‘We believe what we believe,’ said his father, getting up and moving to the door. ‘And there’s no way to ken is it right or wrong.’ – David Thomson, The People of the Sea
On the surface, if I can begin with an appropriately aquatic metaphor, The People of the Sea is a work of non-fiction; a journal kept by one man recording his experiences travelling through Ireland and the farthest islands of Scotland, but unlike Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal, a book which has also quite rightly been reprinted many times, David Thomson’s interest in talking to the locals, the crofters, fishermen and travellers, was not to produce some kind of tourist guide but to document for posterity the stories that have been passed down orally from generation to generation, specifically those concerning the selkies, ‘selkie’ being the word for ‘seal’ in the Orcadian dialect. Thomson was not a naturalist or even a conservationist; that was not where his interest stemmed. At the time of writing The People of the Sea he was employed by the BBC as a writer and producer of radio documentaries, a post he held between 1943 and1969. The writing of the book might have been facilitated by the fact that many of the programmes he worked on were to do with natural history but his personal fascination with seals dates back to the time when, aged eleven, he sustained an eye injury playing rugby which nearly blinded him and unable to continue his schooling in London he was packed off to Tigh na Rosen, the home of his maternal grandmother, in Nairn, an ancient fishing port and market town close to Inverness in Scotland; this would have been circa 1925 but it was not his first trip there; that would have been when he was five along accompanied by his parents and sisters.
The opening chapter to The People of the Sea sees Thomson, now a grown man, recalling that time with obvious fondness. It is also worth noting that his last memoir, published in 1987, a year before his death, was Nairn In Darkness And Light which won the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1988. The place must have had some effect on him for him to be drawn back to its memory over sixty years later but that’s not the book that he’ll be remembered for. His legacy will undoubtedly be The People of the Sea which, although autobiographical in tone, has Thomson taking on the role of folklorist recording for future generations some of the many tales told around the fireside of an evening and also, in passing, presenting a snapshot of a way of living that has all but died out.
To a zoologist a seal is a pinniped (from Latin pinna, wing or fin, and ped-, foot), a fin-footed semiaquatic marine mammal; the majority – those known as true seals or earless seals – being members of the family Phocidae. But what do scientists know? They might very well be the descendants of a man called Kane or “the souls of drowned men” or fallen angels like the fairies, except that they had fallen into the sea and became seals or they might simply turn out to be fur-clad Finns, travelling by kayak: it depends who you’re listening to and how good a storyteller they are. And there are not a few contained within the pages of this book.
But let’s start when he was eleven. In the pantry one day he innocently asks Mina, their nurse, who he describes as “the mildest and kindest and probably the weakest woman in the world,” and La, his mother’s cousin who happens to be there at the time, about Mrs Carnoustie’s legs; he had heard mentioned that she was deformed. And it wasn’t only her legs; no. La explains:
‘You must remember. You must. I remember her arms too. It’s perfectly true. They only came down a little below where they should be and they were supposed to be flattish, but you never really saw them because she wore big sleeves, big full ones, and I think they were sewn up at the ends. But they looked flattish, like flippers, and she held them against her sides or across her chest and she moved them rather awkwardly. But you could never see her legs. We always wanted to. We wanted to see her in the bath and of course we couldn’t, and it was terrible. I remember, never being able to know, and of course we couldn’t ask her or anyone else really – anyway we couldn’t get proper answers from anyone. And, you see, she was always in the same kind of dress – a long, long grey shiny dress, silk I think, that fastened at the neck with a close collar and came right down to the ground and hid everything.
‘[H]er face was round and plump too, with a small nose sort of flattened and a big wide sort of mouth. And I think she had a moustache.’
