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December 2006, vol 2 no 4

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Jane Whittle

Sea Songs

Bardsey Island floats in the sunset at the end of the Lleyn Peninsular, like a comma at the end of a long phrase—a pause for breath. Wind and tide preclude a landing anywhere along its rocky shores except on the calmest of days, so visitors must prepare to be stranded.

Since the sixth century people have come here for respite from the world. The Welsh name, Ynys yn yr Lli (island in the flow), suits it well—water, winds and years flow round this solitary rock. Time seems to stop when you land; it also has less meaning—the bones of Celtic saints are still surfacing from old paths. Thousands of sea birds breed on the cliffs but only dozens of people live here all the year round—farmers and fishermen, a few naturalists, sometimes a hermit or a poet. It is a place of legends, sanctity and wild weather. To have arrived is enough.

somewhere to rest
birds of passage feed
on seeds of silence

Alone on the shore all I can hear is the lapping of small waves on the sand. Solfach cove is heaped with brown sea-weed smelling of sulphur and salt. The sun is hot, the tide is out. I lean against a warm rock and doze.

no wind today
someone humming
under the sea

Like Ulysses, beguiled by distant voices—strange and new—soon I am struggling across sharp, slippery rocks, falling into pools of waving seaweed, grazing my knees. The water is achingly cold—I should accept that I am no longer agile enough for such adventures. The music is muffled by the slapping sounds of water, but close now—just behind the next rock. So I continue carefully on all fours for a while until, when I look back ... the tide has come in and I am much further out than I thought. With difficulty I return to the beach and do what I came here to do—sit still and listen.

The songs grow louder—haunting, nostalgic, seductive notes. Tentatively I try to repeat them.

on rising tide
voices of the mermaids singing
each to each

Hours later, at high tide, wading out waist deep into the sea, I meet the young ones. Their heads pop up, one by one, in a semi-circle a few yards away. Wide eyed they watch, whiskers twitching. Somewhere beyond those rocks their parents are still singing.

The Irish poet, Sean og Murphy, enticed a female seal inshore by singing a song which pleased her so much she "fell dead asleep on top of the water". As the waves rocked her and the tide retreated she was soon left lying on dry land.

The next day, I watch this happen in the sheltered bay of Henllwyn. The older seals lie blissfully on their backs, exposing huge pale bellies, waving an occasional lazy flipper, half asleep, rocking in the swell like boats at anchor. When the tide falls the young ones clambour onto the rocks beside them and the singing begins. I answer, phrase by phrase. As the tide returns the young are shoved off into the water, but those curious faces soon appear again around the rock where I am sitting.

In a collection of Highland Vocal Airs, dated 1784, there is a fisherman's song for attracting "the sea people", or "selkies", who were thought to be the spellbound children of the King of Lochlann. Sometimes a fisherman fell in love with a seal woman—beauty, wisdom and bravery were in their blood and their skins. So he hid her skin to keep her with him on dry land and bear him children. But, eventually, she would find it again and return to her home under the sea. If the man had been kind to her she might leave gifts of fresh fish on the rocks for her human family.

A seal woman's song, collected by Mrs Kennedy Fraser from the island of Barra, had words too—"Ionn da, ionn do, Ion da, odar da Hiondan dao, odar da." When she sang this the seals replied—"one solo voice in greater volume than any mezzo-soprano ... using the interval of an ascending sixth, a favourite melodic step with the people of the Isles."

Yes, I believe I heard some of those old songs—they are still carried on the wind across Bardsey Island, even if no fishermen steal sealskins any more.

no longer alone
the selkies sing with me
I shed my old skin

With acknowledgements to David Thomson, "The People of the Sea" and to T.S.Eliot, "The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock".