seals and selkies

There is something curiously human about seals, about their dark, dilated eyes and friendliness towards us.  It is not surprising that there is such a wealth of stories about seals taking human form and walking in our world, or acting as guides and protectors as we venture into theirs.  One of the most famous of these stories – retold beautifully by Clarissa Pinkola Estés as ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’ – tells of seal-maidens who take off their seal-skins to dance in human form by the light of the moon.  My personal favourite folkloric encounter with these creatures, however, takes the form of a human journey into their world, deep in the waters beyond John O’Groats.

The Scottish story of the Seal-catcher and the Merman, as told by Elizabeth Grierson in the Penguin book of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, is initially a tale about “the one that got away” – the king seal, stabbed by the seal-catcher for his enormous pelt, who escaped into the water with the knife still in his side.  Having given up the chase and turned for home, the seal-catcher meets a stranger on the road who takes him to the edge of the water and pushes him in, dragging him down to the deep-lying kingdom of the seals, where the king now lies dying.  Only the hand that struck the blow can heal him.  The seal-catcher, now transformed into a seal himself, finds he is deeply sorry for the harm that he has caused, and half-expects the seals to seek revenge.  But these are peaceful creatures:

“they crowded round him, rubbing their soft noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and implored him not to be afraid, for no harm would befall him”

All they ask of him is that he removes the knife and washes and dresses the wound – and that he swears an oath to never harm another seal again.  So he swears, even though he knows his family may starve without the money that the seal-pelts bring.  When they return him to the shore, and his seal-form falls away, the reformed seal-catcher turns to shake the hand of the stranger/seal who had accompanied him – but into his outstretched hand, the stranger places a bag of gold, with the words:

“Men shall never say that we took away an honest man’s work without giving him some compensation for it, and here is what will keep you in comfort to your life’s end.”

The tale is fabulous in the truest sense – it could be a fable for these troubled times.  There are not so many seal-hunters now, but seals are still hunted, culled and killed in conflicts with fisheries; they also face contamination from marine pollution, and entanglement in fishing nets and in the human debris that litters our seas.  And only we, who wield these knives, can heal these wounds.

Yesterday, I put my name forward to volunteer with the Friends of Hilbre Island.  One of the many services they offer is seal-watching sessions for the visiting public.  On this island – and in many other places like it – we really can visit the realm of the seals.  And with compassion, with the sight of what we have done, we can inspire the desire to undo it, and the resolve to never see it done again.

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a pilgrimage in two parts

II.

To the island.

In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits.

R.S. Thomas

The first pilgrimage I joined – entirely by accident – was to Santa Faz in Alicante.  I woke one morning to see the street below me thronged with people, all heading in the same direction, all carrying a sprig of rosemary, and I made up my mind to join them.  That was how I learned that rosemary (ros marinus, the dew of the sea) shares its Spanish name with the act of pilgrimage, romero, of which it is a symbol.

Alighting from the train in West Kirby, with a packed lunch and a copy of Laver’s tide table, I stop to pick an overgrowing sprig from a nearby garden to carry with me on my journey.

I have returned, as promised, to walk across the sands to Hilbre, a tidal island in the estuary of a river which was once reputedly a goddess so sacred that her name could not be spoken.  My destination is the “church in the sea” recorded in the Domesday Book; the home of St Hildeburgh, whose chapel stood here for 400 years but leaves no traces now.  The last permanent human resident, a warden, left two years ago; since then, although we visit in our hundreds, the only residents have been non-human; island fauna which, like the flora, flourish in our absence.

The route across the estuary sand is strewn with walkers, all heading in the same direction but (because we are in Britain now) all solitary, making their own way out to the islands.  I follow in their footsteps, feeling the soft shore-sand give way to denser, wave-patterned riverbed and – further out – channels of wet silt where lugworms and razor clams wait for the returning tide.  Following advice, I am wearing walking boots, but I long to sink my toes into the soft silt; so I unlace them, sling them over my rucksack and pick my way across the broken mussel shells to the low, sandstone ridge of Little Eye, and onwards.

Seashores – like riverbanks – are great levellers: everybody has a reason to be here.  Young families push prams across the sand, looking for the shelter of the cliffs.  Teenagers carry plastic bags of sweets and soda, hoping to escape the watching world.  Keen birdwatchers forge on ahead, laden with equipment and shod in even more sensible shoes than my own.  All around us, wet channels snaking through the drier sand tell the story of the shifting tide, how easily it leaves you stranded.

Middle Eye rises up abruptly in a sandstone cliff, with rough-hewn steps leading from the sand to the turf-covered plateau above.  English bluebells bow gently in the shelter of the island’s ferns.  The non-native hybrids have yet to cross this stretch of water.  Away from the wind, the air is heavy with their perfume.  Huge bumblebees tumble from bluebells to thrift and birdsfoot trefoil on the turf.  I pause to drink in the sunshine with the flowers, and lace up my boots for the final stretch.

The tides here play a trick – not breaking in receding waves, but steadily advancing, with a vanguard of white foam.  As I walk towards the sea, the sea walks towards me, at an equal pace.

Finally reaching Hilbre, I feel I am really on an island.  The Northern tip touches the Southern reaches of the Irish Sea.  I sit down on springy turf to eat my sandwiches, looking out to the open water, beautifully bereft of words.  I could not say how long I stayed, but it was long enough to fall in love with that strange, liminal place, between England and Wales, river and sea.

As the tide comes in, seals swim over from their sandbank in the channel, breaking the waves to watch us departing.  The walk to shore seems much shorter, somehow; I am walking towards a known quantity.  Home.  An ascent of steps and, suddenly, I am back on dry land.  A quick left turn towards the station puts the sea behind me, and all the colours of the town suddenly seem so solid – bricks, painted ironwork and broad-leaved trees; no sea-light to illuminate their mystery.

On the train home, the music in my headphones sounds tinny in my throbbing ears.  I take them out.  After a while, I realise I am humming to myself.  The absence of the sea leaves a space that only song can fill.