by Su Bristow


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Sealskin by Su Bristow

Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous, and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives—not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence? Based on the legend of the selkies—seals who can transform into people—evokes the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910633601
Publisher: Orenda Books
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist, the author of The Herbal Medicine Chest and coauthor of The Courage to Love.

Read an Excerpt


By Su Bristow

Orenda Books

Copyright © 2016 Su Bristow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4956-2783-5


'You can't trust moonlight.' His mother set the lantern down. She hesitated, and Donald guessed what was coming.

'It'll be a grand night for fishing, with the full moon,' she said, looking away. 'Your Uncle Hugh came by this morning, and he says they'll be out overnight. They could do with your help on the boat.'

'They'll manage.' He moved towards the door, but she stood her ground, looking up at him, and he could not push her aside.

'Callum's not well. They're a man down, Donald.'

That made him pause. Callum Campbell was the worst of them. His uncle said it was only banter, but the sting of it stayed with him, sometimes, longer than cuts and bruises; and there had been enough of those, too, in the schoolyard and in other places where there were no adults to see. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Callum wasn't there.

His mother saw the change in him. 'Hugh asked for you specially. You know, none of them thinks the less of you because of your hands. Here, let me see now. Wait while I fetch the salve for you.'

But now she had said too much, pushed him too far. What could she know, anyway? Women never set foot on the seagoing boats; it was bad luck. And nearly as bad luck to take a man whose hands cracked and bled on the ropes, who could barely hold a knife by the end of the night. Much better to make his own way, out of sight of their pity and their scorn.

He pulled his hands away, and shouldered the empty creels, making a barrier between himself and his mother. 'Leave it. They'll be fine. I'm more hindrance than help, and Uncle Hugh knows it.'

'Oh, Donald. A night like this, you shouldn't be out alone. Go with Hugh, just the once?' She was almost pleading with him; but now he only wanted to be off, away.

'I need to see to the crab pots. Anyway, it's too late to go with them now. They'll want to catch the tide.' Armoured with his burdens, he made his way to the door, and after a moment, she came to open it for him.

He went out into the moonlit garden. His mother stayed in the open doorway, watching him out of sight, but he did not look back.

Picking his way down the path to the shore, on his own at last, he began to feel easier. A night like this! Where else would he be but alone? Cooped up on the boat with the others, there'd have been no time to look, to listen, to breathe it all in; but out here, with the vastness of sky and sea all to himself, a man might witness marvels. There was not a whisper of wind tonight, and no sound from the sea at all. As he walked along the strand to where his rowboat was drawn up, the waves were lapping at his boots, just stroking the shoreline, hushing it like a woman soothing her child.

The boat was silvered all over with tiny frost-flowers, sparkling in the moonlight. Donald paused, unwilling to lay hands on it, to spoil its perfection, to mar the utter stillness of the night by dragging it over the shingle and rowing out from the shore. Almost, at times like this, he could love the sea. But there were jobs that had to be done, and the tide was turning. He bent to the task.


Donald heaved again at the sodden, barnacle-crusted rope, hissed at the pain in his cracked hands and hauled the crab pot aboard. Cold water washed over his feet, but along with the sea wrack that somehow always got into the pots along with the crabs, there was movement. Hard to tell how many, in the shifting moonlight. He reached in, feeling past the slimy strands of weed for flat shells, crawling legs, and lifted out the first catch, its claws waving uselessly as he dropped it into a clean creel.

He was right in the moon's path, as clear as a straight road to the Land of Youth on this calm, windless night. Where the souls of the dead go, the fishermen said – not in church, of course, but in the bar on stormy nights when the boats were still out; there to drink mead and take their ease in the gentle fields rich with barley. Donald, flexing his sore and frozen fingers, doubted the truth of it. Drowned fishermen stay down, he thought; his father and all the rest who'd ever put out from this coast and not come home. Crabmeat, and anchorage for limpets and anemones, that's what they became. Pulling again on the rope, he moved on to the next pot.

There were seals on the skerry tonight, no more than fifty yards of black water and hidden rocks away, on the little strand that was only clear when the tide was low. They looked as though they were basking in the moonlight, though it was far too chill for that. As he watched, a couple more dragged themselves up from the sea, heavy and awkward, moving slowly up the sand. They were rolling, heads swaying to and fro, buffeting each other as they moved clumsily forward.

