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The Dancing Seal
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: May 25, 2003 02:27PM

Came across this and thought it a lovely bridge between Flannan Isle and the Ice Cart:

The Dancing Seal

WHEN we were building Skua Light--
The first men who had lived a night
Upon that deep-sea Isle--
As soon as chisel touched the stone,
The friendly seals would come ashore;
And sit and watch us all the while,
As though they'd not seen men before;
And so, poor beasts, had never known
Men had the heart to do them harm.
They'd little cause to feel alarm
With us, for we were glad to find
Some friendliness in that strange sea;
Only too pleaed to let them be
And sit as long as they'd a mind
To watch us: for their eyes were kind
Like women's eyes, it seemed to me.
So, hour on hour, they sat: I think
They liked to hear the chisels clink:
And when the boy sang loud and clear,
They scrambled closer in to hear;
And if he whistled sweet and shrill,
The queer beasts shuffled nearer still:
But every sleek and sheeny skin
Was mad to hear his violin.

When, work all over for the day,
He'd take his fiddle down and play
His merry tunes beside the sea,
Their eyes grew brighter and more bright,
And burned and twinkled merrily:
And as I watched them one still night,
And saw their eager sparkling eyes,
I felt those lively seals would rise
Some shiny night ere he could know,
And dance about him, heel and toe,
Unto the fiddle's headdy tune.

And at the rising of the moon,
Half-daft, I took my stand before
A young seal lying on the shore;
And called on her to dance with me.
And it seemed hardly strange when she
Stood up before me suddenly,
And shed her black and sheeny skin;
And smiled, all eager to begin . . .
And I was dancing, heel and toe,
With a young maiden, white as snow,
Unto a crazy violin.

We danced beneath the dancing moon
All night, beside the dancing sea,
With tripping toes and skipping heels:
And all about us friendly seals
Like Christian folk were dancing reels
Unto the fiddle's endless tune
That kept on spinning merrily
As though it never meant to stop.
And never once the snow-white maid
A moment stayed
To take a breath,
Though I was fit to drop:
And while those wild eyes challenged me,
I knew as well as well could be
I must keep step with that young girl,
Though we should dance to death.

Then with a skirl
The fiddle broke:
The moon went out:
The sea stopped dead:
And, in a twinkling, all the rout
Of dancing folk had fled . . .
And in the chill bleak dawn I woke
Upon the naked rock, alone.

They've brought me far from Skua Isle . . .
I laugh to think they do not know
That as, all day I chip the stone,
Among my fellows here inland,
I smell the sea-wrack on the shore . . .
And see her snowy-tossing hand,
And meet again her merry smile . . .
And dream I'm dancing all the while,
I'm dancing ever, heel and toe,
With a seal-maiden, white as snow,
On that moonshiny Island-strand,
For ever and for evermore.

Wilfred Gibson
I seem to remember that Flannan Isle was based on a real incident. I know seals used to be believed to have the souls of drowned sailors, and that they respond to music, but is there more to it than that? Also is Skua a real lighthouse and did Gibson have connections with lighthousekeeping?

Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: May 25, 2003 03:11PM

Thanks, they were all new to me.

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I did see another mention of the author as W.W. Jacobs instead of Gibson, but all I found on Skua Island was a science fiction story.

Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: RJAllen (193.114.111.---)
Date: May 26, 2003 01:03PM

There's a great many variants on this legend "The great silkie of Skule Skerry" is a famous ballad- an extraordinary version was recorded by the Scottish singer, Archie Fisher, and the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown made several versions.

Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: RJAllen (193.114.111.---)
Date: May 27, 2003 04:16PM

David Thomson: The People of the Sea.
This book has several chapters on legends of humans who are seals, a friend says.

<b>Re: The Dancing Seal</b>
Posted by: Stephen Fryer (
Date: May 27, 2003 05:48PM

There's also a children's movie - The Secret of Roan Inish.


Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: rikki (
Date: May 27, 2003 06:28PM

There was also this song recorded by Joan Baez - possibly the one you mention, JR? - and i've also read it somewhere as 'kelpie' instead of silkie -


An earthly nurse sits and sings,
And aye she sings a lily wean -
"Little ken I my bairn's father,
Far less the land that he dwells in."

For he's come one night to her bed's foot
And a grumly guest I'm sure he'd be,
Saying, "Here am I, thy bairn's father,
Although I be not comely.

"I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I'm far and far from land,
My home it is the sule skerrie."

And he has ta'en a purse of gold,
And set it softly on her knee,
Saying, "Give to me my little young son
And take thee up thy nurse's fee.

"And I will come one summer's day
When the sun shine's bright on every stane,
I'll come and take my little young son,
And teach him how to swim the faem.

"And ye shall marry a gunner bold,
And a right fine gunner I'm sure he'll be,
And the very first shot that ever he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me."

Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: rikki (
Date: May 27, 2003 06:39PM

oops, that should be RJ - i'm having a dyslexic morning.

rsmiling smiley

Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: RJAllen (193.114.111.---)
Date: May 28, 2003 04:29PM

That's the one. I didn't hear Baez. The Fisher was on a record called Orfee(((? Orphee). It's probably in Child's Ballads too.

Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: JP (
Date: May 29, 2003 02:20AM

Now just how did that happen Stephen?


<b>Re: The Dancing Seal</b>
Posted by: Stephen Fryer (
Date: May 29, 2003 03:45AM

How did what happen?


Re: The Dancing Seal
Posted by: JP (
Date: May 29, 2003 03:29PM

You are the author of my message above.


<b>Re: The Dancing Seal</b>
Posted by: Stephen Fryer (
Date: May 29, 2003 03:59PM

Oh, right. I accidentally deleted you (when deleting a double post), and so had to reinstate your words of wisdom. Forgive me.


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