Selkies trapped in shale mines.

Selkies: mythological sea creatures who wear skins akin to that of seals, but are able to shed them for a human form to walk upon the land

The selkie clung to the shale, uncertain of where she was and how she got there. But what she did know was the overwhelming feeling of being separated from the sea.

It was a long time since the tragedy struck the little community of slate miners by the sea. The abandoned mine has a still emptiness about it, like all places where something has been taken from the earth. A huge puzzle with many small pieces missing. The people who had ventured across to this small island had made their fortune paying others a pittance to dig up the slate buried deep in the earth. It was to be scattered across the world as roof tiles, blackboards, tombstones… small bits of the land flung far away from their seaside home, marking the tracks of the British Empires bloody occupations across the land. Those who lived and worked on Easdale were also joined by workers from the nearby islands and the mainland, usually by way of Ellenabeich, sometimes incorrectly  pronounced as ‘Ell-an-back’ by foreigners, inevitably leading to the joke ‘I’ve been through Ell-an-back today at work’. Their lives were filled with the duality of low paid workers in many places; hard, grinding, never ending work for not much reward, but surrounded by the beauty of the land and sea. This carried on for generations, until the great storm of 1850 flooded the mines, nature reclaiming what remained before it was all lost.

The selkie calmed herself, and started to look around her. She began to remember she had become caught up the nights fierce storm, and swept away from her herd. It must have been one of the great storms, for her to be carried along by the waves over the tops of the abandoned shale mine and into the rocky pool of sea water that had replaced it all those years ago. She could sense the pull of the sea beyond the edge of the pool, and that the water she was floating in was from the ocean, but it had a strange stillness to it that she had never experienced before. It was different to the constant moving and shifting of the waves and the push and pull of the currents that gave the sea life, but not unpleasant. It was tranquil. She decided to have a little explore of the rocks above her before heading out again to sea, and shed her skin on the curious slate shore before venturing up onto the land.

The miners’ old settlement had been ever-dwindling since the great storm in 1850, until it was left with only one of the old family’s descendants permanently inhabiting the island. One of the evening traditions of the miners was to tell stories by firelight. In the warm summer, the families would gather together around a bonfire and take turns to tell some of the island’s old tales, and in the winter, each family would tell their own by the fireside in their cottage, while the wind howled outside. This is why the old lady who lived in the cottage nearest the pool, the last descendant of the miners, was not as surprised as you might expect to see the selkie walking barefoot up the slate littered slope, with her skin wrapped around her. The old lady remembered the stories by firelight. In fact, the ones about the selkies were her favourites. The storm had left an unseasonably warm day behind it, and the old lady blinked as she stepped out of her cottage into the sunshine. ‘Hello?’ she ventured slightly nervously, but was pleased to be rewarded by the selkie’s smile. ‘Hello!’ the selkie greeted the old lady. After a brief period of shyness from both sides, it was clear both the selkie and the old lady were very pleased to have someone to talk to about the island, the shale pool and the storm. They sat together for a while outside the old lady’s cottage, telling the stories they had been told by their elders about the mysterious selkies of the sea and the interesting humans on the shore, dispelling some of the more creative myths and laughing at some of the most absurd ones.

As the sun begins to set and casts it’s pink, orange and gold lights across the clouds, the selkie says she must get back to her herd. The old woman feels a sharp sense of loss as she watches the selkie carefully navigate her way down the slope to the shore. She waves as the selkie slips back into her skin and gracefully dives into the ocean, a last wave of a flipper before she disappears into the distance. The old woman stares a while at the scene before her, enjoying the cool breeze and the distinctive sound of the waves lapping the shale shore. Then she turns, and slowly makes her way back to her cottage. The next day has the same pleasant warmth, so the old lady decides to have a stroll by the pool. Everything seems a little brighter somehow, and she notices details in the beauty of the slate and the scenery around her that she had become numb to after so much time on her own. As she looks around, a small movement in the water catches her eye. She squints in the sunshine and moves closer to the pool nearest her path. It takes a moment for her to realise the shapes moving in the water are selkies, their grey-blue skins blending in with the shale and sea water. Delighted, she scans the herd for the selkie she met the previous day, when a hand brushes her arm and she turns to see her, the same warm smile on her face. They embrace like they have known each other for years instead of just a day, and the old lady is invited to meet the rest of the herd. The sadness and loneliness she had been holding onto for years starts to ebb away from her. She had grown accustomed to those feelings, so she almost no longer felt the pain, just a dull ache. But now, sitting amongst the selkies, sharing stories, she feels lighter.

As the warm weather continues, the selkies visit often, and the village fills up with holiday makers from both the land and the sea. The old lady is often called upon to share her stories by firelight, and once a year, on the anniversary of their meeting, the old lady and the selkies hold a firelight festival. With candles twinkling all around the village, and freshly caught seafood cooking over the coals, the fire pit is once more aflame and surrounded by families waiting to hear stories about the mysterious selkies and the interesting humans, and the friendship that started between them.

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