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Tuesday, September 08, 2020

On Researching Selkies

 I’ve been researching selkies for a story - you know, the seals which take off their skins and become human? And then put them back on and turn back into seals? They are a northern thing, mostly Orkney, but also Scandinavian - well, there were Viking settlers up there. It really irritated me some years ago to read a YA novel, Tempest Rising, in which there was a HAWAIIAN selkie! They couldn’t find a genuine Hawaiian sea creature?

   The best selkie story I’ve read was Margo Lanagan’s gorgeous novel Sea Hearts(Known outside Australia as The Brides Of Rollrock Island). I reviewed it here.

Anyway, I had recently written a story - still out on submission, so I won’t tell you about it yet - with a selkie girl in it, and that gave me an idea for another story, of which I’ve written the first 700 words today. 

But it does need more research. I started writing because if I didn’t the story would never get written. I can always rewrite. I usually end up doing around four drafts anyway. Just so you know. Being a pantser doesn’t necessarily mean you are sloppy! It just means you don’t do an elaborate plan first. 

So, I started with a basic Wikipedia search. Amazing what you can find in Wikipedia, including a bibliography and footnotes, which usually give you somewhere else to go. There were other web sites I checked out as well, but that one is a good place to start. I discovered that there is a book by Duncan Williamson, The Land  Of  The Seal People. It was available in Apple Books, and turned out to be one of those books of Scottish/Celtic folk tales, told to the author as a child or a teen by wise old men... Mind you, one of those stories which he said was told to him by a “traveller”(Roma?) was out of the Arabian Nights! Told with a Scottish accent, but definitely one of Scheherezade’s 1001 Nights! Maybe the elderly Roma just knew it and told it to the young boy without knowing he would assume it was a local folktale? 

The book is not all about selkies, though the selkie tales are interesting in that the seal people in it have long sealskin coats, which they seem to wear casually every day, while living as ordinary villagers, instead of taking them off to dance naked in the moonlight. In one story, a selkie gives his coat to a young man who really needs it, saying it’s okay, he has another one. There are none of the sad stories about seal brides who can’t return to the sea because some loser who can’t otherwise get a girl steals their sealskins...

Another resource was a film I read about during my research, and yesterday I discovered it on Prime Video, so I settled down and watched it. It’s an Australian film, called simply Selkie, and was made in the 1990s. It was something like the films made by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. 

It was a rather sweet story about a teenage boy, with Scottish ancestors, discovering quite by accident that he is a selkie. In this film, you can live your whole life as a human without ever knowing what you are, although at the start of the film he is shown looking at his webbed hands, and sitting in the bath having visions he doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t change till he dives into the water to rescue a girl who has fallen off the pier and hit her head. And suddenly he is a seal - no need for a skin, he doesn’t even have to take his clothes off. There is, however, another selkie on the island, an old woman who is desperate to return to the sea, but needs an ancestral sealskin in a shipwreck off the coast to get what she wants...

It didn’t get very good ratings from the film critics, but I liked it very much. I guess I recognised it as basically a children’s film, and they didn’t. 

I see there are some more films around, at least one of them on Prime, so I’ll watch them, for lack of documentaries on the subject! I might be able to find some documentaries on the history of Scotland in general. 

Wish me well in finishing my story and getting it right!