Don’t laugh. I was once served in a bakers in Ayr by an ancient crone who had the most impressive ‘tache – put the few whiskers I was sporting on my top lip well and truly to shame. More details follow concerning poor Mrs Carnoustie, descriptions of her hair and her eyes which “were very big. Enormous. And brown.” “Were they as big as horse’s eyes?” asks the boy but, no, he is told, “[t]hey must have been as big as a seal’s eyes … [b]ecause she was supposed to be a seal.” Well, not exactly a seal but the daughter of one:
‘People said her mother was a seal. They said her father met a woman wandering about on the beach somewhere on the west coast, and he got married to this woman. But people said the woman was really a seal – disguised as a woman. And when they had a baby it turned out to be half a seal and it grew up to be Mrs Carnoustie.’
Now you might have been forgiven for thinking the ladies were just having a bit of fun at the expense of a gullible wee lad and when she learns of it his grandmother dismisses what he had been told as nothing more than “an old wifie’s tale … there’s no truth in those tales.” Truth is not the only reason to listen to tales being told though. Many years later, on a return visit to South Uist, Thomson runs into an eighteen-year-old girl who he had encountered on his first trip there. Like the majority of her generation she dreams of moving to the mainland – in her case to go into service – and she can’t understand Thomson’s interest in all the old stories:
‘It is all lies,’ she said. ‘You know well it is lies.’
‘What do you mean, Mairi?’
‘It is well for you to come and ask about the seals. And away home with you then, to the mainland.’
‘But I don’t think of the stories that way – as lies or truth. I like to hear them; that’s all.’
‘Like reading a Western?’ [Her preferred reading matter.]
‘But the old people believe them.’
‘Well, I don’t see any harm in that, do you?’
‘On the mainland they wouldn’t believe them.’
‘Not even the old people?’
‘Very few of them would. But they believe lots of other things, just as strange.’
Lies they may well all be despite the assertions of those telling their tales that what they are relating is the God’s honest truth, but, as Thomson said, the veracity of the tales he is being told was not an issue.
You might think that this will be a book steeped in nostalgia and although I can't promise that it won't make you nostalgic for times past, what I can say is that Thomson will not be the one to start you down that path. In his introduction to the book, the poet Seamus Heaney, who was friend of Thomson’s, has this to say:
What delights is the absence of nostalgia. Even as the men in a cabin give themselves up to an eerie tale of child-kidnap by a seal, one of them is talking about remedies for the warble-fly: "I tried motor oil and sulfur powder mixed." Even as a storyteller invokes the ancient glamour of the Celtic ceo draíochta [magic mist], he resolutely de-mystifies it: "So the seal set up a magic fog, or what is called in modern parlance a smoke screen . . ." And yet, for all the up-to-dateness of the idiom, the fundamental understanding of these characters is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed "that long lost, archaic companionship" between human beings and the creatures. Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative. Michael the Ferryman judges the strength of the current he is rowing into by watching the toils of the big seal in heavy water adjacent to the boat; a child escaped from drowning is warmed back to consciousness in a "Black House" in South Uist between the generous bodies of two cows; on Papa Stour in Shetland, in an old cowshed, the author himself gradually attains a state of almost animal consciousness:
I heard a raven croak twice. I felt the autumn coldly on my face, but because this old cowshed had been lately used for dipping sheep there was a smell of dung as though the warm life of the farm lingered on.
You can read his entire introduction in The Guardian from 2001, here.
Over the years Thomson travels far and wide and becomes well-known for his interest in tales about seals. Chapter 2 sees him in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides; in chapters three through five he visits Ireland, counties Mayo and Kerry specifically; chapter six finds him on the tiny Island of Papa Stour off the west coast of Shetland; in chapter seven he ventures to the northernmost of the Orkney Islands, North Ronaldsay before, in the final two chapters, revisiting South Uist and Ireland. All in all it must have taken him the best part of twenty years to compile this collection, discounting his time in Nairn. What I was particularly impressed with was his ability to capture the subtleties of the various dialects. One thing that surprised me was that he didn’t visit Norway or Iceland; perhaps he planned to but could never quite manage it.