Moonlight silvered everything, casting doubt and shadow. So he scrubbed at his eyes and looked again, but they were still rolling, rising up, standing and stepping out of their heavy skins, helping each other to get free. Six, seven, maybe nine young women, lithe and graceful, holding hands, beginning to sway and dance as though the moon had pulled them up and out of the sea, almost airborne, drunk with the joy of it.

Drifting silently by the rocks, he stared. All of them were up now, leaving their sealskins like wet rocks on the sand, running and leaping, barefoot and naked, gasping with hoarse laughter as they chased each other along the beach. He could not stop staring. Another bar story: the seals who are also people, who come ashore from time to time in places no-one sees. But he was seeing; he was drinking with his eyes, as full of elation as they were. Maybe the Land of Youth was true, too, then; maybe all those wishful, drunken tales were true. But he could not spare a thought for them. Only this was true, and real, and now.

Almost without thinking, he had taken the oars and begun to move nearer, staying behind the rocks though it meant he lost sight of them for a time, and rowing with hardly a splash, the way he'd taught himself on all the long nights out fishing alone. Weaving between boulder and boulder, he found a place to step out and drag the boat ashore. They were still out of sight. Inch by inch, he made his careful way onto the strand, hearing the creak of his boots and the shift of stones under them. But, after all, the beach was empty.

He only realised he was holding his breath when he took in the pile of skins, still lying where they had been shed, and let it all out in one great whoosh. His eyes had not been playing tricks on him; this was real. No sign of life; though now, as he listened through the thudding of his own heart, he could hear laughter some way off. As cautious as a hunter, he crept towards the skins, crouching low, watching for movement. There was none. They lay, mottled and glistening in the moonlight, abandoned.

He put out a hand and touched the nearest. It was warm, as though some of its owner's life still lingered in it. Bolder now, he pulled it towards him, running his hand along the grain of the smooth pelt. You could never get close enough to touch a seal, unless it were dead or caught in a net, but the skins were useful to keep out the cold. And who knew what magic these might hold. Surely, this was a gift, just for him. Glancing around, he lifted it and pushed it between two of the rocks. He could come back for it later; right now, his mind was elsewhere.

They had moved off between the birches and rowans that grew above the tideline, into the places where the thick, unwieldy body of a seal could never go. They were picking rowan berries, eating them and spitting out pips, hanging the bunches over each other's ears, picking leaves and running them over their breasts and thighs. Those heavy pelts must keep out most sensations, he thought. They looked like children fresh from the bath, more naked than naked, like the white inner twigs of fir when the bark is stripped off. He had never seen a girl without her clothes, did not even know if these would pass for human; but his body at least was in no doubt. He stood there, rigid, the blood roaring in his ears, and wanted to weep for the glory of it.

And then one of them saw him.

She gave a sharp cry of alarm, almost a bark, and all their eyes were on him. The next moment they were streaming past, leaping and slipping on the hidden boulders, as he stood there with his arms outstretched, hoping somehow to hold them back. They jostled him as they fled, and he stumbled after them back down to the beach, where they were already melting down into their skins and heaving themselves towards the water, all grace gone. As he reached the water's edge, the last one slid off the rocks and was received into the gentle, swirling waves.

Donald stood there, exultant and desolate all at once. He could see their heads turning to look at him, but he knew they would not return. He watched for a few moments longer, seeing in his mind's eye their glorious, dancing forms. Then a small noise to his right made him glance up, and freeze.


There was one left. She was pacing along the edge of the waves, wringing her hands, uttering little short cries as she yearned towards the dark water. The heads of her sisters gleamed as they waited for her some yards off.

Donald understood in a moment what had happened. He started forward, hands held out, and she backed away, her eyes wide. A few more steps and she would stumble into the rocks where her skin lay hidden. He broke into a run and was upon her almost at once. She seemed weightless, slight as a child, and they fell together on the hard, ribbed sand.

She writhed like an eel under him, but he held on tightly, feeling her breasts crushed against his chest, one leg between her thighs. For a moment her black eyes stared straight into his, and there came a great rush of terror – the fisherman's last grasp at life as the hungry sea swallows him – and the stink of drowned things was in his nostrils. He closed his eyes and hung on. Then her defence was down. She cried out once as he entered her, and after that made no sound at all.

