Song of the Selkies

Song of the Selkies

by Cathie Dunsford


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781876756093
Publisher: Spinifex Press
Publication date: 06/28/2001
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.52(d)

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Song of the Selkies

By Cathie Dunsford

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2001 Cathie Dunsford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74219-466-0


My story is from my Canadian Inuit grandmother and tells about the origin of the Sea Spirit. It begins when a young Inuit girl is forced by her father to marry a dog. After she has born several children, her father drowns the dog and her children seek revenge. They fail in their attempts and are banished. Then a stormy petrel swoops from the sky and takes the form of an ugly man whom the Inuit marries and she escapes with him in his kayak. Her father pursues them and grabs his daughter, so the bird creates a mighty storm to try to capsize their boat. The screaming father tries to throw the girl at the mercy of the bird, but she clings to the side of the boat. So the father begins to hack off her fingers at the joints until she slides under the water. This is how the sea people were created — the seals from her fingertips, the bearded seals from her middle joints and the walruses from the end joints. The Inuit girl drifts to the sea bed where she is transformed into the wondrous Sea Spirit, surrounded by the sea creatures created from her body. Her husband returns as a guardian sea dog and her father is swept out to sea in his sorrow, destined to remain an angry tor men tor to those humans who transgress against humanity, a father who could sacrifice his daughter to save himself.

There are many versions of this story — but this is the one my grandmother told me. My uncle sang me a Netsilik Eskimo version where the tribe at Qingmertoq in the Sherman Inlet tie their sea kayaks together to make a giant raft and leave to find new hunting grounds. The raft is very crowded, so when the orphan girl, Nuliajuk tries to jump on board, they throw her into the sea. She grabs the edge of the raft and they slash her fingers off. As she drifts to the sea floor, the stumps of her fingers spring to life in the sea and rise to the surface crying like seals. And so seals were born into life. Nuliajuk becomes the Great Sea Spirit, mother of all sea creatures, and the most powerful and feared of all spirits because she controls the destiny of men. She nurtures all living creatures, including those on land — and is quick to punish any breach of taboo. She hides and protects her creatures when man does harm, and thus man starves, and has to call on shamans to help. She is a woman with great powers and we are taught to respect her. I will now act out both versions of the story without words and let the miming movements speak for me, speak for Nuliajuk.

The audience watches in silent wonder as Sasha becomes the raft, the people, the fingers, the wind over the water and ocean drift beneath the surface, the new seals and creatures emerging from the fingers of Nuliajuk. She plays a flute to mark the end of one story, the haunting sounds echoing up through the roof of the ruined abbey and out to sea, and then she becomes the girl forced by her father to marry a dog, taking on the shapes of the father, the dog, the stormy petrel, the kayak listing in the storm, the girl, as her father hacks off her fingers. There is a reverent silence at the end as the last of the storytellers finishes and walks to the edge of the open-air theatre created by the walls of the ruined Tantallon Abbey high above the rugged Scottish Coast. Facing the ocean, Sasha plays her Selkie Song, dedicated to the Sea Spirit of Nuliajuk and all her sea creatures, on her delicately carved wooden flute, and as the haunting melodies float out over the hushed waters, Cowrie is sure she hears seals crying out in response.


'I never believed you could eat smoked salmon this delicious with steamed clams mounded like Everest and surrounded by Scottish sea creatures. Yum.' Cowrie is about to tuck into her meal when she glances at Sasha, then hesitates. 'Maybe we should offer karakia, a prayer, to Nuliajuk, and give thanks for this meal,' she suggests.

Sasha grins. 'Yes. We should.' The gathered storytellers bow their heads as Sasha takes out her flute and plays. The crowds milling around the tables, swarming over Royal Mile, caught up in the frenzy and excitement of the Edinburgh Festival, stop a moment, listening to the haunting sounds of seal cries as they emerge from the flute under the skilful fingertips of Sasha.

Then the bustle continues, as the storytellers dig into their shared meal, excited and high after five days of hearing stories from around the globe, and inspired by the wonderfully diverse ways of communicating this ancient wisdom. Sun pours down on them from a brilliant Scottish sky, warming their bodies and highlighting the dazzling colours of the clowns and street performers and buskers. They compare notes on the virtues of performing at the Storytelling Venue on Royal Mile or at the open-air seaside abbey and both have different merits. But all agree that last night's performance by Sasha was a high point of the festival — and many others heard seal cries in response to the flutesong, though some of the locals doubt this.

Not far from their table, a mime artist plays a silent viola. He is waiting for something. The audience is not sure what it is. Suddenly he sees what he wants, and plays with feeling. Then he stops and focuses on another group. He stays silent until one of them smiles at him. He picks up his viola and plays. Gradually, people realise what motivates his play, and this brings a smile to their lips. Soon everyone around is smiling, even the tired workers from the Bank of Scotland who have to jostle the crowds to shop in their lunch breaks.