To illustrate, on South Uist Thomson meets two young children, Angus and his sister, Mairi, whom I mentioned above from his last visit. They take him home (everyone in the book makes a point of offering hospitality to “strangers”) where he meets their father, Ronald Iain Finley. During the subsequent conversation Ronald asks his son, “What is the strongest type of rope, boy?” When Angus suggests hemp or cotton his father replies:
‘He is right for the mainland maybe, but the strongest rope on the islands is a rope made of horsehair. Your factor has rope, but he’ll never know the strength of it till a boy like yourself ties a three-year-old and the three-year-old breaks away. But if I or my father used a rope of horsehair we would surely know the strength of it, and how to use it, because every inch of that rope would be made by ourselves. That is the difference between myself and the factor. That’s where the old island ways is better. That’s how you’ll learn more with myself than ever you’ll learn with school or the factor.’
In Ireland many of the stories he gets told are in the convivial atmosphere of a pub or someone’s home with all of those gathered contributing stories and adding to the stories told by the others. On his first trip Thomson finds himself in the home of Sean Sweeney, an octogenarian seal-killer, along with Tadhg Tracy, the bilingual schoolmaster who acted as his translator since Thomson, as they would put it, “had no Irish.” During this particular evening the conversation found its way round to the peripatetic tailors that used to frequent the land:
‘They went from house to house making clothes for the people,’ said Tadhg, ‘and whatever house they went to, there they would stay until the work for that house was finished, and they’d get their bit to eat and a place to lie down for themselves every night, for what time they stayed in that house.’
‘They would, they would. That’s true,’ said Sean, puffing.
‘And a great number of tailors were great storytellers,’ said Tadhg. ‘I remember ’twas a thing we’d all look forward to, the visit of the tailor, because of the long stories he’d tell by the fire at night. ’Twas a thing you’d expect of a tailor, to be able to tell stories, for when he was able to make clothes and travel, he was surely well able for that.’
‘If he wasn’t able for stories,’ said Sean, ‘the people those times would hardly think him fit to remain in the house making clothes.’
On Papa Stour Thomson finds himself accepting hospitality from Thomas Charleson and his son, Gilbert, of whom he inquires where the best place to see some of the local seals:
‘I think Hamna Voe is your likeliest bay for the seals,’ said Thomas, after we had finished eating.
‘Is it for photographs?’ said Gilbert.
‘No. It’s …’ I never know how to explain my obsession. ‘I am interested in them,’ I said. ‘I have heard strange things about them in Ireland and places.’ The two men laughed.
‘There are strange things here,’ said Gilbert. He searched his pockets for a cigarette. There was only one. I had tobacco and cigarette papers, so I made one for myself and one for the old man. He examined it carefully.
‘What is the name of the maker?’ he said.
‘Na, na. I mean the maker o’ the cigarette.’
I told him my name.
‘Ye are the first factory that ever was on Papa Stour.’
‘Did ye ever hear about the man that was lost on the Ve Skerries?’ said Gilbert.
‘Now there’s a strange thing for ye. What was his name, Father?’
‘I never kent his name. But the names o’ the two selchies with him were Geira and Hancie.’
Mrs Charleson looked at me apologetically. ‘It is only a story,’ she said. ‘It’s no true.’
‘We canna tell is it true or no,’ said Thomas. ‘It is long, long syne it happened.’
And when visiting Orkney, whilst in conversation with lanky Osie Fea – and his even lankier wife – Thomson is distracted by “a weird and mournful sound”:
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought I heard something.’
[Mrs Fea] stood still in the middle of the room with the teapot in her hand. ‘It is the selchies,’ she said. ‘I dinna care to listen to them crying.’
Osie laughed. ‘Ye should be used to them by now,’ he said. ‘Ye’ve lived beside them a’ your life.’
‘There’s times I wouldna heed them any more than I’d heed the cock crow in the morning and there’s times –’
‘Did ye never hear yon sound afore?’ said Osie to me, interrupting.
