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.


Following the seals

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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:

People of the Sea"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.

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"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."

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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.

Seal"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.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

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People of the Sea

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.


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."


The simple intensity of being alive

The Summer Isles

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, so here's a second passage from this wonderful book. The following section takes place on the unihabited island of Inishdooey, off Ireland's Donegal coast. Marsden writes:

"Long ago, when magic was still on tap for the righteous, Saint Dubhthach and Saint Columba had a competition. They both wanted the challenge of ministering to Tory Island, so they stood beside each other on the mainland, and each saint swung his crozier with huge force. Columba's landed on Tory, some five miles off. Dubhthach could only manage a couple of miles and his reached here, on Inishdooey.

"The walls of Dubhthach's monastery were still discernible. I stepped inside, with an immediate awareness of hallowed ground. Lumps of quartzite dotted the stonework. Above the east window, the stones of the lintel fanned out like a sunrise. The opening itself was little wider than a slit, designed to celebrate the daily wonder of light returning, by capturing so little of it. [...]

"Out on the high cliff, I lay face down to look over the rim. A pool was spread out far below, enclosed in an almost complete circle of sheer rock. The circle was perforated at sea level by several low arches, and the sun shone through these arches, filling the sea inside with a brilliant green translucence. Rays of light penetrated the top layer of water,  flickering beneath it like fish backs. It was a minor miracle, an everyday occurrence that went on happening even though there was no one to see it; the sort of prospect that once invited those solitaries living in such places to write:

     Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle
     On the crest of a rock
     That I may look there on the manifold
     face of the sea.

Cliff Face  Tory Island by Derek Hill

"From across the golden centuries of Irish letters, few lines now have the raw impact of the verses known as the early 'nature poems'. What survives of them -- a fraction, probably -- suggests a tradition that began in its written form in about the eighth century. They were unlike anything else in medieval literature. What their authors drew on was what was normally sublimated to the collective or the divine, something that out here on the rocky fringes of the world was often in full flight: the individual sensibility. Their subject was the natural world -- so familiar, so quotidian, it was rarely considered worth writing about. But the verses' ease and confidence suggest that it had been expressed for a long time.

The Quiet Wave by Derek Hill

" 'Comparing these poems with the medieval European lyric,' wrote the scholar K.H. Jackson, who anthologized them, 'is like comparing the emotions of an imaginative adolescent who has just grown to realize the beauty of nature with those of an old man who has been familiar with it for a lifetime.' Seamus Heaney sensed in them the 'tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong'. He marvelled at the 'little jabs of delight in the elemental' noting that, in their distinctiveness, they make 'a spring-water music out of certain feelings in a way unmatched in any other European language.'

"The poems were the work of Irish monks, part-Christian in spirit and part-pagan, who pursued their devotions in the remotest of places, like here on Inishdooey. Some of the works were formal, or merged into longer cycles of story -- in Buile Suibhne or Immram Brain. Others were more direct -- simple observations, for instance, of the sounds heard outside a hermit's hut:

Cliff Face by Derek Hill    The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
     Grey with cloud;
     Cascades of the river,
     The swans song, lovely music.

Or of summer:

    The smooth sea flows,
     Season when the ocean falls asleep;
     Flowers cover the world.

Or of a cherish island: 

     Gleaning of purple lichen on its rocks,
     Grass without blemish on its slopes,
     A sheltering cloak over its crags;
     Gambolling of fawns, trout leaping.

From the late nineteenth century onward, the nature poems were rediscovered, translated and celebrated by Celticists, along with every other surviving word of early Irish. In 1911, Kuno Meyer defined them by their modest intent: 'To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest.' And he was not shy in declaring their significance: 'these poems occupy a unique position in the history of the world'.

"Like Japanese haiku and tanka, the Irish poems achieve their effect through immediacy. The act of recording what makes up a particular moment -- birdsong, trees, sun and clouds -- is more than just an assembling of scenic elements. It's a way of saying something timeless and urgent: do away with the not-here, this is what there is, the simple intensity of being alive:

     The woodland thicket overtops me,
     the blackbird sings me a lay, praise I will not conceal:
     above my lined little book
     the trilling of birds sings to me.

"Plain statement gives the verse the crisp purity of snow. 'Its makers', thought another of its scholarly advocates, Gerald Murphy, 'possessed a secret of keeping the reader's mind alert and happy, which they seem to have learnt from the story-tellers of the Old Irish period. It consisted in never saying more than was necessary, in passing rapidly over the abstract and discursive.'

