Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’

Chasing a thought as it darts amongst the ripples left by Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea, here’s another telling of a selkie tale; this time in song form – not told through the ‘lilts and hissings’ of Eilean o da Freya’s strange ‘language of…singing’ – but via, once more, the beautiful voice of Heather Dale

This is her version of The Maiden and the Selkie, written by Emily Holbert-Kellam (from Heather Dale’s album The Green Knight):

I must, must get myself a copy of David Thomson’s The People of the Sea. It’s been on my wish list for too long now; ever since I first heard a piece on the radio about Thomson’s vital work, undertaken during the middle of the last century, to collect and record the old selkie stories before the tellers and traditions passed from memory.

I can’t remember when or what radio programme it was… just that what I heard was magical and earthy and connected to deep pasts. David Thomson was a writer and producer of radio documentaries for the BBC from 1943 to 1969 – and the warp and weft of the voices with which he made such empathic connection during his folklore-gathering travels, reached out beyond his radio work to become bound into the pages of his book. The poet, Seamus Heaney, was a friend of Thomson and has written the introduction to Canongate’s reissue of the The People of the Sea. (You can read The heart of a vanished world, taken from Heaney’s introduction, on the Guardian website).

In it he writes that:

‘David Thomson’s book is luminously its own thing; it had its origins in one man’s rambles round the highlands and islands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, in search of stories and folklore surrounding the “selchie” or grey Atlantic seal. It was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and – most important – gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form.’

Heaney relates how, as he re-read the book, Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper kept coming to mind. Also written after a tour of Scotland, the poem was inspired by an incident recorded in the notes of Wordsworth’s friend Thomas Wilkinson – and is, writes Heaney, ‘…about the experience of listening to one of the local people express herself unforgettably in her native Gaelic’ :

‘Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.’

This final stanza of The Solitary Reaper, Heaney goes on to say, ‘…manages to shift into the eternal present of song-time an incident that might otherwise have remained part of the accidental record.’ Heaney likens the ‘poetic achievement’ that is The People of the Sea to this Wordsworthian fixing in ‘song-time.’ What he describes as Thomson’s ‘Total respect, intuitive understanding, perfect grace and perfect pitch’ create a similar surety that ‘what was heard in the “chaunt” of the storyteller gets fixed on the page, only to rise in all its formality and down-to-earthness at each re-reading.’

As I read Seamus Heaney’s evocation of the character and effect of the man and his work; how Thomson’s The People of the Sea ‘…makes the reader a kind of dual citizen, at once the inhabitant of a poetically beguiling world of pure story and of a realistically documented world of fishermen and crofters’; of how Thomson’s ‘…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 felt again those ripples of deep story-time I experienced in Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea – and in the musical cadences of The Maiden and the Selkie.

The song-time of the selkie tales, echoing from somewhere between (to re-apply Heaney’s words) the ‘here-and-nowness’ and the ‘there-and-thennness’ seems, to me, to abide most powerfully in a concept Seamus Heaney beautifully apprehends when he writes that The People of the Sea ‘…at the mythic level presents us with an image of ourselves in those amphibians we have evolved from, all of us (to quote Wordsworth again) “inmates of this active universe”…’

Inmates of this active universe’. It says so much. It is the kind of phrase in which Wordsworth’s worth to the world most shines – a stepping stone phrase, helping to pave the pathways of poetry with gold.

And Heaney’s poet’s heart cannot resist scattering extra shimmer by layering alongside it the words of another poet, emphasising how the ‘fundamental understanding’ of the characters within The People of the Sea ‘…is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed “that long lost, archaic companionship” between human beings and the creatures.’

And, building on his own golden stepping stones of insight and expression within the book’s introduction, Heaney adds: ‘Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative.’ He describes the selkie stories as possessing an ‘irresistible holistic beauty.’ They are not, he says: ‘…escapist fantasies but a form of poetry, especially if we think of poetry in terms of its definition as a dream dreamt in the presence of reason.’

In song, in story, the figure of the selkie reminds us of relationship: vital, life-and-death interrelationship between human and all other animal life – and between land and sea.

They sing of interdependence, these selkie tales; of the give and take, the not knowingness of beginnings and endings, the impossibility of defining where land and sea retreat or extend. They sing of the blending of past, future, present in cycles of belonging and leaving; and of how each of us exists in our own moment of shifting nows, thens and tomorrows; living as part of nature’s fathomless shaping of her own mysterious tale.

