People of the Sea by writer, naturalist, folklorist and radio producer David Thompson (1914-1988) is one of the best sources we have for the selkie (or selchie) tales of Ireland and Scotland. Thomson's obsession with the seal folk started as a child, but it was not until the 1940s, after the war, that he began to wander the western coast and isles in search of their stories. People of the Sea, published in 1954, contains the lore he coaxed out of farmers and fishing folk, along with vivid portraits of the storytellers themselves and the wild landscape that formed them. The legends range from enchanting to brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of life lived on the ocean's edge.
Fellow-folklorist Stewart Sanderson describes this classic book beautifully:
"On one level it is a masterpiece of literary craftsman ship, the product of a disciplined literary intellect. At other levels, it reflects the author's singularly imaginative engagement with his subject, and his sympathetic rapport with the men, women and children encountered on his travels in quest of seal legends and traditions.
"David Thompson's curiosity about the seals seems to have been aroused at a very early age through overhearing, and only half understanding, largely frivolous gossip in his grandmother's drawing room in Nairn [a Scottish coastal town]. But it was starkly reinforced a year or two later when, playing truant froma children's party and wandering the shore at dusk, he came to a remote salmon fisher's bothy. Torn between curiosity and fear, since he was trespassing where he had no business to be, he let himself in, and panicked on stumbling across something moving on the bothy floor in the dark. It was something wet but warm; he could hear heavy breathing; suddenly he felt an old man's hairy head pressing against his bear ankle. He was rescued from his terrors by the return of a Gaelic-speaking fisherman, who violently despatched a seal which had been stunned and left for dead by the rest of the bothy crew, and who got the young boy to help him drag the body to the midden. When this gruesome task was done and the bothy cleaned up, the fisherman brewed mugs of tea and talked about the selchies.
"Killing a selchie, he said, was an unlucky thing to do. His grandfather, however, had earned his living in the old days as a seal hunter; and he showed David Thompson the old man's tobacco pouch made of a seal's paw, telling him how the hair on the skin would sometimes lie smooth and sometimes stand on end, as if it were still alive. He also told a story about another seal hunter who wounded an old seal which escaped. A stranger came to the seal hunter's door and carried him off to a land beneath the sea where he was led to the wounded seal. He was asked to heal the wound by drawing its edges together with his hand. On promising never to maim or kill a seal again, he was returned safely to his own door and rewarded with a purse of fairy gold."
Although Thompson's family was of the professional class, a childhood accident had harmed his eyesight, causing the boy to be withdrawn from school and sent off to live with his grandmother in a fishing port east of Inverness. There, writes Sanderson,
"he became acutely aware of the social constraints which both bound together and separated his family and their servants, and which divided him from the farm workers, tradesmen and their children amongst whom he spent much of his time, helping with the horses and the harvest on a nearby farm and driving the milk cart on its daily round. Genuine friendships were of course built across the dividing gulf; but still the gulf remained, separating people whose habits and assumptions were often remarkably different from each other. This was particularly true of the inhabitants of the fisherrow, whom townsfolk and farmers in those days generally thought of as almost an alien race.
"Though no doubt Thomson often felt embarrassed, not to say isolated, by these perceptions as an adolescent, the effect on his imagination and ability to empathise with all sorts and conditions of people were to prove an asset later. Folklorists need sensitive antennae if they are to win the trust, and be admitted to the confidences, of those amongst whom they work; and though sadly all too many of the people who figure in The People of the Sea -- fisherman, crofters, ferrymen and folklorists -- are, like David Thomson himself, no longer with us, he is remembered affectionately by the survivors and their families as a man who was always keen to hear stories of the seals and, in the words of Tadgh the South Kerry schoolmaster, to gather up the bits he could about them....
"The rich harvest of folklore in The People of the Sea is fascinating in itself, with its tales of seal maidens and sea views, ancient kings of Ireland and Norway, families who are descended from marriage with seals, melodies learnt from the singing of the seals while fishing in the dangerous waters round the Atlantic cliffs and skerries. But readers will be equally fascinated by David Thompson's vivid recreation of the settings in which this harvest was gathered, of the people who welcomed him to their hearths, of those who gently prompted reminiscences and stories, and of the storytellers own thoughts about the things they told him."
David Thomson's People of the Sea is an old-fashioned book, in all the best ways, and full of the sound, the scent, the magic of sea. I recommend it highly.
Words: The passage above is from Stewart Sanderson's Afterward to People of the Sea by David Thomson (Cannongate Classics reprint edition, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Yolen's poetry collection The Last Selchie Child (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Last week's post on selkies, in case you missed it, is here.
Pictures: Although we've not far from the north and south coasts of Devon, we haven't been to the sea since the UK's pandemic lockdown began and must make due with fresh water here on Dartmoor. This waterfall at the edge of our hill roars with life during the winter rains, but slows to a trickle at this time of year. It's an beautiful place nonetheless to sit and dream of selkies.