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Marvels & Tales 15.2 (2001) 241-244
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The People of the Sea:
A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend
The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend. By David Thomson. Washington, DC.: Counterpoint, 2000. xxix + 210 pp.
It was a felicitous coincidence that, when I began to read The People of the Sea for this review, a train journey from Inverness to Aberdeen was taking me through Nairn where David Thomson (1914--88) spent much of his boyhood. In fact, the train stopped at Nairn at the very time when I was reading the book's [End Page 241] first chapter, which is largely set there. I was unable to replicate this experience at the other locations punctuating his "journey," but having been to some of them at earlier dates, I regarded the Nairn connection as a good omen.
The "journey" on which the author expects us to accompany him is not a continuous one, nor is it accomplished without repeated visits to some of its destinations. The book under review is therefore not a travelogue; nor is it, strictly, a field-work report. Searching for an appropriate way of describing it, I cannot do better than borrow Seamus Heaney's definition of it in his very sympathetic introduction: "notation of the author's different tours of Scotland (and of Ireland) [ . . . ] re-imagined and re-presented" (15). (Nobel Prize-winning Irish poets have a word for it.) His phrase also does justice to the author's own admission that "in one form or another I have myself heard every story in the book but when the story told me was incomplete I have borrowed from or substituted the best version I can find in printed or manuscript collection of oral tradition" (210). While sticklers for verbatim transcriptions of folk narrative are therefore likely to be disappointed, it would be unfair to dismiss the book as unauthentic. In fact, anybody who has ever done fieldwork in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland or in the west of Ireland will recognize without difficulty many genuine aspects of storytelling performances and of the people participating, both as narrators and as listeners. In this respect, it is uncanny how closely Thomson's version of a storyteller's fraudulent "acquisition" or theft of a tale by hiding in the loft of the house in which the jealously guarded story was told resembles Seamus Delargy's account of the same event in his famous British Academy lecture on "The Irish Storyteller." The explanation for this similarity lies only partially in the fact that Thomson had Delargy as his travel companion and guide on his first trip to Kerry in western Ireland. As an added bonus, Thomson gives us a full version of the tale which is supposed to have been told that evening: "King Cormac and King Conn" (50--64).
The stages of Thomson's journey are Nairn on the Moray Firth in northeastern Scotland, the island of South Uist in the Hebrides, County Kerry and the north coast of Mayo in Ireland, Shetland, Orkney, South Uist and Kerry (again), and the Aran Islands. In each of these locales, the author creates or re-creates opportunities for conveying information about seals by placing himself and others in specific "houses" which provide stimulating settings for interactive storytelling, and one cannot but admire the skill with which he assembles his personnel and orchestrates their reactions, in anticipation of the craftsmanship of his novels still to come, and as a reflection of his professional composition of documentaries for the BBC. Venues, i.e., potent narration spaces, include the family home, Tigh na Rosan, and a salmon fisherman's hut in Nairn; a modern council house in South Uist; the house of a seal killer in Kerry; a public house and a Ferry House in Mayo; a crofter's house in the Shetland [End Page 242] island of Papa Stour and the Orcadian island of North Ronaldsay; and a public house in the Aran Islands...