One Spared to the Sea
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
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.
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
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
"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
No grey-cloaked women were in sight
and two seals were swimming towards the point of Elsness.