Wednesday, 7 November 2012


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We've been thinking a lot about seals this week. If you come into the library we are likely to ask you to complete a questionaire about seal conservation from a local school pupil collecting data for their ScottishScience Baccalaureate project, which seems rather appropriate when the Sanday Ranger's Sealcam  went live this week. 

The Sanday Sealcam project is a joint initiative between the RSPB's Enjoy Wild Orkney project and Sanday's Development Trust's Ranger Service, with the help and expertise of local landowners and Triscom Technology Ltd, and gives folk a chance to view live footage of  the grey seals and their pups from Sanday's beaches between 07:00 and 17:00 each day.

Seals are such a distinctive feature of the Orkney coast and richly woven into local folklore and literature. In fact  as Simon Hall points out in his book The History of Orkney Literature one of the only substantial pieces of Orkney literature between Orkneyinga Saga and Walter Scott's The Pirate is the ballad 'The Play o' de Lathie Odivere', collected in fragmentary form by Walter Traill Dennison and published in Ernest Marwick's An Anthology of Orkney Verse, and later included as part of his story "The Ballard Singer" by George Mackay Brown in An Orkney Tapestry.

This ballad tells how Odivere enters a pact with Odin in order to win the hand of a beautiful Norwegian and then goes off on crusade, leaving his bride at home. His return home is delayed by his diversions in the brothels of Constantinople and in his abscence his lonely wife is wooed by her former lover Imravoe - who it turns out is a selkie. The Lady bears Imravoe a son, who returns to the sea with his father but tragedy results when Odivere returns and slays the young selkie and discovers his wife's infidelity. Condemned to death by her furious husband, the Lady is saved when Imravoe and his fellow selkies herd all the whales in the North Sea towards the shore, leading Odivere and his men off on an, ultimately unsuccessful, hunt only to return home to discover 'The lady fair was clean awa/ An' never mair b' mortal seen'.

Imravoe's description of himself:

"I am a man apo the land,
I am a selkie i' the sea. 
My home it is the Soola-Skerry
An' a' that's there is under me."

also appears in the folk ballad  "The Great Selkie o' SuleSkerry"   which uses the same basic plot of a human woman and her selkie lover and the tragic fate of their offspring, suggesting not only the popularity of the selkie in Orkney legend but also suggesting a common source for both folk ballad and written text. 

In relation to this it is interesting to note a quote from Low's Fauna Orcadensis of 1770, reproduced in William Groundwater's Birds and Mammals of Orkney:
"a ship commonly goes once a year to Soliskerry, returning with 200 or 300 seals. She is manned with between thirty and forty men who, as soon as they come up on the rock, fall to knocking them on the head and to cutting off the skin and blubber: the skins are sold by public auction at five or six shillings sterling a piece." 
Perhaps the image of Suleskerry as the kingdom of the selkie folk had its roots in this relationship, which must have created a certain amount of mixed feelings for some of those involved - for whenever man's needs and interests come into conflict with those of nature we face an uncomfortable choice.

We will be watching the Sealcam with interest and half an eye open for selkie changlings!

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