A circle of bystanders watches another street performer. He asks a frightened child if she could balance on his shoulders. The child nods no. She is afraid. Gradually, the acrobat teaches the child to have courage. First he stands the child on a box, then another box, then another, until she is at shoulder height. The young girl is encouraged by the cheers from the crowd. It is a small, delicate move to direct her from the top of the boxes onto the shoulders of the man. The girl hesitates. The crowd takes in a breath, recalling that moment of fear within us all, then the girl moves one foot, then the other, onto the man's shoulders and, guided by his hands, stands upright. Trumpets play and the crowd cheers as the girl gradually begins to smile, until her face is transformed by a wide grin. Now a small girl, who was terrified ten minutes ago, stands on top of the world, urged on by total strangers and her tentative parents who had never ventured this far in trust. The girl raises a hand to the sky, holding on with only one hand. She shouts in joy. Her balance wavers a few seconds, but she grabs the hand of the man and recaptures it.

The music celebrates her success and the crowd roars her on. Such a simple act, such a surprisingly simple act, that will stay in the memory of this girl forever ... the day she bravely stood on the top of the world, before a huge crowd, on Royal Mile at the Edinburgh Festival. As she is returned to terra firma, there is a look of courage and determination in her eye that was lacking before, and her parents see their wee bairn freshly as they gather her in their arms, and smile at the crowd, awed that their daughter had such courage.

Up and down Royal Mile, artists and performers from all around the globe strut their stuff, keen to capture an audience for their night events or simply perform for the pure joy of it. The old cobblestones gleam from the polished feet of passers by and the exhaust-free street, cordoned off from traffic, becomes a human circus in a mass celebration of spirit for the weeks of the festival. Stands selling everything from brightly coloured jester's hats to paintings, hand-made books and clothes straddle the sidewalks and the atmosphere of celebration is infectious.

'You would not believe how amazing this is after one of the coldest winters on record.' Sahara sucks a clam from its shell as she tells them how cold and grey and miserable these streets can be in the dark of winter, how the snow and sleet make getting about nearly impossible and how delighted she is that all the hard work in organising the storytelling festival has paid off in the celebrations and atmosphere of the past five days.

Cowrie grins. 'Not as freezing as it was when we were in the Antarctic, Sah.' She winks. 'That should have prepared you for an Edinburgh winter.'

'Yes, but we expected the cold there and were prepared. I came here in the summer for my first festival so I was shocked when winter came so fast and we could not afford to heat our apartment, so we huddled under blankets in the cold. We fixed the chimney and lit fires in mid-winter, but even that did not heat up all the rooms. I was the only one earning, all the others were students, so it was tough.'

Sasha nudges into the conversation. 'You call that tough? You come and live with us then! When your home is made from ice and there is ice outside, you have nowhere to escape into the warmth. That is when you have to warm yourself from the inside. You dream of fires in your belly and you imagine them heating you through the layers of skin and flesh.'

'Too hard,' chips in Ellen, an Orkney storyteller. 'I'd rather a nip of peat-smoked malt whisky. My father makes the best. I'll give you some to take home, Sasha.' Sasha grins. Her own father is fond of whisky when he can get it.

Ellen raises her glass to toast the success of the festival and invites any of the storytellers to join a group planning a holiday after the performances end. Since she has use of a clutch of small seaside cottages in the Orkney Islands, off the north-east coast of Scotland, she can provide free accommodation if they are willing to share living expenses. The group cheers her hospitality and half a dozen performers can take the time off work to come. They plan to hire a van and explore the Scottish coastline, wending their way north to meet the ferry to take them across to the islands from Scrabster.

Sahara might join them later, but she has to stay to wind up the organisation and report back to the funding groups that underwrote the festival. So far, Monique from the West Indies/Germany, Sasha from the fishing village of Akranes on the west coast of Iceland, Camilla from England, Cowrie from Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Ellen from Orkney can definitely make it, along with Uretsete and DK from the Siliyik performance group. The others need more time to consider. Cowrie smiles when Sasha raises her hand. She'd like to get to know this Sealsinger much better. She likes all the others. Except for Camilla, whose performances she missed. Word came back that Camilla was a committed Christian fundamentalist and Royalist and her version of storytelling lay in embellished tales from the mighty Empire. Cowrie's defences are likely to rise in such company and her usual hospitality runs on a much shorter string. It's possible Camilla might rethink her eagerness to be stranded on an island and outnumbered by indigenous storytellers. Then again, the point of storytelling is to develop awareness and tolerance.

