A rocky shore, under
Blue skies of a summer’s day.
Bird song and seal sneezes,
A sweet scent in the air.
It is a warm summer’s day and I am standing on a familiar rocky shore. The air is quiet, filled only with the sound of birdsong, the soft buzz of insects and the murmur of the sea. Two Oyster Catchers rise in fright – at me, or something else – and pipe their alarm call. They soon settle and all is calm. I can hear the gentle swish and pop of the water on the rocks below. Then. A sound like a cough or sneeze almost human-like and, I think, nearby. I look around and see no-one. But, out beyond a small rocky island, I spot a dark head bobbing in the water. Another appears nearby. One of the dark heads sneezes and disappears. Seals.
I can understand why seals have attracted stories of selkies, creatures that can change from seal to human by shedding their skin. They are watchful and curious and mysterious. Dark eyes full of intelligence. Their sounds and form are almost, but not quite, human. I have only heard seals singing once, but it was ethereal, otherworldly. No wonder that rich stories have grown out of their presence.
Today this shore is the domain of those seals and the birds, and I an intruder. I am the one out of place. Not the seal selkie, which watches me. But I do not have to look hard to see that this has not always been the case, and that this ‘natural’ shoreline is far from natural, if one takes that as meaning untouched by humans. For there are remnants of human interventions all along this shore, speaking of activity, industry and action. Boulders have been cleared to make safe harbour for boats, slipways and small piers have been constructed and there is a building right on the shore. A building, I have been told, that was once a shop. Perhaps one hundred years ago it served the occupants of boats rowed across from the other side of the sea loch.
This must have been a busy place once, and not just one hundred years ago. This is a place that has been occupied and used for many hundreds of years. Along the shoreline both to my right and to my left are the remains of prehistoric promontory forts. Settlements created right on the cusp of the sea, headlands transformed into the defended homes of humans. There have been people living alongside the sea and the seals here for millennia. People using, altering, transforming, living with this shoreline. People who will have weaved stories with the land, the sea and the animals that lived alongside them. People who may have talked of selkies. People not unlike us.
I close my eyes and try to imagine this shoreline as it may have been in the past, as a busy, bustling place full of people and noise and wooden boats. Fish being landed perhaps, slipways and boat noosts being created. The air full of birds, the seals watching still. And in prehistory, watchful occupants in their promontory forts, the sea a highway and method of transport. Those now deserted headlands full of life. Smoke rising from houses within enclosing stone walls, animals perhaps shepherded within, others grazing without. People in attendance.
This place must have looked, sounded and smelled very different from today. How fascinating that we can trace the ghostly remnants of some of those who made this place their home so long ago, that we can see and touch the remains of past human action. That the past, sometimes, seems so close. That the ghosts of the past still touch these shores.
But now these human remnants are crumbling. The shoreline is shedding its skin – that veneer of past human presence – like a selkie. But it is unable to get rid of it completely. For those who lived along and with this place have altered it forever. We are altering it still. We are, and were in the past, part of this world as much as the watchful seal. The actions of those in the past have changed the world. Our actions continue to alter it still.
Though in time the buildings, slipways, piers and promontory forts may finally crumble and go, the past actions of those who lived with this place have changed it and made it into what it is today. Those past peoples worked with the lie of the land, the nature of the shore, human and nature entwined, altering it in subtle and not so subtle ways. And these actions have affected the creatures that make their life along this shore, humans and animals alike. For our changes do not just alter the non-humans we live alongside, they alter us too. Whether or not we recognise the alterations wrought by those in the past, those changes affect the way in which we see, understand and experience a place. They change the way in which we can approach and interact with places. They influence how we perceive and live with the very places that we continue to alter. They change our very understanding of our world and the way in which we interact with it. They change us.
We have in the past and will continue in the future to remake ourselves through our actions and interactions with both human and nature.
I am changed by this place.
And still the seal selkie watches.
As I turn to leave that peaceful place a dark head appears in the water. It watches as I pick my way over the rocks and onto the path, as I slowly walk up the slight incline, out onto the narrow road and out of sight of the shore. It continues to watch after I am gone, attending to those ghosts of the past as well as the present. Guardian of that place. Perhaps the stories are true. Perhaps selkies do live among us. Perhaps they watch over those precious, beautiful places as they always have done, knowing more about them than we do, wiser and more part of our world than we realise.