When he came to himself again and looked around, there were no more bobbing heads in the water. She lay still, her head turned away, but as soon as he began to get up she twisted aside and tried to run. Grabbing her wrist, he pulled her up and towed her towards his boat, avoiding the place where he had concealed the skin.

Once in the boat, he rowed hard for the shore. He was afraid at first that she might jump into the water, but it seemed that, although she stared across the gleaming waves and reached out to her sisters, she could not join them.

Soon they came safely to land, and now he took thought and stripped off his shirt. He tried to get her to put her arms into thesleeves, then gave up and wrapped it around her, and so they came stumbling through the darkness, up to the cottage, where his mother had placed a light at the window to guide him home.

He pushed open the door and she was there, seated by the fire, stirring something in the big pot.

At once, he began to talk. 'Look what the sea cast up; there must have been a wreck, I think. I found her like this, down on the shore. She doesn't speak; it'll be the shock, maybe. Have you something to clothe her with?'

His mother looked at them both, and suddenly Donald thought of what she must be seeing: her son holding the wrist of this near-naked girl, wide-eyed in the firelight, with blood on her bare legs. He would not meet his mother's gaze. There was a long moment of silence, and then she was up, putting an arm around the girl and leading her into the bedroom, murmuring something soft and reassuring. Over her shoulder she said, 'Go and get water and put on the kettle. Now!' and then she shut the door upon him.

Donald turned away, letting responsibility slide from his shoulders. She was in charge now, as she had been all his life. She would take care of it all.

He went to and fro, filling buckets from the well, making up the fire and setting the kettle to boil – all the simple things he had been doing every day of his life as far back as he could remember. There was no room for what had just happened, no sense to be made of it, and so he did not try. He thought about the sealskin, bundled where he had left it between the rocks. It was safe enough; it was well above the tideline, and there were no storms due. His mother came through for hot water, and left without speaking to him. There was nothing to do but wait for what came next.

He was staring into the fire when the bedroom door finally opened again. His mother stood in the doorway, so he could not see past her into the bedroom. She put a hand up to the doorframe and rested her weight against it for a moment, as though she were very weary.

He started up, holding out a cup to her. 'Shall I pour one cup, or two? I wasn't sure if ...' He faltered to a stop under her straight gaze.

'Donald,' she said, 'what have you done?'

'I found her like that, just by herself there. Will she be all right? Maybe there'll be others from the wreck; I'll go and look, shall I?'

She cut him off with an impatient sweep of her hand. 'For God's sake, boy, there's not a spar or a cask comes ashore but everyone knows about it. There's been no wreck. Now tell me exactly how you found her, and where.'

Resentment rose hot in his throat, mixed with a strange kind of relief. He had never been able to lie to her. 'Mother,' he said, his voice rich with the wonder of it, 'she's a selkie. They were dancing on the skerry, and I saw them.'

She nodded, once, as though she'd already guessed the truth of it, and came slowly forward to drop into the other chair by the fire.

The story came tumbling out of him now, all of it except the thing that he had done to her, the thing he could not bring himself to think about, here at his mother's hearth. When he had run out of words, she looked up at him, and there was something in her expression he had never seen before. Respect, or scorn? Elation, or fear? Or, somehow, all of those things at once. Donald was unnerved. 'What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?'

'Well,' she said. 'Where to start? I never thought I'd see you married at all, Donald Macfarlane, but it seems you've managed it in your own strange way, and we must make the best of it.'

'What? What are you talking about?'

'Use the brains you were born with, boy. That dance was never meant for you. They were maidens, ready for mating. If you hadn't come along, she'd have had a husband of her own kind by the end of the night. But you took her instead. You've made your bed, and now you must lie in it.'

He pushed back his chair, away from her and her senseless words. 'What are you saying? I can't marry that ... that creature!'

His mother's eyes hardened. 'It's too late now. You can't undo what you did.'

'I'll take her back there, tonight! I'll give her back her sealskin, and there's an end of it!'

'Oh, Donald. You could have just left her there, let her go back to the sea. But you brought her home. Why?'

'I don't know! I don't know how it all happened; I never meant to ...' He faltered to a stop, then tried again. 'It felt as though it was just for me. If you had seen them! I couldn't just leave her. They were so marvellous ...'

His mother said nothing. Only watched, and waited.

'Well,' he said at length, 'I was wrong, then. I got it all wrong, like I always do. I'll go now, while the moon's still high.'