Tory Island from Tor More by Derek Hill

"Similar nature poems, of the same period, are found in Welsh. But one thing that distinguished the Irish ones is their treatment of the sea -- a 'genuine delight mingled with terror'. It is the view of people for whom the sea was a part of everyday life, a coastal or island view of what brought pilgrims and supplies, storms and raiding Norsemen, and which offered the physical backdrop to prayer and contemplation. 'The ocean is full, the sea is in flood / Lovely is the home of ships.'

The Book of Dimma, Irish, 8th century

The same focused attention can be found in the marginalia of the period. While the monks dutifully transcribed Latin texts from one manuscript to another, they often jotted down their thoughts, in Irish, on the edge of the page. In themselves they are hardly revelations, but in the context of their time, their confessional tone is remarkable. On one manuscript from the early ninth century -- Cassiodorus's commentary on the Psalms -- is a series of scribblings that offer an almost filmic view of the scribe, a sentient individual. He complains about the vellum. One folio is too 'hairy', another too 'bald'. He is feeling slow: 'My brain is heavy today. I don't know what is the matter with me.' The scriptorium he works in is chilly and gloomy: 'It's cold today. It's only natural. It's winter.' 'Welcome to us is the season coming next. We won't hide what it is -- it is summer.'

From The Book of Kells"The changing seasons produced some of the most powerful of the Irish nature poems. To celebrate the hinge-points of the year were the two great annual festivals -- Bealtaine and Samhain. At the beginning of November, Samhain marked the moment when the harvest was all done, the fruits gathered and the meat ready for salting. But the Irish winter poems go far beyond the practical. In their unadorned details, they manage to suggest not only deep threat but also the sensation of the coming season, in all its wild beauty. It's hard to read such lines without shivering:

   My tidings for you: the stag bellows,
   Winter snows, summer has gone.

   Wind high and cold, low the sun,
   Short his course, sea running high.

   Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone -
   The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.

   Cold has caught the wings of birds,
   Season of ice - these are my tidings.

"I looked north across the water, towards Scotland. The evenings were growing longer, the early mornings chillier. There was still a long way to go before the Summer Isles, and autumn was now waiting at the days' edges."

Midnight at Tory Island

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The paintings are by Derek Hill (1916-2000), an English portraitist and landscape painter who spent many years working from a hut on Tory Island, near Inishdooey. The early Irish manuscripts pictured are The Book of Dimma (8th century) and details from The Book of Kells (9th century). To learn more about them, visit the online "Early Irish Manuscripts Project" from the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

A related post from earlier this year, on the Celtic monks of Ireland & Scotland: "Self-isolation and the peregrini."


Sailing to the otherworld

As I'm sure you all know by now, I love recommending books here on Myth & Moor, sharing my appreciation for authors whose work has fired my imagination or touched my heart, and might do the same for you. Every once in a while, though, I read a book that I love so much that I don't know how to talk about it; every description seems inadequate. The Summer Isles: A Voyage of Imagination by Philip Marsden is such a book: it's simply one of the best that I've ever read.

The basic premise of the text is this: Mardsen sails from his home in Cornwall (on the south-west tip of England) to the the Summer Isles (on the far north coast of Scotland), taking in the remote islands of western Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides along the way. He makes the long journey alone in an old wooden sloop -- and while re-counting this thrilling, harrowing adventure he also meditates on the myths, literature, language, and history of Britain and Ireland's western coasts, and the imaginative hold islands have had on us from antiquity to the present.

Prospero sails to his island of exile  by Edmund Dulac

Here's a taste of Marsden's prose, from the opening of The Summer Isles:

"Long ago -- when the saints had not yet reached these western shores, and heroes were still in possession of superhuman strength, and poets could cut down kings with a single satire, and music could put even the most fearsome warrior to sleep -- another region of the earth existed, another layer to the earth's surface. The Celtic, or Brythonic, otherworld was a magical place where there was no sin or labour, no old age. It was a place of beauty and joy and shimmering palaces, where they trees hung heavy with fruit and blossom, fountains burst with cool water, and cauldrons remained full, however much was drawn from them. 

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin"In the manuscripts of medieval Irish literature are a group of stories known as echtrai -- 'outings' or journeys to the otherworld. Only a few have survived, but what they reveal is the extraordinary hold that the otherworld exerts on the imagination. Magical apples, pure love and strange beasts all feature. In Echtrae Chonnlai, Connlae, son of Conn, is invited by a woman to visit the otherworld, and her description of it is so enticing that he is overcome by longing (éolchaire). He disappears with her in a glass ship, and is never seen again. Cormac was the nephew of Conn, and he too was taken to the otherworld, but returned. He told of two forts surrounded by bronze walls and thatched with wings of white birds, and a golden cup that shattered if an untruth was ever uttered.

