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David Thomson visited the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and the West of Ireland on journeys in search of the legends of the selchies - mythological creatures who transform from seals into humans. A magical world emerged, in which men are rescued by seals in stormy seas, take seal-women for their wives and have their children suckled by seal-mothers. Mysterious and David Thomson visited the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and the West of Ireland on journeys in search of the legends of the selchies - mythological creatures who transform from seals into humans. A magical world emerged, in which men are rescued by seals in stormy seas, take seal-women for their wives and have their children suckled by seal-mothers. Mysterious and fascinating, these stories retain their spellbinding charm through Thomson's beautiful prose. The People of the Sea is a timeless and haunting book, rich in rewards and surprises.


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David Thomson visited the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and the West of Ireland on journeys in search of the legends of the selchies - mythological creatures who transform from seals into humans. A magical world emerged, in which men are rescued by seals in stormy seas, take seal-women for their wives and have their children suckled by seal-mothers. Mysterious and David Thomson visited the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and the West of Ireland on journeys in search of the legends of the selchies - mythological creatures who transform from seals into humans. A magical world emerged, in which men are rescued by seals in stormy seas, take seal-women for their wives and have their children suckled by seal-mothers. Mysterious and fascinating, these stories retain their spellbinding charm through Thomson's beautiful prose. The People of the Sea is a timeless and haunting book, rich in rewards and surprises.

30 review for The People of the Sea (Canongate Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mir

    Of all the houses I remember with love the house called Tigh na Rosen is the sweetest smelling and the brightest begins Thomson's account of his lifelong fascination with seal lore. I don't know why it begins this way; the house is of little importance to the remainder of the book and is only referred to once or twice in passing. Perhaps this is a mental association on the author's part, the place he lived when he first became interested in selchies, starting with his mother's cousin La's reminis Of all the houses I remember with love the house called Tigh na Rosen is the sweetest smelling and the brightest begins Thomson's account of his lifelong fascination with seal lore. I don't know why it begins this way; the house is of little importance to the remainder of the book and is only referred to once or twice in passing. Perhaps this is a mental association on the author's part, the place he lived when he first became interested in selchies, starting with his mother's cousin La's reminisces of a chidhood neighbor lady who was suspected of being a seal. That wouldn't be out of character, for this is certainly a highly personal account, wandering where the author wills and feeling no responsibility to conform to any scholarly principles or narrative order. Or perhaps Thomson is setting the reader up, lulling you with childhood memories and pretty houses and innocent games at pretty little Patsy's birthday party so he can kick the feet out from under you in the next scene. The narrator (presumably the author as a small boy, although he never absolutely states this) slips away from the party to explore alone. He wants to investigate the fisherman's bothy while it's uninhabited. He enters and in the dark stumbles over the body of a mutilated woman, moaning in pain. David vomits from the trauma and climbs onto a table, where he huddles until a fisherman finds him and soothes him by telling him the victim was a selchie, not a human woman. This seems to make everything just dandy for the little boy, who has a hearty snack and listens to a story about more seal-killing. Like many of the stories Thomson hears throughout the book, this one presents selchies as, if not the same as humans, possessed of equal intelligence and emotion. In their human forms, their appearance is indistinguishable from that of regular humans. They feel the same love and grief and pity that we feel, and sometimes help the needy or save lost children from harm And these are the assertions of the people who kill them, the people who can describe the heartbroken weeping of a seal mother for her murdered baby and the sorrow in her eyes as the same as a woman's, and explain in the next breath, "Ye'd no soon stun your seal than ye'd set to and skin him, ye understand, because if ye left him there he might come to life and go back into the sea, while ye turned round." I guess life is tough and sometimes you really need that seal blubber. And people suck. Thomson himself makes few judgements and speaks only enough to keep the stories coming (except for that one bit where's checking out the hot girl who really wants a gas stove). His prose style is lovely without overshadowing the individual voices of the people he interviews. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest and folklore and not too much sensitivity to accounts of animal cruelty and grinding poverty and rape and abuse and possibly letting retarded kids drown.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Zanna

    Here is Seamus Heany's introduction quoting Wordsworth's definition of a poet to apply it to David Thomsona man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankindI may as well give up then! This made me laugh and feel extra grateful for Aubrey's new group. In addition to an off-putting introduction (that's to say it put me o Here is Seamus Heany's introduction quoting Wordsworth's definition of a poet to apply it to David Thomsona man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankindI may as well give up then! This made me laugh and feel extra grateful for Aubrey's new group. In addition to an off-putting introduction (that's to say it put me off Wordsworth a lot, Heany a little, and this book not at all), there is also a pointless afterword explaining the truth-status of Thomson's text, which is, as was obvious, unimportant. All this rationalising and gaudy (and sexist) wrapping paper only goes to emphasise the degraded status of oral history and the obstacles facing its *scription. If anyone is to be enticed into reading, this humble stuff must have the name of a great poet, it must be packaged with academic explanations and endorsements, and those creatures, women, who only care about plot and relateable characters, ought to be well warned off. I am saying all this because the text itself leaves me near speechless. Like the tellers of tales who talk in these pages, I am minded to hold my tongue until I have something worthy to say at the fireside, where I feel I am still sitting, with the sea rolling in my heart and the mournful songs of the seals in my ears. When I finished this book, I dreamed vividly of my family in strange houses and strange landscapes and awoke feeling I had drunk some restorative potion. When I first began the book I felt I was hearing a voice apart, an uncolonised voice, but that is a wildly idealistic misperception I suppose: Thomson's voice might perhaps be called postcolonial (critically oriented to colonialism) seeking the uncolonised memory still speakable in lives actively and unevenly colonised. For instance, Christianity is entrenched, but its grim binary-bound worldview is strongly inflected by a world of fairy folk, speaking creatures, strange blessings. The coercive teaching of English is remembered with the shadow of resistence. These topics are prominent - I'm not imposing my preoccupation! - but come up incidentally; Thomson never adopts a studious voice, an outside voice. His telling has no edge; it is tales within tales, songs within shells within rockpools within memories within women that are all of them story. The submerged listener invites the reader in and under too. This is a Scots-Irish 1001 Nights of the seal. I will carry it on my chest.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ancestral Gaidheal

    I bought this book some time ago, but it seemed destined to remain on my "to be read" shelf. Earlier this year, while on holiday in Scotland with a small tour group, I noticed one of my fellow passengers was reading this book and when I enquired about it, she was unable to tell me much, which of course piqued my interest. This was just one of a series of co-incidences in which the legend of the selkie were brought to my attention: just before, during and after the tour of Scotland. As well as wat I bought this book some time ago, but it seemed destined to remain on my "to be read" shelf. Earlier this year, while on holiday in Scotland with a small tour group, I noticed one of my fellow passengers was reading this book and when I enquired about it, she was unable to tell me much, which of course piqued my interest. This was just one of a series of co-incidences in which the legend of the selkie were brought to my attention: just before, during and after the tour of Scotland. As well as watching a few selkie-related movies when I returned from my trip, I resolved to read the book; however, being a member of a book club, I found myself reading other books, all the while " The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-folk ", though taken down from the shelf, remained in my satchel (unread) just waiting to be started. So last Friday I picked up this book and I only put it down three times: once to drive home, the next because I wanted to savour the last tale and then, finally, when I finished it on Saturday night. The book was so enchanting I didn't want it to end. I knew " The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-folk " would be different when I read Seamus Heaney's introduction and I was not to be disappointed. " The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-folk " is somewhat of a memoir as the author, David Thomson, travels the western islands and coasts of Scotland and Ireland, in search of those who can tell the tales of the selchie (selkie) or sea-folk. First, Mr Thomson introduces the storyteller, he then sets the scene and atmosphere in which the story is being told and, finally, he recalls the conversation that illustrates the tale, bringing it fully to the light. There is not always a straight line from beginning to end with these stories, as someone will interject with their own version of events, and then another, but the main speaker provides a continuous thread weaving all the information together. I must admit that I felt myself sitting there in the closeness of that store/pub in County Mayo along with Michael the Ferry and his passengers as they gave up their hidden stories; just as I felt right there, with the author, as he (we) paid keen attention to every storyteller in the book. As Mr Thomson travels through the lands from which these stories emanate, he clearly illustrates the loss of the (Seanchaí) storytellers along with their myths, tales, lore and legends as modernisation takes hold*, so that I was made to keenly feel the loss of the culture where once people lived between reality and the otherworld. Like all things celtic (what a loaded term), the tone is slightly melancholic, but the stories are so full of wonder I was loathe to read the last tale, for I knew I would be sad indeed to reach the end with no more tales to be told and my journey of wonder into the past over. I must admit that despite the way some of the stories are delivered, oft times in conversational form, they do lend themselves to be performed at storytelling nights, where both adults and children can appreciate and enjoy them. I cannot recommend this book enough: it is simply warming even if some of the stories are meant as warnings. I think I shall always treasure " The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-folk " and re-read regularly, more particularly when it's cold, wet and the wind is lashing at the windows. If you have any interest in folk tales, fairy tales, the legend of the selkie, or the transformative powers of magic, you will probably enjoy this book. Read it! *In the time the author is writing and recording, radio as much as television is taking hold of the minds of the young, causing the decline.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sienna

