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  The Selkie-folk

One Spared to the Sea

Selkie Rescue: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieIt is many years now since Willie Westness of Over-the-Watter on the island of Sanday was digging lugworms for bait in the little sandy bay on the east side of Elsness.

By the time his pail was full, the tide had not yet turned. The trink was still safe to cross, and he decided to look for driftwood farther along the shore.

Then it was that he heard the cry from the rocks - a moan like that of a woman in pain swelling into a loud, trange sound and dying into a sort of sob.

It seemed to come from the geo, a little inlet hidden behind the rocks and covered at high tide. Out in the deep water a big seal had raised its head and was listening and watching intently. Willie moved quietly towards the geo. Coming around the rocks that had hidden it, he saw, lying on the shelving stone, another big seal. Beside her was a newborn pup. As the mother began to move, he ran down over the rocks. The seal flopped into the water, but the pup lay helpless at his feet. It squirmed as he picked it up, and then pressed against him and nuzzled at his hand.

I'll take it home for the bairn, thought Willie, and keep it in the small loch at Over-the-Watter. At the edge of the rocks the mother seal splashed and sobbed in distress. When he glanced up, she was pulling herself clumsily back out of the water to lie moaning at the edge, her round eyes full of tears. The pup too gazed at him with soft blurred brown eyes, and nosed at his sleeve. Its little sleek round head was like a child's . . .

"Ach, selkie, take thee bairn and be gone wi' ye!" said Willie Westness aloud. He put the pup down close to the water's edge and watched the seal come to it. Then he collected his pail of lugworrns and trudged back over the trink where the tide was just beginning to run.

Nine years afterwards, Willie Westness had a family of four.

One fine day the three youngest went wading for cockles at the little sandy bay. They knew well enough that they should not cross the trink, where the water swept in so fast and deep on the high tide. But they had heard their father say that the cockles were better there than in the large bay itself, and after a little argument among them- selves, they crossed over.

"We won't stay long," said Johnny, the eldest.

"We'll hurry back," agreed his sister, Jeanie.

The cockles were plentiful, and they went on gathering. When the pail was nearly full, they turned towards home. The tide was flowing fast. The trink had widened. "Hurry!" said Johnny. But for all that he and Jeanie pulled and scolded, little Tam's fat legs could not be hurried over the rocks. Every minute the water deepened. When it was about their ankles, the two younger began to cry, clinging together and pressing back into a corner of the rocks. Johnny stood further out, watching the waves rising and shouting with all his might. But no one appeared across the trink to help them, and the water rose steadily.

Then they heard a soft voice singing almost beside them. Two people had come up behind them - two grey-cloaked women that they did not know.

"Come away, bairns," said the elder. She had a plump, friendly face and round brown eyes. "Come away. It will soon be too late." She took little Tam and Jeanie by the hands and led them straight into the water that was now up to their knees where they stood. Up to their middles it rose, and before they had crossed the trink, up to their necks. But held in her firm, warm grasp they kept their footing and found themselves in safety on the far side. Looking back, they saw their brother coming hand-in-hand with the smaller, slimmer woman. Her other hand held the bucket of cockles, balancing it on her head.

"All's well," said the older woman cheerfully, and the younger smiled shyly and looked at them kindly from her brown eyes. "Now take thee father a word from me," said the elder. "Remember now, say to thee father, Willie Westness, to mind a day when he digged lugworm at the geo, nine summers gone. And say to him that one spared to the sea is three spared to the land."

And she bade them repeat the message till it was right: "One spared to the sea is three spared to the land."

"Now run away home, bairns," she said. "And dunno pass the trink again - I came for once only. Run away home!"

And she gave them a little push. Obediently they ran. And when they looked back from the foreshore, the tide was pouring through the trink and the water was high over the rocks.

No grey-cloaked women were in sight and two seals were swimming towards the point of Elsness.

The Selkie That Deud No Forget

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