The other day, walking along the shore at Houton in Orphir, I came upon a seal on a slipway basking in the November sun. He was a young seal, going by the size of him and he rolled about like a puppy, soaking up the rays.
I tried to come closer to him to get a decent photograph, crept along the shore slowly. I could see when I reached a certain point that he was interested in what I was doing, and a bit wary.
So I sang to him – as you do – the only seal song I know, The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry. This is a song that originated in Orkney, travelled all around the world and came back to me via Joan Baez. It’s about an earthly woman who has a child with a selkie man – “Oh little ken I my bairn’s father, nor yet the land that he bides in ...”
The seal on the pier was having none of it. Two verses in and he was offsky; slipped off the slipway and dived; surfaced again a bit further out; surveyed me solemnly for a minute or two before disappearing altogether.
Well, who can blame him! The Baez version of the song ends with the selkie father’s prediction that the mother of the human/seal baby, will ...
“... wed a gunner good
and a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots,
will kill baith my young son and me.”
But the seal on the slipway dived to bask another day ...
Magnus Pirie and the Seal’s Slipway
The other literary connection with my young seal friend is that the slipway belongs to a house, built below the high water mark to avoid paying for the land at the time, which features in the novels of Lin Anderson as the house of her forensic scientist, Magnus Pirie.
Here, Lin talks to me on her recent visit for the Orcrime Crime Writing Festival, about her time in Orkney and how it insinuates itself into her books:
Saturday saw the launch of the long awaited Collected Poems of Robert Rendall, the draper turned poet and naturalist. He could read the Orkney skies and seas and tell them in the words of of the local dialect:
The winter lift is glintan doun
Wi’ tullimentan stars besprent,
As were the very heavens abune
Clean gyte wi’ frosty merriment
(from Celestial Kinsmen)
Tullimentan, a word that means twinkling, sparkling, is also the name of the monthly Arts Programme on BBC Radio Orkney. Watch out for the book group featured every month through the winter.