    This book is many things: oral history, travelogue, folklore, poetry, treasure. It's the reassuringly salty tang of the seaside air, a glimpse of glossy eyes in the water, finding humanity in nature and vice versa. It's a product of a particular place, or set of places, and a time that I worry would otherwise be lost to us: Mrs. Charleson clicked her tongue. "The old people were full o' superstitions," she said. "Maybe," said Gilbert. "And maybe superstition is right," said his father. "Well," sa This book is many things: oral history, travelogue, folklore, poetry, treasure. It's the reassuringly salty tang of the seaside air, a glimpse of glossy eyes in the water, finding humanity in nature and vice versa. It's a product of a particular place, or set of places, and a time that I worry would otherwise be lost to us: Mrs. Charleson clicked her tongue. "The old people were full o' superstitions," she said. "Maybe," said Gilbert. "And maybe superstition is right," said his father. "Well," said Gilbert, "I think maybe the old people saw what we canna see. There no doubt, Mother, that your mother saw things. Now if ye think o' the trows, the little people — I believe there were some who could see them. And there's no doubt the little people were in Shetland at one time. Ye can see the houses they lived in down at Jarlshof where the excavations are and the doors are only so high." He held his hand by his knee. "So maybe the people one time had the power to see what's hidden from us. In the hills there's something to be seen, I'm sure o' that. And on the sea." "We believe what we believe," said his father, getting up and moving to the door. "And there's no way to ken is it right or wrong." Seamus Heaney notes in the introduction that The People of the Sea, first published in 1954, "was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and — most important — gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form." The cover of my copy identifies this as a journey in search of the seal legend, but it, they, we are just the beginning. I find it difficult to do justice to the voices, the characters Thomson has kept alive, and I type "character" deliberately, with the best, least belittling sense of the word in mind: these people are all so vivid and memorable, I couldn't help reading aloud in my mind hoping to capture the rhythm, the timbre, the richness of both the language and the stories themselves. Some are familiar, featuring Coneelys and stolen skins and longing above all else. The Secret of Roan Inish, a film I first watched and loved as a teenager, remains a favorite for taking the legends at their word and allowing the tales to become not just history, but heritage. In that movie, like this book, seals are a kind of mirror. A child left behind in a cave is nursed and cared for by a flippered matron; another, having wandered with his dog to a rocky outcrop from which he can't escape, finds rescue in the desperate cries of a seal who alerts his mother with her astonishingly human-like wail. Seal-killers, seeking skins and fat, find themselves cursed. Seals become men become limpid-eyed saviors, offering a ride to safe havens or underwater palaces to aid their injured relatives. They prevent the deaths of five brothers who are lost at sea as their family and friends embark on a marathon wake in their honor: "And then there was knocking on the door and no man had courage enough to open it, but when one did there stood the five Cregan men before him and spoke to him. But it was a long time before the people would believe they were alive. Now the first thing they told the company was how they were saved by that seal." "It was a miracle," said the slow voice, and I was surprised to find that every man in the room, except me, knew exactly what had happened but was eager to hear it again. As it was the ferryman's turn to tell it, they waited after every interruption for him to go on in his own way. I love this realization — the way Thomson captures the essence of the moment without injecting himself into it in a disruptive way. He goes from shore to ferry to island asking questions about seals but letting the answers he receives speak for themselves. There is no unnecessary guidance or sentimentality, no hand-holding or moralizing, and reading The People of the Sea is a more intimate and emotional experience as a result. He returns to the same place multiple times, and the people who had welcomed him as a stranger before now embrace him as an old friend, sharing charms, trinkets and wisdom. ("It is right to throw some object at a mermaid, and if she does not sink, you are safe. A knife is a very good object to throw at a mermaid.") Most of all, he embodies respect: I liked and admired this man who cared enough for seals to chase after their tales. The People of the Sea contains nine meandering chapters that take what a traveler might describe as the scenic route, ending on the perfect note with a musical epilogue. I can think of no better way to convince you to follow in Thomson's footsteps, too, than by adding to the quotes above this passage from Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's From the Hebrides (1925): We were some little distance from the water's edge, parallel with which out in the sea, ran a long line of skerries, reefs that are covered at high tide. On the skerries were stretched, also basking in the sunlight, innumerable great grey seals, seals that visit these isles only at long intervals. My friends, great enthusiasts for Hebridean songs, who use their own string instrument arrangements of them for their students, said to me: 'Try singing "The Sealwoman's Sea-joy" to the seals themselves.' I raised myself on my elbow — I was too lazily happy at the moment to stand erect — and, with the most carrying tone I could summon, sang the first phrase of the song. Instantly the response began at the southern end of the reef, and a perfect fusillade of single answering tones came from seal after seal, travelling rapidly northward, until at the further end of the reef it ceased. Then, after a moment of intense silence, a beautiful solo voice sang... The voice was quite human in character but much greater in volume than any mezzo-soprano I have ever heard. Is the song I sang really a seal song, and did the Isles folk learn it from the seals? I noted it many years ago from an old Uist woman. Did the seals mistake me for one of themselves, and had the phrase I sang a meaning for them, and did they instantly grasp it and answer it?

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    The haunting record of a journey in search of the man-seal legends of the Celts. David Thomson's travels in the Hebrides and the west coast of Ireland brought him into contact with a people whose association with the sea and its fertile lore runs deep. These simple people were gifted with the most ancient storytelling arts. They told of men rescued by seals in stormy seas, of babies suckled by seal-mothers, and of men who took sea-women for wives--stories centuries-old handed down to them by the The haunting record of a journey in search of the man-seal legends of the Celts. David Thomson's travels in the Hebrides and the west coast of Ireland brought him into contact with a people whose association with the sea and its fertile lore runs deep. These simple people were gifted with the most ancient storytelling arts. They told of men rescued by seals in stormy seas, of babies suckled by seal-mothers, and of men who took sea-women for wives--stories centuries-old handed down to them by their forefathers. This book seeks to brings these fascinating legends alive. This could have been a dry textbook and, indeed, as Stewart Sanderson says in the book’s afterword, “Some of the material has been published in scholarly monographs and journals [and] more is to be found in the collections of folklore archives in Ireland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries in particular,” but what works for me about this collection is the fact that real people tell the stories. That Thomson writes himself into the book is one thing – and a good thing – but he doesn’t simply retell the tales as A S Byatt chose to do, albeit eloquently, in her recent Ragnarok: The End of the Gods; instead we feel the presence of the various storytellers exactly as in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Storyteller of Marrakesh. As Heaney puts it: David Thomson's achievement is pre-eminently stylistic; his writing combines a feel for the "this-worldness" of his characters' lives with an understanding of the "otherworldness" they keep a place for in their consciousness. I found this a thoroughly-engaging book, quite a delight to read, in fact, and it doesn’t feel like non-fiction in the slightest because so much of it isn’t. You can read my full review on my blog here.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Story