‘Yes. I’ve heard it – often. But I’m never sure at first what it is.’
‘There’s whiles it sounds human,’ said Osie. ‘There’s something unco strange about the selchie. Did ye ever look close at their eyes?’
‘Not very close,’ I said.
‘They are able to weep,’ said Osie. ‘There’s no other animal does yon.’
‘And they’ll kiss one another,’ said his wife. ‘I wonder Osie, is that true?’ She laughed.
And they’ll throw stones, predict the future, guide men to lost children, strip off their skins and mingle with humans (in one of the stories a herd of them are heading off to a fair) and, as we have heard, even marry men and bear children to them. Needless to say there are rules. They cannot shapeshift at will – some maintain it was once a year on Midsummer’s Eve, while others say it could be every ninth night – but once fully transformed if their sealskin was lost, or stolen, the creature was doomed to remain in human form until it could be recovered even if years had passed. Selchies are not to be confused with merfolk or finfolk though; in Orcadian folklore, a mermaid was traditionally thought to be the daughter of a finman, a member of a race of dark and gloomy sorcerers.
Although killing seals was a part of their culture, I was very interested to see how unlucky they regarded the practice and many of the tales told to Thomson relate how things went badly for those who did, especially those who killed a pup. They, unlike most mythological sea creatures, are generally regarded as gentle, magical and often benevolent. Or at least in the old days they were. Now all that remain are the stories.
This could have been a dry textbook and, indeed, as Stewart Sanderson says in the book’s afterword, “Some of the material has been published in scholarly monographs and journals [and] more is to be found in the collections of folklore archives in Ireland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries in particular,” but what works for me about this collection is the fact that real people tell the stories. That Thomson writes himself into the book is one thing – and a good thing – but he doesn’t simply retell the tales as A S Byatt chose to do, albeit eloquently, in her recent Ragnarok: The End of the Gods; instead we feel the presence of the various storytellers exactly as in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Storyteller of Marrakesh. As Heaney puts it:
David Thomson's achievement is pre-eminently stylistic; his writing combines a feel for the "this-worldness" of his characters' lives with an understanding of the "otherworldness" they keep a place for in their consciousness.
I found this a thoroughly-engaging book, quite a delight to read, in fact, and it doesn’t feel like non-fiction in the slightest because so much of it isn’t.
At the end of the book there is an additional section, ‘The Music of the Seals’, in which Thomson talks about the many songs that have been written about the seals, the most famous of which is probably ‘The Grey Selchie of Sule Skerrie’ which Thomson incorrectly states was first written down in 1938 by one Dr Otto Andersson, who had heard the song sung on the island of Flotta by a man called John Sinclair. It appears, however, that the words at least had been written down long before that, by F.W.L. Thomas, a Captain in the Royal Navy, from the dictation of a "venerable lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland." He published it in 1852, and Francis Child included it in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads as number 113. Thomas didn't note any melody, but remarked that it was “sung to a tune sufficiently melancholy to express the surprise and sorrow of the deluded mother of the Phocine babe.” The original pentatonic tune is no longer used. I’ll leave you with The Corries performing their version. There’s a wee bit of preamble but it’s worth waiting for the music – quite, quite haunting. Judy Collins also recorded the song and you can hear her interpretation here. Her vocals are cleaner but I prefer the Corries.
David Thomson was born in India of Scottish parents in 1914 but returned to the UK shortly thereafter. During and after university, Thomson took tutoring jobs, staying with one family in Ireland for almost ten years. These Scottish and Irish experiences were explicitly translated into his writing, most particularly in Nairn in Darkness and Light (1987), and Woodbrook (1974). From 1943 Thomson spent twenty-six years working for the BBC as a writer and producer of radio documentaries, writing many distinguished programmes. He met his wife in 1952, whilst working for UNESCO, and continued to write fiction, children’s fiction and non-fiction until his death.