Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Selkie of the Summer Isles

Fading light over the Summer Isles

In Old Norse and Celtic mythology, the selkie was a half-woman, half-seal who was able to shed her seal skin to ensnare sailors, then return to the sea when she felt like a bit of a change. It's a myth that finds itself repeated in many countries from Iceland to Australia. In his book In Another Light, Andrew Greig points out that they might all have stemmed from the haunting, melancholic cry that seals sometimes make on lonely skerries far out to sea.

Out on a trip to the Summer Isles, we are threading a line between widely-spaced skerries towards the wondrous Priest Island. The Minch is but a thin, glassy channel between us and the faded blue Outer Isles in the distance. Twisted skeins of glassy, undulating ocean roll in deepening blue towards Priest Island and the skerries in between. In the open expanse, there is a kind of sensory deprivation. No smells, no wind, just a gliding motion. Maybe a tint of salt, perhaps. But arriving at the shore of a skerry, the overwhelming saline-and-fish smell invades the senses after the blue desert of the ocean.

Storm shower over Bottle Island

Turning the boats towards the next sighting point, it is silent and the senses are stilled again. Little wind, and the quiet rush of paddles in the water. Just two kayaks in the vastness of blue-space. Several hundred yards away from the skerry behind, we are arrested by a wailing sound. We look back, but there is nothing. This mournful cry is, presumably, a seal. The selkie of the ancient myths.

The sea is a remarkable place.

Jutting out of the water like broken teeth, the skerry of Stac Mhic Aonghais is fringed with cormorants. They seem to like to add a touch of drama to already gnarled sea cliffs. The northern side of this islet slants out of the water at an angle, allowing the sea to slew dramatically up its ramp-like face and back down into the blue in a whirlpool of banked-up water. The moment of magic came when we paddled into this furling stream: meeting a raw edge of sea at the edge of the world. It wasn't, of course, but for a moment, it felt like it.

The sea like glassy, rolling skeins

Uncannily at the same distance from the next skerry and miles from the last, the mournful wailing began again. A look backwards revealed nothing. Maybe the seals were just playing with us.

Amidst a clutch of cormorant nests on a cliff, the sea etches patterns in the rock like abstract art

Textbook storm clouds above Tanera Beg

Here and there, the sea is pockmarked with resting seabirds. Some of them came over to swoop us, including a massive Bonxie, the pirate of the skies.

Inside an abandoned boat

It's a privilege to experience the sea's daily tides in places as beautiful as this, and to glimpse the timeless magic of the selkie seals.