Charlotte Murray: RememberedImagined #3

I didn’t have a set idea of the direction I wanted to go with my Archive exploration so chose ‘seal calling’ as a starting point. A friend of mine, Rona Wilkie, sings a lovely Gaelic seal-calling song which people used to sing to attract seals. I was really intrigued by the concept when she first told me about it, so I wanted to see if the contributors to the Archives have had anything to say on the subject, and if I could find any versions of the song. So far I’d heard a Gaelic version and a Scots version which Rona and Kate Young had taught at Ethno Scotland in 2010. A bit of web searching had also turned up a few bits and pieces.

Being a natural Googler, I typed in a couple of search terms to the computer database at the Archives. It’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s no margin for error in wording and you have to put yourself into the head of whoever was updating the information in the database at the time. I found 86 seal-related tapes (although I imagine there are probably more), and searching through the summary logs found one tape (SA1961.080) which referred to seal-calling (no, I didn’t look through all 86 summary logs). It was like hitting gold! The informant (Margaret Fotheringham from Sandwick in Orkney) briefly mentioned that she used to go down to the beach and sing a seal-calling song. The seals would pop out of the water and look at her with their beady eyes. A few people used to do this and it was almost like the seals were pets. She didn’t sing the song for the fieldworker, frustratingly!

I had a scan through the card indexes next and in the song drawer found a section on songs relating to animal noises. The cards only listed bird-calls, but in the summary log was a small reference to a seal call at the bottom of the list. I was very excited. After a lot of fruitless searching this looked like it might be a version of a seal-calling song (SA1951.10). I listened to a group of charming Barra ladies sing Gaelic bird calling songs to Alan Lomax, and I could see in the log that we were approaching that precious seal moment. So close. To my extreme disappointment the informant just recited a short chant and there was no tune at all. Never mind, there were some great puirt and waulking songs on that tape which I’ll have to flag up to Mike, and I have found more bird-calling references which look interesting.

It was closing time at the School of Scottish Studies by this point, but when I got home I did a search on Tobar an Dualchais to see if I would get different results. I found a couple of interesting recordings. One ( talked about the seals’ human-like characteristics which have lead to so many supernatural selkie stories. The informant described how seals are attracted to music – you can whistle or play them something recorded through speakers and they’ll come towards you. They also make noises like human babies or drowing people. I found another track which provided the tune to the chant from the Alan Lomax tape (, but it doesn’t mention that it was used to attract seals. This first expedition has proven a valuable introduction to the wily ways of the Archives, and I’m sure in a few months’ time I will have honed my exploration technique to a fine art.

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