'Donald,' his mother said patiently, 'there will be a child.'


'You can't know that!' he shouted at her. 'How could you possibly know that? Even I know it's weeks before you can tell for sure. And anyway, how could you even think of such a thing? What sort of monster would it be, for God's sake? You're out of your senses. I'll take her down there right this minute.' He had risen from his chair and was starting towards the bedroom door, but his mother was there before him, and he could not bring himself to lay hands on her.

'Donald, will you sit down and listen to me? We haven't much time. The whole village will know soon, and we have to think out what we're going to say.'

Again, she'd caught him off balance. The whole village? What had it got to do with anyone else? He turned away and went to the window, to stare out at the moonlit garden. It looked just the same as ever, but he listened, despite himself, as his mother's words unmade his world.


Excerpted from Sealskin by Su Bristow. Copyright © 2016 Su Bristow. Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Sealskin 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ShesGoingBookCrazy More than 1 year ago
A few words to explain this tale: sadly...sweet?. I question sweet because of the fact that the main character, Donald, raped a Selkie in order to "keep" her. Donald, a young man born to a fishing family, was down at the sea's edge. Some seals appeared on the rocky beach, and shed their seal skins, revealing themselves as young maidens. Donald hid, and watched as the girls danced. Entranced by them, he hid one of the girl's skins, so she would be trapped on shore. As the girls made to leave, one couldn't find her skin. Before she could search for it, Donald seized her and raped her (which I had not expected the way the story to start out), then forced her to come back home with him. When his mother found out what he had done, she insisted that Donald and the girl wed to hide the discretion, as she became pregnant. The girl, unnamed, stranded without her skin, and unable to speak, (later given the name Mairhi), concedes---not that she has much choice. As time passes, and their first child comes, Mairhi and Donald seem to get along and grow together. Donald changes drastically---growing from the young, irresponsibly dull boy, to a bolder, and caring father and husband. Mairhi, becomes a beloved addition to the community, except by a select few. Despite the warmth in their relationship, issues constantly face the couple, and the looming guilt Donald holds in regards to his wife blinds him from the truth. Character breakdown: Donald: I couldn't help but compare Donald to a less virtuous John Ridd from Lorna Doone. Simple, dull, and thick---but only in the first half of the book. The second half, he begins to realize the weight of the deed that he had done, and how his choices not only affect himself, but the fate of other people. The book sheds light on forgiveness, which is noble, indeed. Later on, Donald even stands up for a woman in his village who's husband was abusive. I was glad to see how his character developed, and he wasn't stuck in his old habits and excuses to evade issues. Mairhi: We never learn much about her. Granted, she couldn't speak, but she forever remains a mystery. The other characters I found rather inconsequential to the plot. Besides Donald's mother, Bridie, but I cannot say why here. Setting: I loved the setting in which the story took place. You could feel the influence of the sea, and the crudeness of it. However, wanted to see a bit more of the Scottish landscape intertwined into the tale. Pacing: I couldn't help but feel a bit lost with the timeline of the story. The chapters are relatively short, but much time would pass between them without much indication of the lapse. I think this could have been smoothed out to make it less segregated. Overall, Sealskin is a well written extension of the legend of the Selkie (version provided above). I enjoyed it, as I enjoy majority of stories involving local folklore. I couldn't help but be heartbroken at the end, no matter how frustrating the story began. But the way the story began caused me to rate this lower than I had expected going into this book. I think the book tries almost too hard at times to redeem Donald. I'm not saying forgiveness shouldn't be given, because he does turn out to be a rather good guy. However, rape is not a topic to be taken lightly, and I felt it was relatively un-discussed in the end. Even so, the story remains true to the legend, and is a rendition as to how the sailor "took her home to be his wife." Copy via Netgalley.
PaulAllard More than 1 year ago
A magical romance / tale of fishing folk I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This novel deals with a small fishing village in Western Scotland where Donald Macfarlane meets a selkie and ends up bringing her home. Mairhi, as she is named, has an important impact on all the villagers and the story revolves around how they react to her. Donald is the main protagonist and we see him develop as a character along with many others in the area. Although impossible to pinpoint when this story takes place (no technology is mentioned at any stage), this novel is enjoyable, engaging and interesting in a whole variety of ways but mainly dealing with the emotions and interactions of the small cast. I recommend it to anyone wanting a change from dark mysteries and depressing stories.