Ellen drains the last drop of draught from her glass and burps loudly in appreciation. Camilla turns up her nose in absolute abhorrence and rises to pay her bill. Ellen grins, hoping her small, ungracious act of defiance may put Camilla off. Unbeknown to her, Camilla's great joy in life is converting heathens and pagans like Ellen to her path. She approaches such tasks with missionary zeal, and as she pays her bill, is already planning her tactics, gleeful that she will have the chance to examine these pagans at close range, in an island setting where they cannot escape easily.


Fire lights the night sky. From a distance, giraffes poke their heads above the bushes. Lions roar, elephants grunt and springboks leap, as the flamebearer advances, his face painted with berry juice, his eyes wide and lit from below, his ears peeled, waiting for the unexpected. In the blink of an eye, a monkey lands on his head and his spears scatter over the floor of the theatre. The other creatures, African men and women painted and prancing like the animals they mimic, roar into the audience, running away from the flame and the cries of the man. As he struggles to free himself, a lion purrs hungrily next to Sahara, on the edge of her seat in the auditorium. The theatre lights black out, leaving the audience to wonder who is victor and who is victim, after they have watched scores of hunters shoot native animals and cut off their heads as trophies, selling them to the white men who came to hunt or take back souvenirs of their extinguished manhood.

As the lights come up, the animals remain in the aisles and among the audience, to remind them they are still present, but they might not always be there. The lights fade and silently, the animals move back on stage, ready to grunt and roar and cry as the fire flames the stage for the last time and the crowds roar their appreciation back to the African storytellers and performers from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Namibia, who make up the troupe performing tonight at Theatre in the Round. As the actors crouch in their animal positions, the audience cheers and claps and stamps its feet noisily.

'This is great, Sah. I could be back home.' Cowrie murmurs to her friend, enjoying the rowdy audience response.

After several curtain calls, the animals in different poses each time, the director comes out to explain that this troupe comprises people from many different tribes all over Africa, that there are fishermen and teachers and nurses and street people represented, that each of them brought their own stories and traditions to the theatre piece and that they still need funding to get home after the festival. Buckets are handed out to the audience and people give generously, knowing the cheap ticket prices would have barely covered the theatre hire let alone any other expenses.

Afterwards, Sahara drives Cowrie to the top of Arthur's Seat, the impressive hill sculpted like a brooding beast, which overlooks Edinburgh. They look out over the city lights and the mist appearing around the edges of the perimeter. Cowrie has never seen an ancient city with such an appealing atmosphere — haunting and yet romantic, buildings huddled together in gorgeous embrace, from Newtown to the old structures, intricately planned and beautifully orchestrated, while still pleasing to the eye. From above, the city looks almost circular, its outside buildings nurturing and encasing its heart like a living, pulsating creature.

'Could be the shell of a giant sea turtle,' whispers Sahara in Cowrie's ear.

'Not so fantastic, Sah. You know that in many Pacific myths, the islands are depicted as turtles who swam to their current destinations, then their fins were cut off, so that they would stay floating in the same place, unable to move.'

'Ugh. That's nearly as morbid as the father who cut off the fingers of his daughter that they could become seals,' replies Sahara.

'Well, yes. But we all have different ways of explaining how we came to be here, eh? I can't see that the stories from the bible are any different from these other tales, except that the bible stories have had heaps more propaganda and publicity.'

'Sure. But why did I never hear any of these other stories while growing up in England? I mean we colonised the West Indies, Australia, Africa, New Zealand, just to name a few countries, and yet we still never heard any of these alternative stories which must have been known by the colonisers.'

'Maybe, but I bet the Christian missionaries who were a vital part of the colonisation had no intention of bringing stories back home. They went to rid the heathens of these tales and replace them with their own. It was never supposed to be a two way process — until now, perhaps. I have to rethink a lot after this awesome storytelling festival. Thanks, Sah, for organising it.'

'The least I could do, as a British kid, I reckon,' laughs Sahara. 'Maybe it is my small way of righting the balance.'

'Well, we need more of it. Reckon we reach far more people by celebrating the differences than arguing over who is right.' Cowrie looks down onto a rounded building, impressive in its semi circular structure. 'What's that, Sah?'

'That's the old Scottish Parliament, before us Poms took away their government.'

'Yeah, but didn't they fight for sovereignty and get it back?'

'Yes. But people in Britain have no idea of the real issues. They just see Wales and Ireland and Scotland as a part of "Great Britain" and can't understand what all the fuss is about.'

'Too close to home, maybe? Okay to fight the battles overseas, but this is just too bloody close for comfort, eh?'


Excerpted from Song of the Selkies by Cathie Dunsford. Copyright © 2001 Cathie Dunsford. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
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