The People Of The Sea

By Bernie Bell

(Painting & pics by McB)

I wrote about our walk at Newark Bay, and of how the cliffs are eroding there, taking a cemetery with them.  We were reminded by County Archaeologist, Julie Gibson, of the importance of reporting all found bones which might be human, to the police and to Julie herself  –

Editor of ‘The Orkney News’, Fiona Grahame, then told me this tale, so I’ll present it in her own words………

 “When I was a teacher we were at Newark, school summer trip, and the kids found what looked like the bones of a hand. It was bagged and an auxiliary took it to the Police Station as per instructions.

Of course my mind was racing that a fisherman had severed his hand sometime in the past whilst out at sea etc

Anyway it was identified as that of a seal.

It was a fascinating find but the Police kept it – maybe they threw it out. All jointed digits like our fingers except of course where our thumb would be was different.”

And I answered Fiona…..

“Yes, inside, their flippers are so like our hands – it’s very hard to tell.

They are so ‘human’ in many ways – hence all the stories.

I bet the kids loved it – they do like gruesome things.

You could weave a tale, about the fisherman’s hand, and how it came to be where you found it………

Of course – the fisherman could have been a Selkie – lost his hand, which reverted…….

A fisherman who was a Selkie – would that mean that he was “a man upon the land”, and, kind of, on the sea, too –  when in his boat?

That’s an interesting  idea.

Throw that one at Tom Muir, and watch him play with it!”

(Tom Muir is a well-known Orcadian story teller – )

The essence of the tale could be – a fisherman, who is a Selkie – ‘man upon the land’, but also, man upon the sea, when in his boat – but he is a Selkie.

While at sea, he loses a hand – maybe in a battle with a denizen of the deep – maybe a magicy kind of denizen of the deep.  The hand, reverts to being a flipper.  So, if you find the bones of a flipper, on a beach – it might be a hand – you never know…

The tale could weave around the man/seal – both of his ‘lives’,  his tale, the fight – maybe he then spends his life, trying to track down and revenge himself on the creature that took his hand – like Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’, or Captain Hook in ‘Peter Pan’!

And, all the time – the bones of his flipper, are in the Natural History section, of Stromness Museum.

Then, when the man dies, the flipper could become a hand again – the Custodian arrives at the Museum one morning, to find – the bones of a human hand, in the display case.

People of the sea Mike Bell

I was then thinking of all the sections of coastline, around Orkney, which are eroding badly – see ‘Rising Tides’ by Julie Gibson & Frank Bradford

As we are an island nation, there has always been a lot of life being lived along  the edges of the sea, and also, a lot of folks being buried, either by what was the edge of the sea, at the time,  or what is now the edge of the sea, as the coast has eroded away. Consider the burial ground of St. Ninian’s Church, Deerness , which is now teetering on the edge of destruction.

Consider all those coastal burial places, all those people’s bones, eroding out and going into the sea – becoming people of the sea.

A different angle on the Selkie stories, where the seal becomes human – becomes seal again. The human, passes from this life as a human, passes though the ceremonies of passing. Sleeps, for a time, in the sound of the nearby ocean.  Then, the sea claims them, and they become people of the sea.

The image I have, is of the Orkney Islands, with the sea lapping around them, hungry to claim them, and those seas, awash with the sea-people, hungry to be ‘on land’ again.  As the land becomes sea, and the sea becomes land – as has happened before in the history of this planet – will our forebears, ‘live’ here again?

I wish I could draw, and I’d draw the islands, with the seas around them, and all those people, in the seas, through time.

Maybe someone else could do that?

One of the themes of the Orkney International Science Festival this year, is Coasts and Waters – and there is a lot happening in those waters around our coasts, including, maybe, those past people, waiting…

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1 reply »

  1. What a strange thought.There must be loads of human bones including hands in the sea and as you say, potentially it could make an intruiging painting!

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