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  The Selkie-folk

The selkie that deud no' forget

Translation from Dialect
(View the original dialect version here)

A long time ago, Magnus Muir was gathering limpets on the shore, on the west side of Hacksness in Sanday, when he was puzzled to hear from some place among the rocks a very curious sound.

Sometimes it was like a person groaning with pain; and then it would become a loud sound like the roaring of a dying cow.

And then again the sound would die away to a low and most pitiful moan, as if it were a person completely exhausted after a bout of child-bearing pain.

The sound was so extremely pitiful that it made Magnus uneasy.

Magnus could see nothing for a little while, except a large seal quite near the rocks, thrusting its head above the surface of the water, and looking with both eyes into an inlet a short distance away.

And Magnus noticed that the seal was not afraid; it never dived, and never ceased to gaze at the inlet.

Magnus crossed over a large rock which lay between him and the place; and there, in a corner of the inlet, he saw a mother seal lying in the throes of her calving pains.

It was this seal that made all the bitter moaning and loud bellowing; and the father seal lay in the sea watching his mate in her trouble.

Magnus stood and watched her too, and he said it was pitiful to see what the poor dumb animal suffered. And he stood there, a little way off, until she calved two fine seal calves, which were no sooner on the rocks than they took hold of her teats.

Magnus thought to himself that the skins of the calves would make him a splendid waistcoat; and he ran to where all three were lying. The poor mother seal rolled over the edge of the rock into the sea; but the two young seals did not have the wit to get away.

So Magnus seized them both.

And then it was wonderful to see the behaviour of the mother seal. She was so anxious about her young. She rolled round and round in the sea, and beat herself with her paws, like a thing demented. And then she would climb with her forepaws on the rock, and gaze into Magnus' face, with a look so exceedingly pitiful, that to see her would have melted a heart of stone. The father seal was acting in the same way, except that he would not come so close to Magnus.

Magnus turned to go away with the two young seals in his arms - they were sucking his jacket as if they were at their mother's breast - when he heard the seal mother give a groan so dismal and hollow, and so like a human being, that it went straight to his heart, and quite overcame him.

He looked around, and saw the mother seal lying on her side with her head on the rock, and he saw - as certainly as he ever saw anything on earth - tears brimming from both her eyes.

To see nature working so powerfully in the poor dumb creature was more than he could stand. So he bent down and placed both the young seals on the rock.

The mother took them in her paws and clasped them to her bosom, just as if she had been a human mother with a child. And she looked right into Magnus' face; oh, what a glad look she gave him! It did Magnus good to see her. For that day the seal did everything but speak.

Magnus was then a young man; and some time afterward he married.

And a long time after he was married, when his children had all grown up, he went to stay on the west side of Eday.

One fine evening, Magnus went to fish for coal-fish off an outlying rock. It was an isolated rock that was covered at high tide; you could only walk to it dry-shod at low water.

The fish wouldn't take for a time; but when the flood tide began, the fishing became so good that Magnus stood and pulled in the fish until he had quite filled his creel.

With the fish taking so well, he forgot in his eagerness for them, the path he had to take. And when he was ready to go home, he was horrified to discover that the channel between him and the land was covered by the sea, and the water was so deep that it would have gone over his head.

Magnus shouted again and again, but he was far away from any house, and no one heard his cries.

The water kept rising, it came above his knees, then over his hips, then up to his armpits; and many a sore sigh he gave, as the water came ever higher and higher to his chin.

He shouted until he was hoarse, and could shout no more. And then he gave up all hope of life, and saw nothing before him but dismal death.

But just as the sea was coming round his neck, and coming now and then in little ripples into his mouth; just as he found the sea beginning to lift him from the rock- something seized him by the collar of his jacket, and swung him off his feet.

He had no idea what it was, or where he was, until he found his feet on the bottom, where he could wade in safety to the shore. And when the creature that had hold of him let him go, he waded to the dry land.

He looked towards the place from whence he had come, and saw a large seal swimming to the rock, where she dived, took up his creel of fish, and swam with it to the land. He waded out and took the creel full of fish out of her mouth; and he said with all his heart, 'God bless the seal that does not forget'.

And she looked at him as if she would have said, could she have spoken, 'One good turn deserves another.'

She was the same seal that he had seen calving on Hacksness 40 years before.

He said he would have known her motherly look among a thousand. But she had grown very large and old. So that was the seal that did not forget.

I wish everyone would remember what is good, as well as that seal.

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