    Somewhere between memoir and a record of folklore, David Thomson journeyed Ireland and Scotland in pursuit of the Atlantic seal-- the selchie-- and its stories. Thomson renders speech fluidly, with care and attention to the speaker's voice, such that the reader is there with him in the ruins of the Black House, or at the public house, or by the fire in the home of a stranger listening to the tales. It's clear that the village life, the backdrop of the tales Thomson recorded was one in flux-- cha Somewhere between memoir and a record of folklore, David Thomson journeyed Ireland and Scotland in pursuit of the Atlantic seal-- the selchie-- and its stories. Thomson renders speech fluidly, with care and attention to the speaker's voice, such that the reader is there with him in the ruins of the Black House, or at the public house, or by the fire in the home of a stranger listening to the tales. It's clear that the village life, the backdrop of the tales Thomson recorded was one in flux-- changing, losing itself to modernity, its children being stolen away by cities and new ways of being. Thomson finds the threads and connections among the folk he visits, and lays them down without connecting the dots for the reader, giving the book an easy way, like Thomson himself is relating his tale of tale tellers telling their tales. It is heartbreaking in small ways, that you notice when coming away from it, when you let the images settle next to one another. I think this has to be my favorite thing I've read all year.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    One of those books that you slow down your reading pace in order to enjoy the experience. A sensitive and gentle tale exploring the simple lives of isolated Irish and Scotish communities, and the role of storytelling in their lives, now all but lost. Beautiful recording of an fragment of a dying mythological tradition. I saw seals every day on the Cornish Coast arround the time I was finishing this book!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Padraic

    If you had one shot at writing a great book, would you choose sealskin as a subject? Maybe you should. Nah, already been done.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    Wow- I had no idea I would ever be interested in this, but it looks fabulous.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Katie Marquette

    "So maybe people one time had the power to see what's hidden from us. In the hills there's something to be seen, I'm sure o' that. And on the sea." "We believe what we believe [...] And there's no way to ken is it right or wrong." This is one of the most unique, puzzling, and beautiful books I've ever read. My husband finds my newfound interest selchies ('seal folk' of the Celtic Isles) somewhat amusing. David Thomson also had a hard time describing his deep interest in the folklore around the gre "So maybe people one time had the power to see what's hidden from us. In the hills there's something to be seen, I'm sure o' that. And on the sea." "We believe what we believe [...] And there's no way to ken is it right or wrong." This is one of the most unique, puzzling, and beautiful books I've ever read. My husband finds my newfound interest selchies ('seal folk' of the Celtic Isles) somewhat amusing. David Thomson also had a hard time describing his deep interest in the folklore around the grey seals - "I don't think of stories that way," he said, "as lies or truth. I like to hear them; that's all." Selchie stories are largely sad, violent, and absurd. Some say the grey seals are fallen angels. Some say they're the souls of drowned sailors. There are stories of selchie kings and their human children. There are many stories of beautiful selchie women who find their seal skin and return to the sea but continue to leave fish for their human children and husband on the shore. This book is like a memory you can't place. It has the rhythms of a way of life all but lost. As much a collection of selchie tales as a record of the Isle folk who told them. These stories can only be understood and found in societies that live so closely to the Earth. The Sea and it's inhabitants - the very human eyes of the seals - haunted fishermen for generations. It was seen as bad luck to save a drowning man. God - the Sea - had claimed him. You didn't interfere with the will of the Sea. Selchies represent a bridge between men and the ocean - animals of both land and water... Animals that seemed to mourn their children, to love their mates. The selchie became a conduit for the fears and dreams of men. Thomson takes us into a lost world - an Ireland filled with travelling story tellers and old "Black Houses." An Ireland where every action had a prayer - a prayer for raking the fire in the evening, etc. An Ireland where myths and memory merged - who could say what was true and what wasn't? There is a sense that perhaps the world is changing - the magic is leaving - but there was a time, not so distant, when these strange and magical things truly did happen. Near the end, when Thompson recounts some of the old selchie songs, he describes how the seals seemed to know the old Gaelic melodies - how they even answered and finished the ballads of singers on the beach. Did the old songs come from the seals? Did the fishermen perhaps learn their songs from the selchies? But now the songs are mostly lost. There is no back and forth between men and seals, between men and the sea. The language - the stories - are being lost. At once sad and beautiful. Again, a strange, imaginative book, unlike anything I've read before.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sophy H

