Tunes for a Monday Morning

Selkie by Danielle Barlow

I haven't been to the Devon coast since the pandemic began and I'm truly missing the sea these days. Let's start the week with some magical music of the sea and shore....

Above: Scottish singer Shiobhan Miller peforms "Selkie," a tradition Orcadian ballad about a human woman who loves a man of the seal people. Miller's beautiful rendition of the song appears on her equally beautiful new album, All is Not Forgotten (2020).

Below: Scottish singer Julie Fowlis performs "Òran an Ròin/The Song of the Seal," a traditional Gaelic ballad from the Hebrides. Selkies, she explains, are "creatures who moved between the parallel worlds of sea and land, but never truly belonging to either. " This haunting version of the song was recorded last May, with video footage by Mike Guest.

Above: "Swirling Eddies," a selkie song by musician and music scholar Fay Hield, based in Sheffield -- from her mythical, magical new album Wrackline (2020). While working on this piece, she says, 

"I imagined what it would be like to fall in love with the world above water. How it would feel to leave your selkie family, traditions and life in the sea, to be lured onto land. What would it take to make that irresistible leap, to turn your back and step into a new adventure? In a lot of the stories a human steals their skin so they are forced into marriage. In this instance, I wanted to selkie to be intrigued by the human world, to want to come and enter into this new way of being. Exploring the seduction and lure of the ‘other’. This includes the male suitor, but places him to one side, focusing more on the world that opens up. The words and tune for ‘Swirling Eddies’ came together...through singing over and over, round and round, like the waves going in and out. I wanted the tune to seem dizzying, as she would be in the dancing, and light-headedness of moving into a new environment, feeling airless, or rather, I suppose, waterless."

Below: "Stone's Throw: Lament of the Selkie" by Rachel Taylor-Beales, a musician and activist based in Wales. The song appeared on her poignant album of the same name (2015), which was subsequently turned into a theatre piece. She says:

"I’d been exploring the character and persona of Selkie, a shape-shifting seal woman re-imagined from Orkney folklore, struggling to live her life on land away from her natural habitat of the ocean. Selkie’s internal turbulence seemed to echo the real-life struggles of people in the news headlines, and that I'd met personally: stories of refugees and displaced people, far from home, with all the loneliness and chaos, grief and loss that comes with enforced migration. In the legends, in order to marry a Selkie woman, her sealskin has to be captured while she is in human form and kept hidden from her so she can't go back to sea. The woman of the legends -- taken out of her natural environment, longing for home, misunderstood by those around her who know nothing of her former life -- became synonymous in my mind with the stories of refugees. The video was filmed by my husband Bill Taylor-Beales, and features Isla Horton, who achingly portrays a displaced mother separated from home and family."

Above: "Black Seas" by the London-based iyatra Quartet (Alice Barron, Richard Phillips, Will Roberts, and George Sleightholme). The song is from their album Break the Dawn (2020).  The video was filmed by Andrew Spicer.

Below: "Avalon" by Rhiannon Giddens (from North Carolina), with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, from their new album They're Calling Me Home (2021). The video, directed by Laura Sheeran, was filmed in Co. Galway, Ireland. The dancers (and choreographers) are Stephanie Dufresne and Mintesinot Wolde.

On the south Devon coast with Tilly

Selkie painting above: "Messenger of the Water" by my friend and neighbour Danielle Barlow. You can see more of her beautiful work on her website or Instagram page. All rights reserved by the artist. Photograph: On the south Devon coast with Tilly during betters days. 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Notebook sketch by Jackie Morrie

As many of you know, I spent much of 2018 - 2019 happily immersed in the Modern Fairies project, an arts and research initiative which brought folk musicians, artists, writers, folklorists and filmmakers together to create works exploring what Britian's folklore tradition means to us in the modern world. After twelve months of research and collaboration, the project ended with a concert and multi-media presentation at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead/Newcastle (Spring 2019), but my MF colleagues are continuing to develop this material in a number of interesting ways -- the most recent of which is Wrackline, a gorgeous, deeply magical new album by the distinguished folksinger, songwriter, and music scholar Fay Hield. (It comes out in September, but is available for pre-orders now.)

Moonstruck hare by Jackie MorrisIn the run-up to Wrackline's release next month, Fay is publishing posts highlighting the album's six folklore themes -- beginning with tales of witches (and other women) who cast themselves into the shapes of hares.

Above: A short video in which Fay introduces the concept of the new album.

Below: "Hare Spell," from Wrackline. As Fay explains:

"In exploring the mythical supernatural on the Modern Fairies project I became excited by the question of real magic and belief, and spent some time looking at magical acts themselves, rather than the stories about them. Inge Thomson and I chatted about the nature of spells and where the magic lay. Words are commonly seen to hold power, but as musicians, we wondered how we could draw this out through sound. We toyed with the relationship of music to language noticing that pitches are conveniently given letter names. That evening at the very first meeting of the Modern Fairies [at Oxford University, Summer 2018], we mused about how music could come out of the words themselves.

"I needed a spell, a real one that held magic. Jackie Morris gave me some words about a hare and a little digging showed that it comes from Isobel Gowdie, the wife of John Gilbert, likely a cottar in Auldearn, near Inverness. Isobel was tried in 1662 during the witchcraft trials and her confession gives a clear account, seemingly uncoerced, into her activities with the devil and visiting the king of the fairie. She includes several spells and chants used to conduct her own magic, including this spell to turn the utterer into a hare to do the devil’s work."

Photograph by Fay Hield

Below: "When She Comes," a second hare song which grew from a collaboration between Fay and poet Sarah Hesketh. Sarah writes:

"As I sat and listened to Fay transform her reading about Isobel Gowdie into song, I found myself really drawn into the story she was beginning to tell through the music. Here were two characters -- a woman and a hare -- with an incredibly strange and intimate relationship. Fay's song 'Hare Spell' was a glimpse into that relationship from Isobel's point of view; but what, I wondered, did the hare have to say about it all? How did he feel about having his body appropriated for her eldritch purposes? Was this a kind of hi-jacking or was there something more complex and consensual going on between the two of them? I wanted to explore the idea that the hare might be more than just a passive vessel for Isobel's adventures, and how it might feel for him to have to say goodbye as she decided to return to her own body."

The words are by Sarah and the music by Fay, with underlying chordal structures created by Ben Nicholls and Inge Thomson for Modern Fairies project, then further developed by Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron for Wrackline. This is the Modern Fairies version, recorded at The Sage performance in April 2019. It was one my favourite songs from the show, bringing a lump to my throat every time I heard Fay sing it. (Sarah's exquisite lyrics  are here.) 

Three hares by Jackie Morris

There are more shape-shifiting hares to come: Fay, Inge, Sarah and I are working with the good folks of the Alternative Stories podcast to create an audio drama on the subject; we'll let you when the broadcast date is set. And keep an eye on Fay's blog in the weeks ahead if you'd like to know more about the other songs on Wrackline (including one based on my poem "The Night Journey," which is an honour indeed).

Selkie art by Natalie Reid

Another thread of work that emerged from the Modern Fairies project was inspired by selkie (seal people) lore -- including songs created by Lucy Farrell, Inge Thompson, Barney Morse-Brown and Fay, presented in the final Modern Fairies show with art by Natalie Reid

In the Autumn 2019, four of us from the project (Lucy, Fay, Barney, and me) reunited to present The Secrets of the Selkies: an evening of song and story at the Being Human Festival in Sheffield. During the week leading to festival, as the others ordered and rehearsed their music, my job as a writer/editor was to weave poems and monologues between the songs to join them into a common narrative, examining classic "selkie bride" folk tales from several characters' point of view. I don't know what the evening was like from the audience, but from the stage it felt like pure magic ... ending with choral singing of the selkie's call by everyone in the hall. 

Above: A screen projection produced by Lucy -- with Natalie's art, Lucy's music, and selkie encounters described by Inge (who grew up on Fair Isle) and others.

Below: A little video by Tim James capturing a collage of moments from The Secrets of the Selkies.

The Secrets of the Selkies - me  Fay  Lucy  and Barney

Art above: Hares by Jackie Morris, and a selkie by Natalie Reid.  The photograph of Fay's banjo is by Elly Lucas. All rights to the music and art above reserved by the musicians and artists.

To read previous posts on the Modern Fairies project, go here.


One last selkie tale

Grey seal and pup, Lincolnshire. Photograph by Dan Kitwood.

From "The Selkie Wife's Daughter" by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

    I always wondered why she sang so strangely

    at the spinning wheel, why her eyes held all

    the mourning of the darkest sea. And why

Grey seal and pup, Yorkshire. Photograph by Steve Race.

    she held me away,

    as if afraid of my skin, why my feet and

    hands were webbed with translucent sea–skin.

Grey Seal

    I used to bring her armfuls of yellow

    water iris to almost

    see her smile. I wondered why father

Grey Seal and pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

    never let me swim out against the waves,

    never let her walk the shores alone....

Grey seal pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

To read the full poem, go here.

Seal mother tickling her pup. Photograph by Elmar Weiss.

Words: The poem extract above, inspired selkie legends is from  Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Steel Toe Books, 2006), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Steve Race, Elmar Weiss, and Friends of Horsey Seals (Norfolk). All rights reserved by the photographers.


Another selkie tale

''Dancing Seals,'' North Carolina, from The Telegraph, photographer unknown

Grey seal, Farne Island, photographed by Dan Kitwood


From "A Taste of the Sea" by essayist & novelist Scott Russell Sanders:

"A selkie takes a great risk in changing from a seal to a man, for he may not be able to change back again. No matter how carefully he hides his pelt, someone may find it. A child playing along the shore may take it for a plaything, a beachcomber may take it for a rug, a fisherman may sell it to the fur dealer, a woman intent on keeping him in her arms may lock it in a chest. Without that pelt, a selkie cannot return to the sea. Nor can he return if he has fallen in love with the woman who called him ashore to father her child.

"It is said that male selkies are the seducers, charming female humans with our fathomless dark eyes and our muscles sculpted from swimming. Although that may be true for others, it is not so for me. I did not choose to shed my skin and walk on two legs away from the ocean, any more than salmon choose to abandon saltwater for spawning and death in their native streams. I was summoned from the water by a maiden who wept seven tears into the cove where I floated, asleep and dreaming....

To read the rest of Sanders' short, evocative story, please go here. His new collection, The Way of the Imagination, is coming out this month from Counterpoint Press.  

(Previous selkie posts here.)

Grey Seal, Farne Islands, photographed by Jason Neilus

''Dancing in the rays,'' photographed by Dmitry Starorstenov

Seal family, Hopkins Isle, photographed by Peter Verhoog

Words: The text quoted above is from "A Taste of the Sea" by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, May 19, 2020); the poem in the picture captions is "The Fisherman's Farevwell" by Scottish poet Robin Robertson (Poetry, January 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Jason Neilus, Dmitry Starorstenov, and Peter Verhoog; all rights reserved by the photographers.


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.