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

Advertisements

Daughter of the Sea by Berlie Doherty

‘My tale is of the sea. It takes place in the far north, where ice has broken land into jagged rocks, and where black and fierce tides wash the shores. Hail is flung far on lashing winds, and winters are long and dark. Men haunt the sea, and the sea gives up a glittering harvest. And it is said that the people of the sea haunt the land.’

As we said a sad-sweet goodbye to the Angel of the North…

The Angel of the North – sculpture by Antony Gormley, near the A1 at Gateshead.

… (our annual ritual of leaving and returning…)

…something made me turn to those opening words of the prologue to Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea.

This 1998 Puffin paperback edition…

1998 Puffin Books paperback edition of Daughter of the Sea by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Sian Bailey

…was nestled in a bag by my feet in the car – along with all my other Barter Books summer finds. We were driving away from the far north of England and towards the autumn; the winter already a furthest-north-thought creeping steadily southward from invisible horizons behind us.

I discovered a few years ago, on another long road journey, that I’m able to read in the car as long as we’re still on the motorways; twisting lanes play havoc with my head if I try to focus on the page. But with three hundred miles of motorway from the North-East back to the South-West ahead of us, it felt like a good journey of the mind, and an honour paid to an always complex sense of parting, to allow this tale of the sea, and of rugged northern lands, to carry me home.

And so it was that, as we passed through a bright land of harvest and surreal summer-green (the trees and hedgerows kept strangely lush and leaf-abundant by exceptional amounts of rain) my thoughts were called towards ice, and crofters living close to the rock-rimed bones of remote islands; edgelands where the breath of survival moves with the sea.

In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Berlie Doherty tells us that: ‘Some of the stories woven into Daughter of the Sea are based on ancient tales from Iceland, Scotland and Ireland.’ And in the narrative, she achieves that feeling of a generic North – an evocation of shared cultural strands that knit place, experience and a Far North landscape of mind.

Philip Pullman, quoted in the blurb on the back cover, describes the ingredients of the book’s atmosphere perfectly:

‘Tension, emotional honesty and more than a touch of cold northern poetry as well.’

– Philip Pullman, Guardian.

A slender book, ostensibly for children, but with tendrils of deep archetypal concern that hold fast for readers of all ages, Daughter of the Sea casts its net far around a teeming weight of significance – just as the tight-woven, sparse words of folktale reach to catch big ideas, glinting with truth and meaning.

Berlie Doherty tells a tale of humans and selkies locked in an interrelationship which both washes towards the land, and pulls away into unknown deeps. People of the land are drawn to the sea, and the people of the sea are drawn to the land. The netted strands that join them are irresistible – and yet fraught with difficulty and danger. It is a relationship of both gifts and destruction; of both lifeblood and the ever-present threat of death.

It is an interdependence that reveals the very edges of life; the deepest concerns of spirit and survival, where the natural order is broken at your peril. The people in this novel’s pages live with a heavy sense of submission to what the sea must take in return for what the sea relinquishes. They live with a pact that, if broken, exacts terrible price – great sorrow and loss. But, it is also a pact that can bring vital restoration and healing. In these natural cycles of giving and taking, there is a balance of joy and sadness; of wishes and what must be; of possession and letting go.

Daughter of the Sea is written with a lilting call of voice. Its prose is an invitation to the fireside, whilst the snow and ice grips the darkness in the howl of the wind outside. The sea not only haunts the book’s characters and story, but its whole tone too. We feel the touch of ancient depths of human experience in its telling; the accumulated voices of many folk long gone, as the waves of the narrative take up each character and deliver the timeless and interwoven longings and acceptances of their lives…

…The life of Gioga, the daughter of the sea – delivered up by the waves to the yearnings of a childless couple; of Eilean o da Freya, the ‘crab-woman,’ who guards a secret, and lives alone in a den beneath an upturned boat, her story told in the ‘language of her singing’ which ‘has lilts and hisses in it, as if she has listened too long to the sea.’ And Hill Marliner, the mysterious white haired stranger who wears ‘a full grey cloak’ and whose appearance answers to the descriptions in Eilean’s tales of ‘the lord of the oceans’ who ‘rides the waves from morning to night, from ice to ice, from the world’s end to the world’s end.’ And of the islanders, who weave their tales through the cycles of nature; cycles that permeate every moment of their existence:

‘My tale is of the daughter of the sea. The best way to hear the tale is to creep into the lee of the rocks when the herring boats have just landed. The gulls will be keening around you. The women hone knives on the stones, and their hands will be brown from the wind and the fish-gut slime. And as they work they talk to each other of the things they’ve always known.

That’s when the story’s told.’

– (Berlie Doherty, opening to ‘Daughter of the Sea.’)