"A good deal of scholarly work has been carried out to try and pinpoint the otherworld from literary sources, to unpick Christian elements that may or may not overlay pagan origins, to trace recurring features and examine possible outside influences. But when dealing with such a subject, conclusions have a habit of sliding like sand between your fingers. Reading the stories, letting the images take shape, is a much better way to understand their significance. They grew from the imagination, and it is the imagination that links us to them across the ages. The otherworld might not be the term we still use, but the ability to believe in places that are invisible, to build stories around them and inhabit them, remains the defining attribute of our species. The great Celtic scholar John Carey, who has studied early Irish history as rigorously as anyone, concludes: 'I would suggest the Irish Otherworld's characteristics are, by and large, those of the imagination itself -- more specifically, of the imagination as expressed in narrative.'

The Children of Lir by Gennady Spirin

"Natural mounds and hillocks, old castles, ancient burial sites, misty hollows or lakes -- these are the sort of places where the passing traveller might encounter the otherworld. But nowhere is more closely associated with its fantastic features than offshore islands. The risk of a sea passage add a certain allure to anywhere across the water, while the coast itself tends to throw up its own visual ambiguities -- refractive tricks of the light, land-like fog banks. Add to that the boundlessness of the ocean, the colourful tales of returning sailors, and it is no wonder that the western sea became such a bountiful playground of imaginary places.

More illustrations from The Tempest by Edmund Dulac

"In those days, when navigation was little more than cosmic speculation, the waters to this side of Britain and Ireland has many more islands -- Tír na nÓg ('and of the young'), Tír na mBeo ('land of the living'), Tír Tairngire ('land of promise'), Emain Ablach, Avalon, Kilstapheen, Imaire Buidhe, Lyonesse, Heather-Bleather. There were islands that appeared once every seven years, islands that drifted around like giant plankton, populated islands beneath the sea. There were enchanted islands like Inishbofin, and longed-for islands like Hinba and the Green Islands of Hebridean lore. There were islands that turned out not to be islands but great sea monsters when the crews of St. Brendan and Máel Dúin lit fires on their scaly shores."

The Enchanter by Alan Lee

Islands reflect our inner wishes and beliefs, as much now as in the past. He writes:

"We may have purged our charts of the imaginary, but that doesn't mean we do not long for mythical places. Our lives are still shaped not by reason but by hope and fear, by narrative, by projection. We seek to give form to such abstractions by attaching them to the shape of the world: hope is a hill, memory a house, fear is a cliff, disappointment an empty field. For all the pinpointing of every ruckle and molehill on the earth's surface, satellite imagery does not even begin to show the planet as we see it. Our maps may tell us where places are, and what they are, but they do nothing to reveal what they mean. Mircea Eliade suggested that mythical geography is 'the only geography man could never be without'. Oscar Wilde put it rather more graphically: 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail'.

The Argonauts by Edmund Dulac

"The islands of Britain and Ireland were themselves once regarded by Rome as an alter orbis -- semi-mythical places detached from the three great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. That they should make their own satellite islands into otherworlds is hardly surprising. 'It would seem that the Irish Fairy Talesnotion of the otherworld have a very particular resonance for writers in the North Atlantic archipelago,' writes medievalist Aisling Byrne. 'National landscape shapes national literature, as the multifarious Greek islands gave episodic shape to the Odyssey, the unbounded reaches of the North Atlantic informed fantasies of insular travel and discovery'.

"The otherworld is more than just a fantasy island, full of strange creatures, magical trees and time-warps. It is all those places that we imagine, that we long for, that sustain our brief span on this earth. Out here in the far west, along the fractured coastline of Britain and Ireland, lies Europe's dreaming frontier, its open horizon, where the solid becomes fluid, the fixed wobbles a little and the cliffs and seas grow their own elaborate mythology. It has always occupied a certain place in the collective consciousness, and drawn a certain type to its shore."

During this time of global uncertainty, when physical travel is now difficult (and for some of us impossible), I highly recommend this armchair journey through islands real and imaginary....and those shifting, tricksy, liminal places that are neither one nor the other.

This book is pure enchantment.

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, illustrations for "The Sea King's Daughter" and "The Children of Lir" by Gennady Spirin, two more illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, "The Enchanter" by Alan Lee, "The Argonauts" by Edmund Dulac,  "Becuma of the White Skin" (from Irish Fairy Tales) by Arthur Rackham, and "The Sea King's Realm"  by Gennady Spirin. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower by PJ Lynch

After songs of the sea last week, here are songs of sailors and sailing ships from the British Isles and North America....

