Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Treud Nan Ron (Fiona Macleod)

"What have I heard but the murmur of sand:
What have I seen but foam . . ."
(Refrain of a Gaelic Song.)

Last August, sailing one day on the Lynn of Morven in a black-green calm, though from Cruachan to Nevis a storm darkened the Appin hills with cloud and wind, I heard from a man of Lorne a seal-story that was not so much a tale as a fragment of old legend. There is a low sandy isle among the isles of Lorne, lying in Morven waters between the Corrie of the Stags and the island of Lismore. It is called, I think, Faileag-mhara, which is to say, little lawn or meadow of the sea: a good name, for its pretty beaches and bent-held sands enclose grassy spaces, where the tern descends to her rude nest and the scart and guillemot sometimes breed. My Lorne friend spoke of it as the isle of the piocach, because that fish, the saithe, is often to be caught in plenty, in quiet twilights, off its north sbore. It might be called, also, the isle of shells, for many beautiful shells lie in its little bays and pools. And a poet might call it the isle of voices, for it is always either in some low tranced song, or shaken with a wild music; and, besides, it is like a listening ear of the sea, held to a mysterious sighing from the dark mountains of Morven, or from the continual whispering of the tides of Appin running by the head of Lismore. In storm it is like a harp hung among the branches of tormented trees: men have heard terrifying cries and an intolerable wailing when passing it in the mist and the blindness of tempest.

On the still noon of which I write I had seen a dark head rise from the purple-shadowed blueness of the sea about fifty fathoms away, and had remarked to my companion that the seal yonder was "an old man," as the saying is, and of great size.

"Ay, he is well known here. It's the biggegt bull I've seen this side the west o' Jura. They say he's fêy. Howsoever, he'll bide no seal near him--neither man-seal nor woman-seal. He had a mate once. She swam too near a geòla, a yawl as we might be saying in the English, where a woman leaned in the moonshine an' played a foreign thing like what we call the cruit-spannteach. A man took a gun an' put a ball into her side. She came up three times, crying like a child or bleating like a lamb-lost ewe maybe: it was between the one and the other, and ill to hearken. The bull yonder dashed at the stern o' the yawl an' broke the steering-gear. The failm was torn away, ay an' I tell you the crann sgòidc swung this way an' that--the boom swung this way an' that, for all the calmness of the calm. The man with a gun tried to shoot the man-seal, but couldn't. The singing woman with the foreign music went below crying: and I am not wondering at that if she had seen the eyes of the woman-seal. I've seen the pain in them, I have. I've seen tears in their eyes. I saw one once away out by Heiskir, that was made mateless and childless one red sunset, an' leaned on a rock staring motionless acrost the black an' white. She did not move when a ball struck the rock, an' sent splinters flyin'. She did not turn her head, no not by this or that. She stared out acrost the black an' white. It wasn't where the bull died, or where her young sank. It was out acrost the black and white o' the tost sea. The red of the set was in her eyes. They were redder: ay, I saw that. The black was green about the rock, an' the splash had the whiteness of snow, an' the mussels and dog-whelks on the rock glistered in the shine. A scart flew by her screamin', and the terns wailed. She just stared. Her head was up, an' she stared an' stared an' stared an' stared. The shooters left her alone. It was dark when I sailed east o' that."

"How long has that old man been here?" I asked.

"I am not knowing that. No one knows that. There's a man over yonder, John Stuart up Ballachulish way, who told me it was nine hundred years old. Is that foam? Maybe, maybe. Did ye ever hear tell of the story of the Seal of the Shiant Isles? No? It was like this; though for sure, its no story, but only a saying.

"He was an old bull-seal, and there's no man knows or ever knew the years he had. He was grey with the sea and time. Padruig Dhomnullach, the Heiskir bard, made a song on him. He said he had the years back to the days when Oisin was beautiful as the west wind on the yellow banks o' May. Ay, that he swam the Moyle, when the swans o' Lir were on it, with their singing beyond all singing for sweetness and pain. An' that he was older than them: older than the sgeul or the shennachie, than the tale or the teller. His name was Ròn, an' he was the first o' the clan. He was the son of the King of Ireland, and a brother of a son of that King. His mother was a beautiful woman of the sea in the north isles. She was called Sea-Sand. Perhaps it was because her hair was yellow as the sands of the sea. Perhaps it was because she was like the sand that is now here an' now there, and is sometimes so light that a mew's foot does not stir it and sometimes so smilin' and treacherous that a man sinks in it to his death. An' one day his brother came over to him with a message. They played a game on the shore. It was with great curved shells, an' they were thrown against the wind they were, an' a skilful and crafty throwing is needed for that, they with the holes in them an' the shape like partans of the sea. But that day the wind caught one of the shells in the midway of the hurl, an' it swung sideway an' struck Ròn on the whiteness of the brow. He cried a cry, an' was down. And when the King's son saw that, he had fear. Men would say he had put death on his brother. So he ran from that place. He looked back, and he saw sand blowing upon the body, an' falling upon it, and heard a moaning an' a crying. Then he knew it was Sea-Sand keening the son of her love. And he saw the wave running up the shore, an' she meeting it. And then she lifted Ròn an' threw him in the wave, and he rose like a man an' fell down like a seal, for tall he was, an' handsome he was, but he had no arms now an' no legs, but only a slimness and long body. 'The sea for your home,' she cried, an' that crying was on the wind. And that's how Ròn took to the sea, but remembers the shore for ever an' ever. He an' his. Ay, air chuan, air mhuir, air chorsa, in the deep ocean, in the narrow sea, by the shores."

And after that he told me how Ròn took a woman of the land and kept her in a pool of the rocks. And the young they had were as good in the sea as on the land: and they had brown eyes that the salt did not sting, and long brown hair like seaweed, and their songs were wild ...

from The Winged Destiny: Studies in the Spiritual History of the Gael


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