James E. Roberts is currently writer in residence on the island of Skomer. He is a poet, based in Wales. His recent work has been published by Agenda, Envoi and the Dark Mountain Project.
The tide is running south and Jack Sound is starting to show its teeth. A mile out Skomer is a humped, finned bulk. I’m looking for familiar shapes; cormorants, fulmars, gannets. But sea and sky are strangely empty this September morning. Even the gulls, usually a constant westward stream, are not present. Two young women are taking photographs of each other on the cliff path in front of me. One leaps while the other clicks away, trying to get a picture of her friend suspended in mid-air. As I pass they both stare at the tiny camera screen, giggling. Their laughter is replaced by a mournful wail. Thirty feet ahead the cliff falls away to a boulder-strewn cove. The edge overhangs the drop and all along the undulating cliff there are the fresh pale wounds of recent rockfalls. I don’t like going up to the edge. These cliffs are the highest I know. But the call is clear, the first of the autumn, echoing faintly in the caves that pierce the headland. I find a perch that feels vaguely secure and sit, my legs hanging over the cliff.
The seal pup is only a few days old. It is pure white, showing up against the grey beach as clear as a gull. It is wriggling and slapping its flippers, its eyes big wet beads, its mouth wide and wailing. The sea is calm in the small, sheltered cove and the water is glass clear. I can see a pale, speckled shape submerged below me. It is not a boulder. With each incoming wave it rolls sideways then rolls back. The pup keeps calling, its cries slowly getting louder. After a few minutes the cow wakes and slides up to the surface. She hauls out to attend to her pup.
In David Thomson’s 1954 book, The People of the Sea, the writer travels along the western fringes of the British Isles recording the seal stories of the oral tradition. The seals are viewed by the fishermen and crofters as liminal creatures, shape-changers, able to shed their skins and take on a range of animal forms. Sometimes they roam as cattle or as horses at night. They also take human shape. In one South Uist tale a young cormorant hunter comes across a pile of seal skins on an island reef. He takes one from the pile and hides it in his boat. Soon a group of handsome people come to the pile. One by one they put on the skins and enter the sea transformed into seals. When they are all gone a woman arrives, even more beautiful than................................