I was very taken by the blog written recently on this site by Margo Lanagan, author of The Brides of Rollrock Island. I shall have to read the novel in due course. All things Selkie have intrigued and attracted me since the 80’s when I first encountered the Selkie Tales from the northern coasts of Scotland.
My first taste may have come from a picture book version of The Selkie Bride by Warwick Hutton, illustrator. But around this time I also stumbled across a children’s television version done as a voiceover with stills, the voice being supplied wistfully and poignantly by the actor Tom Conti. I had to know more. It is strange how at times in one’s life relevant things crop up when topical. For shortly afterwards I came across a book published by Canongate, called Tales of the Seal People, by Duncan Williamson. Duncan Williamson was a Scots Traveller in origin. These people used to live in boats that travelled up and down the northwest coast of Scotland, sometimes coming inland to make rough shelters to sleep in. Their life was hardy and their economy was survivalist. They took seasonal work and otherwise lived off the land and sea, it would seem. They had a powerful and vibrant culture of storytelling and one of the main strands of this was the tales about the selkie folk, beings who were part seal part human in form, having the ability to remove their outer seal skins to reveal a human shape that could comfortably manage a life on land.
A significant factor often exploited by the stories is that if the sealskin is hidden the selkie being cannot return to the sea. And in some of the tales lonely fishermen use this to gain themselves a bride, a wife, a partner. Which in turn means that the children of such a union are half-castes, part selkie and part human.
The Williamson versions are in fact transcripts, written down by his younger American wife at the time. Williamson, it is said, could neither read nor write, so his stories were all memorised in traditional storytelling style. And the versions in the Canongate volume have a curious, informal, lilting feel to them, mainly the result of this fact, I am sure.
For a while I was obsessed by these stories. They were unlike anything I’d ever encountered in folktales. I dreamed about them, thought about them and had to write about them. Read the rest of this entry »