The Selkie and the Fisherman

Thursday 25 March 2010, spring light on Bressay SoundLerwick, Shetland.

Bressay Sound is that corridor of water that separates Lerwick from the Island of Bressay, just east of the Shetland capital.
An an end of term treat to my team’s ASN pupils present today, we take our cameras and seek the many treasures we can find… Seabirds, sea mammals, fishermen… We share one common heritage, the sea.

Although initially in search of dive-bombing gannets in the Sound, we end up face to face with selkies (seals), long-tailed ducks, tysties (black guillemots), dunters (common eiders) and scores of scories (Lerwick name for gulls) at Gremista…  
Gremista, Lerwick’s industrial district, north of the town – the North Mouth of the Sound. Pelagic trawlers attract a myriad of wildlife – black backs, bonxies (great skuas), solans (gannets), selkies, that come to the great fishy restaurants… Fish factories! The unloading of their cargo just acts as a magnet to fisherbirds and seals.

And when I think both selkies and fishermen share a massive heritage in local folklore…

Selkies, (also known as silkies or selchies) are fictional creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish mythology.They can shed their skin from seals to become humans. The legend apparently originated on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, where selch or selk(i.e.) is the Scots word for seal (from Old English seolh). Selected legends linked as follows
Story has it that speaking of those supernatural creatures on board fishing vessels used to be so taboo that fishermen gave them disctinctive names – tang fish (common seal) and haaf fish (grey seals). Whereas common seals are found within coastal waters, grey seals can wander off at high sea.
Now the other thing wir selkies and fishermen share from the sea is mackerel. Both depends on it for their livelihood… Whereas the sea mammal finds its bounty inside our inshore kelp forests, some of our fishermen seek shoals of mackerels a’da haaf (high seas) on their gigantic pelagic trawlers…
Gremista houses The Shetland Catch, Europe’s biggest mackerel (and herring) processing factory. No wonder I do not hesitate in sharing that part of the town with my budding photographers! …Industrial wildlife. But then again, Lerwick‘s long natural harbour not only hosts the local fishing fleet but also acts as a “safe haven” to any fishing vessel  within the Fair Isle Box… 
The Selkie & the Fisherman – not a story but a saga!
 Now to that fish…

ocean tiger
Dream from the boat,
boxed fisherman,
sailing poet –
finned fish;
cylindric soul,
grey-scaled, solemn,
scared of my hook or fishing net…
danger dangled, doom, devilish,
you caught my eye
from the surface,
you, free inside this ocean book,
guardian of gills.
Security inside the shoal,
I’ll catch your name
on the last line –
shetlandic shark,
or shambolic.
© Nat Hall 2010


Filed under 60N, home, images, life, north, shetland, shore, verse

6 responses to “The Selkie and the Fisherman

  1. This is a lovely post, Nat, I love seals and have always been fascinated by the selkie legends. Thanks for sharing all the Shetlandic names for the wildlife, I knew some of them already but others were new. Your poem is lovely, and looks beautiful too, very nicely shaped…

  2. Ahh, you make me a happy girl to read another selkie story straight from the source. David Thompson's The People of the Sea is absolutely worth finding, if you have not encountered it yet. It's a beautiful read from the old people in your corner of the world. I quoted some in 'Seal Medley'.I write Selkie stories, because they resonate with my female (and number 5 in numerology) need for freedom and autonomy and the fear of being 'taken' or overcome by men. (At least I think that is where my fascination for them stems from). Look under selkie tag on my blog. You will find a few posts about my boat, Selkie, but there is at least one good story in there.I'm also writing about Tasmanian Aboriginal (Pallawah) women who were taken from the beaches by sealers in the 1800's, being such excellent sea women and divers, and my selkie stories cross over here, so they have a purely antipodean perspective.Seals and fishermen have a rather fraught relationship, here, both being after the same game.And gannets! Yay! We have the divebombers too. It's how we spot schools of fish in the open waters.Thanks again … Sarah

  3. Thank you kindly, Juliet :)Oh, some of the selkie legends are truly amazing and I always enjoy them from the mouth of our local story tellers.

  4. Hey, I thought this one might catch your attention, Sarah 🙂 I too am fascinated by selkies and yes, will dig further into your blog for those special stories. Oh, selkies are one of many supernatural creatures fae da local folklore… I bet you to have your divebombers!!! North or south, nature has its mirror images.Thanks for anchoring in those waters :))

  5. I very much like your poem for you do justice to the subject, the photo's are great -as always.I am not sure that Selkie has an Irish connection, certainly not with that spelling. I was always given to understand that the Scots have that as a loan word from the Orcadians rather than from any English connection.

  6. Thank you kindly, Mr Heron :)Oh, that would be something to discover!

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