I am delighted to welcome back to Jaffareadstoo
|St Martin's Press|
Are there mermaids and seal people descendants living in the US today?
How legends sometimes hold lost history.
When I first heard the legend of the seal people I was struck by how sad it was. Selkies are seals in the water but become human on land. If someone steals their sealskin they can never go home to the sea again. I was amazed to find out from Gaelic historian John MacAulay that behind this legend lay very real people: kayakers in sealskin canoes and jackets who used to come down to Scotland and Ireland from Arctic Norway up to 200 year ago. If their kayaks and sealskins were damaged or stolen, then they would really be unable to return home.
The Sea House became a story about people who can never go home again: about Moira who is cleared from her village and has her home burned by the landlord to make way for sheep; about Alexander who struggles to remain at home in his rigid beliefs; and a hundred years later, Ruth who not only has lost her mother but also her peace of mind after being cruelly treated in foster care. As the characters began to take on their own lives, I was especially surprised by Moira, how she seemed to want to jump up and speak for the anger that these dispossessed speakers carry. And she insisted that I give her a knife – the only question then being would she use it to take her revenge against her landlord, or would she find some kind of grace in her life to begin to build a new life?
Writing The Sea House also became my attempt to try and create on the page the lives of two endangered ancient cultures, the Sea Sami and the Gaelic crofters, both communities that were persecuted and cleared from their lands and identities for years. And sadly for the Sea Sami, their branch of the Sami tribes has indeed disappeared in Norway, after the Samis were forcibly assimilated through laws and taxes. Both Sami and Scots Gaelic culture went through a period when even their beautiful language was banned and children were beaten if they spoke it in school.
The Selkie story is in fact very old oral history, describing the Sami kayakers and how they appeared to the Hebridean islanders, as they stepped out of their seal skin kayaks and jackets and became men and women, sometimes falling in love with islanders and getting married.
Some families in the Hebridean islands are known as the children of seal peoples, such as clan MacOdrum. Due to the clearances there are now no more MacOdrums left in Scotland, but I have begun to contact some of the remaining descendants in the US and Canada. This family really does have the sea people gene! They are probably partly descended from Samis who kayaked down from Norway hundreds of years ago.
Sometimes these visitors to the Scottish coasts were described as mermaids. There is a famous mermaid funeral recorded on Uist in 1830, with people claiming to have seen and touched the body –a scene that I used in the novel. The idea for The Sea House began with a letter sent to the Times in London in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a Scots schoolmaster. There were many such sightings, and it isn’t so surprising when you think how the Sami kayakers must have appeared to people who’d never seen a kayak before. The kayak would become waterlogged at the end of the day and sink just below the sea surface, so all you would see was a skin-clad half figure with a tail-like appendage wavering in the water!
200 years ago the sightings stopped - exactly the date when the Sea Sami disappeared. By then, along with those of the Viking invaders, Sami genes were a part of the Scots heritage.
And it’s a heritage that has carried across the Atlantic. Walking around in the US and Canada today will be descendants of mermaids and selkies, whose ancestors’ genes are not only Scots but also part Norwegian Sea Sami.
The Sea House also explores the power of story, both to heal and to pass on actual history. Although the book is written as a quite gothic mystery, all the facts are from research and I hope will give the reader a feel for the experiences of the clearance years in Scotland, and of crofting life in the Hebridean islands – and of course a glimpse of the lost Sea Sami and their Eskimo style technology.
Here is Julie Fowlis who sang the Gaelic tracks on Brave singing a song written by MacOdrum, the famous bard.
Elisabeth ~ thank you for sharing this fascinating glimpse into a forgotten world and for giving so generously of your time.
Elisabeth is very generously giving away copies of The Sea House to 2 lucky US readers of this blog
And also a copy of Secrets of the Sea House to one lucky UK reader.
Enter this giveaway