    A fascinating look at the folklore tales of Scotland and Ireland regarding selchies or seals and their relationship with people/as (half land, half sea) people. Like Niall519 mentioned, I would have preferred it had Thomson told us a little more of selchie lore instead of the heavy reliance on reminiscence, since many of the "tales" were similar if not the same but repeated. Nevertheless, the communities in which he immerses himself, come across as friendly and conversational. Intriguing if not a A fascinating look at the folklore tales of Scotland and Ireland regarding selchies or seals and their relationship with people/as (half land, half sea) people. Like Niall519 mentioned, I would have preferred it had Thomson told us a little more of selchie lore instead of the heavy reliance on reminiscence, since many of the "tales" were similar if not the same but repeated. Nevertheless, the communities in which he immerses himself, come across as friendly and conversational. Intriguing if not a little rambling on occasion.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ape

    This is such a beautiful book, albeit melancholic in atmosphere sometimes. Written in the 1950s and accounting experiences before then, I guess a lot of this is a world long since lost. Not that I want to look at things through rose-tinted glasses. Life was tough and dangerous and for women there wasn't much doing. But at the same time it has been fascinating. It's hard to classify this book. In some ways it's travel and childhood memoirs. It's also a study of folklore, of Irish and Scottish cult This is such a beautiful book, albeit melancholic in atmosphere sometimes. Written in the 1950s and accounting experiences before then, I guess a lot of this is a world long since lost. Not that I want to look at things through rose-tinted glasses. Life was tough and dangerous and for women there wasn't much doing. But at the same time it has been fascinating. It's hard to classify this book. In some ways it's travel and childhood memoirs. It's also a study of folklore, of Irish and Scottish culture. David Thomson developed a particular interest in the celtic folklore of the selchie, seal-people, and these chapters tell of times he's come into contact with the stories. Starting in northern Scotland, at Nairn, where he spent childhood summers, and then trips to the Hebridies, Shetland, Orkney and Ireland, sitting with old sea dogs in their cottages and listening to the tales that had been handed down generation from generation. Some with the requirement of a translator, because back in those days there were still some that we're so comfortable with English and were much happier speaking Gaelic.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Monica Davis

    A very enjoyable read in which culture blends with magical tales. This non-fiction work delves into the world of legends and folklore surrounding seals as selkies, mermaids, and people. The explanations are passed along through wonderful stories and recollections of locals from small fishing villages.

  14. 4 out of 5

    jack

    really fantastic book collecting different bits of seal folklore around ireland. its full of information, but gives the feel of learning around a hearth fire rather than a dry academic approach. wish i could find more by him

  15. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

    Beautiful, quirky story of one man's love of the sea and the story of the selkie legend. Could just as well be under travel section, as he travels to the Hebrides and Ireland's West Coast. Lovely writing on an engaging topic.

