Coastlines encourage specialisation, species which do not live solely on the land and species which do not live solely in the sea have both evolved to make the most of this varied and varying environment.
This blurred edge, this palette of hues carelessly thrown together from ocean and rock, is special for precisely those reasons—it encourages a meeting of worlds, it is a nation unto itself, winding and twisting around our own spaces, a fluid border but one which defines our very world.
I remember when I saw my first seal, a brief glimpse, but enough to cement within in me that sense that here was an animal much bigger than me, graceful in water, lumbering out of it, an animal with a unique character, inquisitive, doglike in some ways, human in others, liquid dark eyes ever attentive and careful, seemingly harbouring a deep sadness.
Over the years, I grew to know seals, the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the (actually, in Orkney, less common) common seal (Phoca vitulina).
In the last house we lived in—the haunted one—on rare still evenings we could hear the seals singing from the beach below our home. It was worth braving midges to listen, or opening the window to the chill of the dusk air, the sound eerie and comforting both, a song which linked the worlds of land and sea and deep history, back, back, back in time, so far that you could be pulled in, too swift, left disorientated if you were not anchored in the now.
Not too far away from our home was the Brough of Deerness, a large, 30m (100 feet) tall sea stack, with a Viking age chiefly settlement and chapel on the windswept top. This is a special place. Current research suggest there was likely to once have been a bridge connecting the stack to the mainland, and that the earliest inhabitants were the enigmatic Pictish peoples, 1500 years ago.
We used to play here and in the surrounding area, moving up and down the precipitous, crumbling cliffs in thick Wellington boots and no safety equipment. We would lick the sea salt off our palms and trace the fault lines in the rocks, running hands over the places where the ripples from an ancient lake bed were trapped for millions of years. If you are quiet, you can sit and watch the resident otters also play nearby and, if you climb out along a ledge above the waters of Little Burrageo, the inlet almost separating the Brough from the mainland, you can watch seals swim by, almost close enough to touch.
They do this because they, like us, are interested in the world around them. They would come right up to us, just under the water, watching above as we watched below and, best of all, they would sing here.
However, they would not haul out on the beaches as they would below our house, instead they flopped their way out of the sea, deep at the back of a sea cave on a beach hidden there, a beach I have never seen. This created a powerful experience, their song echoing and reverberating around the rocks, adding acoustic depth and complexity, with layers of aching beauty.
Strangely, I never heard them if there were any tourists around (in those days, there were fewer tourists and most would quickly bypass the Brough for the longer walk to Mull Head and either the Covenanters’ Memorial or the vast bird cities located on the tall cliffs).
It is impossible, growing up in Orkney, not to know the legends of the selkies, not to know the stories of the seals who shed their skin to walk ashore, to remember their sadness at being trapped on the land, those skins hidden from them.
To watch the seals and hear their song was to be a part of that legend, especially at that age, when stories always felt more real and wormed their way into you, like benevolent parasites, seeking symbiosis.
Some stories are so deeply entwined with a place that it is impossible to untangle them. Whenever I hear of selkie stories I cannot place them anywhere else in my mind’s eye but Orkney. Those selkies—Orcadian selkies—they don’t travel. They stay close to their shores, even as their tales spread far and wide. After all, in the Orkney dialect, selkie simply means seal, there is no difference between those who can walk ashore and those who cannot—technically, they all possess that option.
The idea, of a seal shedding their skin and crossing the shoreline as human, is liminality personified. Despite what you may have read, these skin-shedding creatures in Orkney were women and men both. In Orcadian and northern Scottish folklore this ability was not limited to individual seals, either, but to each and every one of the seal folk, with various tales of when, exactly, this was possible—the tide, the moon, the days, the solstice—each a possible option.
The selkie story takes that border zone of the coastline, the edge of the ocean and the edge of the land blurring together, and condenses, distils it into the very essence of what makes the coastline such a remarkable liminal place. There are other such stories in other edgelands, but it will always be the selkie which stays at the front of my memory and mind, singing as they consider the shore and those who walk upon it.
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Do you find touching the geology of an area locks it into your memory far more than simply looking? Have you heard the song of the selkies? Or seen them swim close to you, watching and seemingly wishing to play? Do you know other tales of skin-shedding creatures, perhaps from where you live? And what is your favourite song in nature? (Today, moving the winter logs in a light rain, clouds so low I could feel them drift by every so often, the soundtrack was the ravens cracking and coughing on the crags nearby. It is a sound I also love.)
Today, there is no story from me. I have one drafted, a selkie tale—as you may have guessed—but unfortunately I have not had the time to polish it as it deserves. This time of year is always busy and add to that the delivery of the winter’s logs today, making Christmas presents, and my filling in various proposals and applications for work in the new year and my time has simply disappeared.
However, this being the darkest time of the year here in the northern hemisphere, it is a time for storytelling, sitting around a fire and listening to others, even as you prepare your own tale to tell.
The audio below is from the 2023 Orkney Storytelling Festival and features Tom Muir sharing a dark selkie story, alongside coastline footage from Marwick on the western shore of the Mainland of Orkney. I think sharing this, despite my mild irritation at not having finished my own tale, fits neatly.
If you enjoy this, do have a look at the other work Tom and Rhonda Muir share at Orkneyology and on Youtube, there is a wealth of tales and discussion there to feast upon.
Soon, the days here will be getting longer, and I cannot wait—the darkness tires me, I want to curl up and hibernate, to read and consume the words of others rather than share my own.
As this is the last Edges and Entries before midwinter (or midsummer) and Christmas, I hope you have exactly the seasonal festivities you crave, whether this is quiet time to reflect and read, or that magical joy of watching children celebrate as only they can. This letter is also the 150th I have shared in my four years of sending my words out into the world, which feels like a minor milestone of sorts, especially coming as it does so close to the solstice.
In theory, there shall still be an Edges and Entries letter next week. In theory…
Finally, don’t forget you have just five days to take advantage of the special offer on an annual subscription I mentioned last week—20% off the current price, which amounts to a 36% saving on the price of a monthly subscription. This is only available until the 25th of December. In January I shall be raising my subscription rates, currently set to the lowest Substack allows so, if you are thinking of becoming a paid subscriber, now is the time to consider gifting yourself an early Christmas present!