Above: "The Bonny Ship the Diamond" performed by Beoga (Sean Og Graham, Damian McKee, Niamh Dunne, Eamon Murray, Liam Bradley) from Co. Kerry, Ireland. The song appeared on their seventh album Before We Change Our Mind (2016).

Below: "Banks of the Newfoundland" peformed by Teyr (James Patrick Gavin, Dominic Henderson, Tommie Black-Roff), based in London. The song appeared on their debut album, Far From the Tree (2016).

Above: "William Taylor" performed by multi-instrumentalist Sam Sweeny and singer and accordionist Hannah James.  The song appeared on their second collaborative album, State and Ancientry (2012).

Below: "Cruel" performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rubsy, from Yorkshire. The song appeared on her sixth album, Underneath the Stars (2003). For information on the use of "press gangs" to force men into the military, go here.

Above: Cyril Tawney's "The Grey Funnel Line," performed by the great English folk singer June Tabor. She first recorded the song with Maddy Prior for their collaborative album Silly Sisters (1976). This haunting solo version appeared on Tabor's Ashore (2011).

Below: "Maid on the Shore" performed by folk singer and fiddle player Eliza Carthy, from Yorkshire. The song appeared on her seventh solo album Rough Music (2004).

Above: "Demon Lover" (also known as The House Carpenter, Child Ballad #243), performed by American roots musician Tim O'Brien, with backing vocals by Irish singer Karen Casey. The song appeared on O'Brien's album Two Journeys (2001). 

Below: "The Golden Vanity" performed by the American folk & bluegrass band Crooked Still, sung by Aoife O'Donovan (whose solo work I also recommend, as well as the trio I'm With Her). The song was filmed last year for Chris Thile's television program Live from Here.

One more to end with: "Lord Franklin," a 19th century broadside ballad about Franklin's ill-fated expedition to the Artic in 1845. This simple, lovely version is from John Smith's album Hummingbird, recorded in Somerset last year.

The art today is by the extraordinary Irish book artist P.J. Lynch. To see more of his beautiful work, go here.

The North Wind by PJ Lynch


The secular sacred

Herring Gulls by Ekaterina Bee

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

"This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.

"There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature -- in the forest, at the beach -- and sure enough: one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.

" 'Stand here,' it said, 'and God will speak to you.'

"The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with the night, and finally he went home.

''Realm of the Seychelles'' by Thomas Peschak

Weddell seals by Laurent Ballesta

"I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of the wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones -- these didn't tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls --they are all cause for surprise and celebration.

Sperm whales in Sri Lanka by Tony Wu

Night of the Turtles by Ingo Arndt

"Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt -- in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs -- the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?

"Then what would he have heard?

Female humpback whale  by Wade Hughes

"I don't want to say he would have heard the voice of God.

"I want to say he would have heard -- really heard, maybe for the first time -- the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish crow cawing or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.

"And I want to say this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough -- the actual Earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping Earth -- to make me feel I live in a sacred place and time.

"I want to say there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profound and important sense.

Nesting leatherback turtle by Brian Skerry

"Here is what I believe: that the natural world -- the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate -- that THIS WORLD (not another world on another plane) is irreplaceable, astonshing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and attention.

"If the good English word for this combination of qualities is 'sacred,' then so be it. Even if we don't believe in God, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.

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"And what's more, the natural world is sacred and 'sacred' describes the natural world; there are not two worlds but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we -- you and I and the man on the beach -- are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing of birds."

Great Crested Grebes by Knut Erik Alnæs (Norway)

If we allow for the concept of the "secular sacred," then I suppose that Wild Comfort is one of my sacred texts -- along with books by Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Patricia McKillip, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, David Abram, Lewis Hyde, Kathleen Jamie, Martin Shaw and so many others. They honor the mystery. Restore my sense of wonder. Remind me to be astonished by the world, and call me to gratitude and joy.

Spanwing brook trout David Herasimtschuk

Pictures: The glorious photographs above were exhibited at The Museum of Natural History in London in the spring of 2016. They are identified & credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the MNH and the photographers.

Words: The passage above is from "The Time of the Singing of the Birds," published in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.


On the shores of mystery

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Edmund Dulac

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore:

"Some people suggest that science is the enemy of the sacred. This puzzles me. I suppose the argument is that the more we understand or think we understand, the smaller the realm of mystery becomes; under the hot light of scientific knowledge, the sacred warps and shrinks, like Styrofoam in flames. But this argument won't work because mystery is infinite, the only natural resource that humans can't exhaust in this giant fire sale we call an economy.