  16. 4 out of 5

    CAW

    As much about sea-Gaels and Orcadians as the marine fey and the sea they interact with, a beautiful interweaving of observation and folk-telling. See http://saltnester.livejournal.com/113... As much about sea-Gaels and Orcadians as the marine fey and the sea they interact with, a beautiful interweaving of observation and folk-telling. See http://saltnester.livejournal.com/113...

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kristen Ringman

    Beautiful REAL stories about the selchies of Ireland and Scotland...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Betsy Cornwell

    Gorgeous. Amazing. Fascinating. I love this book so much.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Debs

    A thorough examination of the mythology behind the seal-folk; a great read for anyone interested in traditional tales.

  20. 5 out of 5

    John

    Amazingly well put together. Wish there were more out there like this.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nathalie (keepreadingbooks)

    This one is rather difficult to define – it is neither a study in folklore, a straightforward collection of myths and legends, a memoir, a travel narrative nor a nature book. It’s mostly a mix of all of these things, sprinkled with what I assume might be some fiction too (you can’t be certain, but with a book that refuses to be defined, the author is free to do pretty much what he or she wants to enhance the narrative). Thomson acquires an interest in selchies – mythical creatures that take the f This one is rather difficult to define – it is neither a study in folklore, a straightforward collection of myths and legends, a memoir, a travel narrative nor a nature book. It’s mostly a mix of all of these things, sprinkled with what I assume might be some fiction too (you can’t be certain, but with a book that refuses to be defined, the author is free to do pretty much what he or she wants to enhance the narrative). Thomson acquires an interest in selchies – mythical creatures that take the form of grey seals and can transform into humans – at an early age, and that interest (named an obsession by himself) stays with him throughout his adult life. He undertakes to seek out the stories of selchies that for many years were told and believed on the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and the west of Ireland, and the result of his travels is this book. The stories he discovers are full of magic, both in telling and in content. Thomson skilfully recreates real settings and landscapes that transport you and draw you fully into the legends that accompany them – you start to feel a sense of awe for the seal, even if your rational mind knows it is just a seal, nothing more. You also feel affection for the people that live in this book. The characters telling the stories are unique and a dying kind – the younger generations are seduced and enlightened by the modern world, removing themselves more and more from the stories and traditions of their origins. A young girl calls the myths lies, but Thomson says gently that he cares not whether they are lies or truths, he just “likes to hear them; that’s all.” Which is, to some extent, the truth that forms the basis of our love for stories. If you are at all into folklore, this one is for you. It’s a slow book, and it won’t provide you with much background information – it’s not in the least academic, and for all the memoirish elements it does have, this book is not about the author either. The stories are front and centre and are really the entire point of this book. I enjoyed it immensely. /NK

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jay Callahan

    An enjoyable book, structured as reminiscences and retellings of stories from the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland (and Orkneys) that focus on the interactions of seals as magical or at least also human beings; their interactions with humans. The author has a warm sympathy for human societies now vanished, and for seals, and writes well. As someone who lived years in those societies, though, he does sometimes indulge in some fey mush, as well. "Fey mush"? It is a question of the style, though An enjoyable book, structured as reminiscences and retellings of stories from the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland (and Orkneys) that focus on the interactions of seals as magical or at least also human beings; their interactions with humans. The author has a warm sympathy for human societies now vanished, and for seals, and writes well. As someone who lived years in those societies, though, he does sometimes indulge in some fey mush, as well. "Fey mush"? It is a question of the style, though that style arises from the person. Though it will not be obvious to a reader who doesn't know the communities and stories, Thomson is too present in the book. Not overtly, and not so much in the stories themselves, but in the descriptions of his travels and interactions, where his identity as a member of a superior society (British middle class) traveling among the natives -- in this case picturesque "natural" Gaels -- and also his "personality", flavor the interactions that he describes in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I'm thinking of the encounters with the Hebridean girl; and various children, in particular. (These encounters are illuminated by his other book (Woodbrook House?). At the risk of being an idiot, I might say that Thomson as a person was an outsider who wanted very much to be part of the warm close human communities that he describes here, but that something in him prevented that. I'm probably overstating it, and, again, it won't be an issue to most readers. By the way, versions of most of the Mayo stories can be found in the book The Living Landscape: Kilgalligan, County Mayo (1975).

