The Old Man and the People of the Sea
The following is a true story, at least many parts
of it are true.
Part of the truth (but only part!) is that seals really
do sing, both underwater and in the air. I
have heard them.
Most books about seals say nothing about their singing
abilities. And I think scientists have been a little slow to accept
the fact that seals sing beautiful tunes in the air. That is because
the seals seem to be a little choosy about whom they sing to.
But scientists do now realize that seals also sing
under water. These songs are not like the tunes in the story.
They are more like the songs of whales. They seem to be a way
of communicating with each other over long distances. They are
sung by both male and female seals, and each song is unique to
the seal who sings it. That means seals can use these songs to
identify each other and to find each other in the dark water.
All of the music in the story comes from the seals
themselves, and from the people who live on islands and coasts
where there are many seals, people who know the seals very well.
The song the old man sings to the seals is called
"The Seal Womans Sea Joy," and there are some
who say that song came from the seals themselves long ago.
The seals response to the old man, which has
no name I know, is a real seal tune. And the tune I begin with,
that is a real seal tune too, and was recorded about 50 years
ago on the island of Skomer, part of Wales.
My story is only one of many about the seal people,
sometimes called Silkies, or Selkies. There are many stories told
by the islanders about seals who live on the land as people; and
often they help those who are kind to them. And sometimes they
come to teach a lesson to those who are cruel to them. But often
they are just going about their own business.
If you want to know more about the seal people, I
can highly recommend two wonderful books:
The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of
the Seal Legend by David Thomson (Counterpoint, 2000)
Tales of the Seal People: Scottish Folk Tales
by Duncan Williamson (Interlink, 1992)
And you are probably already aware of the delightful
movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, but perhaps you
have never read the book it is based upon: The Secret of
the Ron Mor Skerry. The movie changes the setting from
Scotland to Ireland and adds several of the stories collected
by David Thomson to the stories told (or created) by Rosalie Fry
in The Ron Mor Skerry. Roan Inish is remarkable
as a movie because it is less sentimental and sappy than most
children's movies involving aware and intelligent animals. If
you've ever met a seal in the wild and been investigated by her
at close hand, you will not find the stories of the seal people
too far fetched.
And whether these stories are always true, or whether
they are sometimes made up to pass the time and entertain, I do
not know. But that there is a deep truth buried in these stories,
of that I am certain beyond any shadow of a doubt.
to hear Grey Seal song from Skomer Island]
Once there was an old man who lived on an island,
in a small cottage by the sea. The cottage overlooked a small
cove, where seals lived, and at low tide the seals would haul
themselves out of the water and sleep on the rocks, basking in
And every day after tending his garden, the old
man would walk down to the pebbly beach and he would watch the
seals playing in the surf or lying on the rocks.
Now, although this man loved his home, and he loved
his garden, and he loved the sea; he was a little sad sometimes
because he was lonely. He had no family, and although the other
islanders were good, hard-working people, they were all a rather
private sort and mostly kept to themselves.
So one day the old man harvested his best vegetables
and took them to the farmers market in the village as he
did every week. For this was how he made his modest living.
But on this day he hardly sold anything. And he
felt very dejected. And toward the end of the day, when his vegetables
were looking a little wilted, a tourist visitor came to his stall
and looked at his vegetables and said,
"Are these supposed to be organic vegetables?"
"Yes," he said, "They are fertilized
with sea weed, the very best fertilizer in the world."
"Well," she said. "They dont
look organic. I buy organic produce all the time back home at
the Whole Foods supermarket, and those vegetables are much bigger
and prettier than these."
And with that, the rude tourist walked away.
Well, the old man was very unhappy now, and angry
too. So he packed his vegetables into his cart and pushed it home.
On his way he passed the fish market. And as he
always did, he stopped at the market and bought a bucket full
of herring and mackerel with some of the money he had made that
day. And even though on this day it took almost every penny, he
still bought a bucket of fish.
For every week after market he would take the bucket
of fish and he would walk down to the seal cove, and he would
climb out on the rocks and he would call to the seals with a song
he had learned from his Grandmother. And she said it was a song
the seals themselves had taught her, though he never knew whether
to believe that!
And on this day he did just the same. For these
seals were like family to him. He even knew each one by sight
and had given each one its own name: Dulse, Nori, Kelp, Sand Lance,
And this is the song he sang to them:
to hear The Seal Woman's Sea Joy]
Come Seals, Come Seals
I have fish for you
Herring for you, Mackerel for you
I have fish for you.
And as he sang, one by one the seals would pop their
heads out of the water near the rock where he stood. And one by
one he would throw the fish to them, and they would eat it all
up, then disappear again beneath the water.
Normally, feeding the seals would cheer him up
even if he was feeling a little tired or sad. But today he was
so low that feeding the seals did not help at all.
Suddenly he wished he could leave his life on the
land and join the seals, to swim in the waves and bask in the
sun in the company of his whole family, to dive and play and eat
fish with hardly a care. To never have to sell another vegetable
and never have to be pleasant to another rude tourist.
And he looked down into the water and the waves
crashing on the rocks. He looked with great longing and desire
and felt great sadness at his life. He had never felt so alone.
And whether in his sadness and weariness he had
fallen asleep, or whether it really happened this way, he never
could tell afterward, but a very strange thing happened to him
then as he looked down into the water.
He heard what sounded like singing. A beautiful
song floated on the air. And it sounded like this:
to hear the Hebridean Grey Seal song]
And he looked out over the water, and there were
the seals, Dulse, Nori, and all the others. And they were singing
to him in a pure, clear voice that sounded to him like the voices
And as he stood listening, the seals swam to him,
and they climbed out of the water, and suddenly they had become
people, tall, dark, with long dark hair, and big brown eyes. And
they surrounded him, standing all around him, and he felt warm
and safe and peaceful inside. And they sang to him, and this is
what they sang:
You are welcome here, we greet you.
You are dear to us, we love you.
You are one of us, we greet you.
We are one with you, we love you.
Over and over they sang. And he felt their warm
love, and he relaxed and he fell into a very deep and dreamless
And when he awoke, it was getting dark, and the
seal people were nowhere to be seen, and it was quiet but for
the waves washing the rocks, and the occasional cry of a gull.
And the old man walked home and slept again, deeply and peacefully.
The islanders all noticed the change in him. The
extra spring in his step, the smile on his lips, the light in
his dark eyes. But they never asked, and he never told what had
happened that day.
But every week, as he always had, he took his vegetables
to market, and he took a bucketful of fish to the seals and he
sang to them, his family, singing
Come friends, Come friends I have fish for you
Herring I have, Mackerel I have
Friendship I have, Love I have
Come friends, Come friends
I have fish for you.
And always the seals came and ate, and always the
old man knew the warmth of their love for him and his for them.
to hear The Seal Woman's Sea Joy]