"The physicist Chet Raymo thinks of scientific understanding as an island in a sea of mystery. The larger the island, the longer its coastline -- that area where the deep sea of what we don't understand slaps and smacks at the edge of what we think we know, a rich place of bright water and dark, fecund smell.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

"If so, then this is our work in the world: to pull on rubber boots and stand in this lively, dangerous water, bracing against the slapping waves, one foot on stone, another on sand. When one foot slips and the other sinks, to hop awkwardly to keep from filling our boots. To laugh, to point, and sometimes to let this surging, light-flecked mystery wash into us and knock us to our knees, while we sing songs of celebration through our own three short nights, our voices thin in the darkness."

Me & Tilly on the Devon coast

Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Words: The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Red Bird by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2009). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Two paintings for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); a drawing for "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961); Tilly & me on the Devon coast, pre-pandemic; and "Sea Maidens" by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919).


The magic of the world made visible

A detail from Underworld Beauty by Virginia Lee

From "Learning to See" by Robin Wall Kimmerer (author of Braiding Sweetgrass):

"I remember my first encounter with the North Pacific, at Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. As a landlocked botanist, I was anticipating my first glimpse of the ocean, craning my neck around every bend in the winding dirt road. We arrived in a dense gray fog that clung to the trees and beaded my hair with moisture. Had the skies been clear we would have seen only what we expected: rocky coast, lush forest, and the broad expanse of the sea. That day, the air was opaque and the backdrop of the coastal hills was visible only when the spires of Sitka Spruce briefly emerged from the clouds. We knew the ocean's presence only by the deep roar of the surf, out beyond the tidepools. Strange, that at the edge of this immensity, the world had become very small, the fog obscuring all but the middle distance. All my pent-up desire to see the panorama of the coast became focussed on the only things that I could see, the beach and the surrounding tidepools.

Mer Village by Virginia Lee

"Wandering in the grayness, we quickly lost sight of each other, my friends disappearing like ghosts in just a few steps. Our muffled voices knit us together, calling out the discovery of a perfect pebble, or the intact shell of a razor clam. I knew from pouring over field guides in anticipation of the trip that we 'should' see starfish in the tidepools, and this would be my first. The only starfish I'd ever seen was a dried one in a zoology class and I was eager to see them at home where they belonged. As I looked among the mussels and limpets, I saw none. The tidepools were encrusted with barnacles and exotic-looking algae, anemones, and chitons enough to satisfy the curiosity of a novince tidepooler. But no starfish.

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

On the south Devon coast

"Disappointed, I straightened up from the pools to relieve the growing stiffness in my back, and suddenly -- I saw one. Bright orange and clinging to a rock right before my eyes. And then it was as if a curtain had been pulled away and I saw them everywhere. Like stars revealing themselves one by one in a darkening summer night. Orange stars in the crevices of a black rock, speckled burgandy stars with outstretched arms, purple stars nestled together like a family huddled against the cold. In a cascade of discovery, the invisible was suddenly made visible.

The Selkie by Virginia Lee

Tilly on the north Devon coast

"A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful."

You can read the full essay in Kimmerer's Gathering Moss, a lovely collection of linked essays on the natural and cultural history of mosses.

Merwyna by Marja Lee

The magical ocean imagery today is from two Chagford artists who are also mother and daughter: Marja and Virginia Lee. (Each picture is  identified in the hidden captions. Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Marja Lee is a painter and harpist inspired by Celtic art, music, myth and mysticism. Born in the Netherlands, she studied art in Amsterdam, worked as a fashion illustrator in London, and then settled and raised her family here in Devon. Her delicate watercolor paintings and drawings are rich in esoteric symbolism, and fall into the Visionary tradition of such arists as Odilon Redon, Jessie M. King, and Sulamith Wulfing. The drawing just above and the painting below are by Marja. To learn more about her work, go here.

Virginia Lee is a painter and sculptor inspired by folklore, Surrealism, and the mythic landscape of Dartmoor. She has illustrated several fine books for children and adults, including The Frog Bride, Persephone, and The Secret History of Mermaids. She was also a sculptor on the set of the Lord of the Rings films, and has published exquisite decks of "oracle" and "story world" cards. To learn more about her work, go here.

Mermaid by Marja Lee

Words: The passage above is from Gathering Moss by Native American author & plant biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Oregon State University, 2003). Pictures: The art above is by Marja and Virginia Lee; all rights reserved by the artists. The photographs of me and Tilly were taken by Howard.