And – to bring us, appropriately, darting back along those cyclical ripples – just such an instance and endlessness of relationship shifts into ‘the eternal present of song-time’ in Seamus Heaney’s own poem Lovers on Aran (another shimmering offering to grace the golden pathway…):

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

– Seamus Heaney

15 thoughts on “Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’

    • Lovely to see you here, Colette! Yes, it is indeed the same David Thomson. I’d read in reviews etc that ‘Woodbrook’ is about times he spent in Ireland – I hadn’t realised that he’d lived in the area near where you are… That’s so interesting… From what I’ve heard about him, he seems to have had a deep response to the magical spirit of place whilst he was there… I’ve not read ‘Woodbrook’ – another book to add to my reading list, along with ‘The Leaping Hare’ which he wrote with George Ewart Evans – and which sounds like a fascinating exploration of all the magical mythology that surrounds the hare…


        • What a lovely connection of places and people! I love to hear personal stories like that. Thanks, Colette! When I read David Thomson’s books, I’ll now have a picture in my mind of him cycling past beautiful Bealtaine Cottage! Hope you enjoy ‘The Leaping Hare’. It sounds like it’s similar to ‘The People of the Sea’, in the way the authors spoke to country people and collected their stories and insights – it’d be a great book to read in the springtime, I think…


  1. Lovely combination of poems and tales from different sources. I have always been fascinated by selkie stories but never got round to following it up. I think I remember that sea programme! There was another on the mythology of the hare too which was very interesting. Thanks for bringing all this together.

    • Thanks Diana – really glad you enjoyed this. I’m not entirely certain, but I think the programme was this one on Radio Three in which Tim Dee gave a talk on the life and work of David Thomson – including about Thomson’s contribution to recording hare mythology in ‘The Leaping Hare’ (so that might explain why, like you, I can remember hearing about his writing on the mythology of the hare on the radio too!) Sadly, the programme isn’t available on the listen again archive… Tim Dee, of course, being a radio producer and wonderful nature writer himself, is exactly the right person for the job to bring insight to Thomson’s work. Amongst my growing mountain of books to be read, I’ve also got a copy of Tim Dee’s The Running Sky – it’s been waiting on my shelves ever since I saw him at the Bath Literature Festival ages ago. I was bowled over by his talk and the bits of the book he read out to us. So many wonderful books, so little time!


        • Great to hear how much you enjoyed it… It can be so frustrating trying to keep pace with reading wishes – and with all the blog post ideas clamouring for time to be written! (As if to keep the pattern intact, a whole series of interruptions called me away in the middle of replying to your comment!) I’m itching to read The Running Sky. I’ll make it a resolution to put it top of the list in the new year!

  2. I picked up a copy of The Leaping Hare not long ago (I do like hares, there are two looking out from the wall as I write and several leaping round a bowl) and knew nothing of David Thomson – this is really interesting (shuffles order of ‘to read’ books to bring said title nearer top and disappears under landslide…)

    • Book-mountain landslides are a hazard around here too… So many temptations in that ‘to read’ pile – all making the mind want to leap like those beautiful hares (I love them too) to explore so many things, when there are such small spaces of time to run around in! But, one book at a time, we’ll always be on a fascinating reading journey, wherever the next page takes us…

      I love the serendipity of you picking up a copy of The Leaping Hare so recently! On the radio programme I listened to, it was said how David Thomson’s work deserved wider celebration – and when I looked for The People of the Sea, at first it seemed it had gone out of print, which felt so sad, especially given its whole landmark intentions to preserve the old tales. And then, after a bit more digging around the internet, I discovered that Canongate had reissued it. It sounds like such a literary gem – it’s wonderful to see it paid its dues and brought back to the fore.

  3. Hi Melanie. I had to come back for a second read and to leave a comment, as after my first read I felt woefully inadequate… And still do but will voice my gratitude anyway… I love how wide and deep your net is cast to reap such jewels from the wide expanse of literary waters… There is never any hint of ego or attempt at display in your words… Always a sincere, soul-deep, passion shines through… Your love for words, with their beauty and wisdom… It is obviously your lifeblood to read, to understand, to write and to share your unique knowledge and voice with the world… You have a wonderful gift for crafting your words… Always coupled with a generosity for others… I appreciate learning about things I would probably never otherwise come across myself… Thank you. Amanda

    • That’s so kind of you, Amanda… a big thank you for this lovely, very generous message. It’s so wonderful to know that what I write here comes across like that to you! I’m filled with surprise and truckloads of warmest gratitude! The truth is, I’m never very happy with the things I write; always aware of where they fall short – and of how I’ve not managed to express exactly what I’m trying to say. I do love language, the magic of words – I even love how slippery they always are (wondrous little shape-shifters when it comes to capturing meaning and intention!) I love how all that is a part of their clay-like magic, ready to work into so many forms – and I have such a passion for immersing myself in the wonders that the various great word magicians perform… (I’m in awe of what they achieve – and I just want to share how wonderful and life enhancing it is with everyone!) I’m so glad that this passion comes across here….

      What we were discussing on your blog comes to mind; of how it’s passion for something that is at the root of why we are motivated to make things happen – but how, so often, it’s easy to feel downhearted. I’ve had so many doubts and wobbly moments about my blog; and so it’s very special – and such a boost – to read your generous response. Thank you so much for all your support, and for the encouragement your comments bring. Oh, and what do you mean… inadequate?? No, never that! You have taught me a great deal from your own unique perspective, knowledge and talents – and for that, lots of appreciation and gratitude in return…

      Melanie x

  4. Pingback: Seasons’ Readings – and Returnings… | Bookish Nature

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