantic shorelines, and the most powerful element of a year's journey by kayak was immersion in that changed perspective....

Donegal to Galway, photograph by David Gange

Kayak on the west Irish coast, photograph by David Gange

Coastal lambs, photograph by David Gange

"Just as the most significant history often happens on the edge of the islands, the most interesting phenomena regularly occur in the margins between disciplines. Exploring past lives on coasts meant reaching for ideas from geologists, ecologists, naturalists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, poets, novelists or musicians more often than historians. Seabirds, fish and species of seaweed play roles as significant in this book as politicians or their institutions; they has as great an effect on past shoreline lives, and the importance of island pasts today almost always relate both to ecology and community. Talking to naturalists, ecologists, archaeologists and artists was a highlight of researching this book and I'd love to think that such lines of communication might one day be wedged more permanently open."

So would I. 

Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

The photographs here were taken by the author journey during his long, daunting, and fascinating journey. To see more, visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website.

Seal on the Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

Photograph by David Gange

The passage above is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019). All rights to the text and photographs reserved by the author.


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.


Selkies: the accommodation of paradox

Grey seal

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

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:

Seal and pup on land"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.

Daughter of the Sea by Tristan Elwell

"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.

Grey seal underwater

Selkie by Gina Litherland

"...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.'

Selkie by Katherine Soutar"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."

Selkie Boy by Jackie Morris

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."

Selkie drawing by Alan Lee

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. 

Orkney seal

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. 


The sídhe and the sìth

Looking into the Fairy Hill by Alan Lee

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, which I highly recommend seeking out. In the following passage, Marsden is en route from the northern tip of Ireland to the wild west coast of Scotland. He writes:

"The north and west of Ireland and the west of Scotland share a similar history, language, and ethnicity....Comparable too is the geology. The 'Dalradian Supergroup' is not a Glaswegian rock band but a band of rock, 'a metasedimentary and igneous rock succession that was deposited on the eastern margin of Laurentia between the late Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian'. Right. It makes up a large part of the defining features of both Ireland and western Scotland, the same mountains, the same high sea-cliffs, the same curiosities (Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Fingal's Cave off Mull), the same peaks and open moor, the same islets and reefs, the same sense of a primal clash between rock and ocean. And it is that backdrop -- the gritty topography, the fractured shoreline, that has helped sustain the coastline's metaphysics, helped generate the wilder projections of outsiders and inhabitants alike, phantom islands from beyond its headlands, otherworlds from beneath its turf.

"In Ireland, they are sídhe, in Scotland, sìth -- each is pronounced the same: 'shee'. The fairy population share a folk DNA, as the human ones do. The definition of the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell covers them both: 'The Fairies, according to the Scoto-Celtic belief, are a race of beings, the counterparts of mankind in person, occupations and pleasures, but unsubstantial and unreal, ordinarily invisible, noiseless in their motions, and having their dwellings underground, in hills and green mounds of rock or earth.'

Fairies by Alan Lee

"In a piece published in the Scots Observer in 1899, W.B. Yeats noted how prevalent the 'fairy belief' remained in both countries. Over the years, though, the sídhe and the sìth had diverged. The Irish once, he claimed, were much better, or at least rather nicer: 'For their gay and graceful doings you must go to Ireland, for their deeds of terror to Scotland.' He cited the Scottish tale of a child cutting turf. The child is struggling, until a hand is pushed up out of the bog with a sharp knife. The child's brothers respond by slicing off the hand with the knife. Yeats claimed that would never happen in Ireland, where 'there is something of timid affection between men and spirits'. In Scotland, he claimed, an innate mistrust existed of that unseen world: 'You have made the Darkness your enemy...you have discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all before the magistrate.'

Fairy Woman by Alan Lee"As for the islands, the western coast of Scotland frays into many more actual islands than that of Ireland, but fewer imaginary ones. One tale that is found, though, in several versions in the Hebrides begins with a man in boat, lost in a fog. He comes across an unknown island, and landing on it, he meets a woman. He stays with her, they have children. After many years on the island, he goes back to his former life. One day when he is old and blind, the man is brought a fish that no one can identify. Fingering it, he recognizes its shape. He asks to be taken out to the waters where it was caught, and there is the island. He is put ashore, and he and the island disappear.

"It is a simple and beautiful story, and one that challenge's Yeats's partisan point. Many aspects of fairy belief do not stand up to any kind of literal scrutiny: little people living in holes in the ground, stealing the substance of people, or changing them into animals. But behind them lies a more persistent thought -- common not just to the closely related fairies of Ireland and Scotland but to belief worldwide: that other versions of our own life exist. They could be in the past, in the future, or in the never-never. They might be over the horizon, or on an imaginary island. But at one time or another, we will go looking for them. Perhaps we're always looking. "

The Scribe by Alan Lee

The art today is by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee, recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, the Academy Award for film design, and many other honours. Some of the images above are from his classic book Faeries (with Brian Froud); other drawings are from Alan's private collection. To learn more about the wider range of his exquisite work, go here.

The Fairy Court by Alan Lee

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The artwork is by Alan Lee. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Further reading: For more information on fairy lore, "Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature" and "Tales of Fairy Changelings."