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kathy Leland

    I've been very slowly reading this book for almost two years now, not because it's long or difficult, but simply because I didn't want it to end. It's a rare and beautiful talent that can bring forth an entire culture and a way of life right before it disappears altogether in to modernity. Thomson wrote this book in 1954, his account of travels in the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and Ireland in search of legends of the selchies [or selkies], mythological creatures in the form of seals I've been very slowly reading this book for almost two years now, not because it's long or difficult, but simply because I didn't want it to end. It's a rare and beautiful talent that can bring forth an entire culture and a way of life right before it disappears altogether in to modernity. Thomson wrote this book in 1954, his account of travels in the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and Ireland in search of legends of the selchies [or selkies], mythological creatures in the form of seals that can transform into humans. He gathers and pays homage to these stories, legends and folktales, talking to old people and fishermen and sea village dwellers, often reproducing the cadences and rhythms of the way they use language as they tell their stories. Mostly the author just respectfully listens, asking an occasional question, wandering desolate landscapes where he is always open to tracking down another tale. Very often he is taken in by isolated residents who enjoy providing hospitality . The harsh environment seems to lend itself to something close to belief in these people. There are stories of seals rescuing seamen in storms, seal-wives and husbands, a magical symbiosis between humans and seals that filtered through their daily lives and beliefs. Thomson's beautiful prose and quiet selection of detail make him the very best kind of storyteller and folklorist. I am very thankful that Thomson was able to capture this fascinating sense of the world before it became lost to us forever.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    I picked this up at a used bookstore on a whim and I'm so happy I did. I LOVED it. I'd been interested in selkie stories ever since I saw The Secret of Roan Inish. This book is basically an account of the author wandering around Ireland and Scotland for several years listening to people tell seal stories. It was just so evocative and the stories were so gripping... would that we still had such a strong oral storytelling tradition in our culture today. I am itching to visit the Hebrides now. BONU I picked this up at a used bookstore on a whim and I'm so happy I did. I LOVED it. I'd been interested in selkie stories ever since I saw The Secret of Roan Inish. This book is basically an account of the author wandering around Ireland and Scotland for several years listening to people tell seal stories. It was just so evocative and the stories were so gripping... would that we still had such a strong oral storytelling tradition in our culture today. I am itching to visit the Hebrides now. BONUS: This book taught me about the incredible beachgoing, seaweed-eating sheep of North Ronaldsay. For real.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Fishface

    Simply a collection of the selchie tales the author was able to collect travelling around Scotland and Ireland, all of them charming and -- to the tellers -- often 100% true. I was startled to read that one of the tellers of these tales takes it as a fact that (among others) a family named Coneely is believed to have been descended from a selchie -- the plot of the movie THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, presented as fiction. Apparently if you're an Irishman, it's just a fact. This was a great read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mick Bordet

    A nice collection of folk tales, tied together in a narrative that is both charming and frustrating. On one hand it gives a real feeling of the hospitality of remote fishing communities, the likes of which are probably all but gone these days, but there are numerous detours along the way, some of which interrupt the flow.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kelsey

    Really enjoyed this book. Not only are the folk tales lovely, Thompson’s prose also tells of a way of life that has since changed in Scotland and Ireland. He does a great job of bringing to life a world where selchies were believed in and life’s rhythms were slower.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alex Clare

    This is almost a stream of consciousness, coalescing into more formal stories, normally told by one of the characters met on the author's travels. Best when read in the tradition of Joyce...

  29. 4 out of 5

    Emilia

    The only way I could have loved these stories more would be if they had been read to me in Scottish and Irish lilts

  30. 4 out of 5

    Andreas

    Pretty good

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