Orla and the selkie

Seal, top right, watching Orla

At the start of August my brother came to stay, bringing his young dog Orla. Orla is of the breed ‘working golden retriever’, with a smaller frame, shorter coat and darker colour than the more usual family pet. Her name means ‘golden princess’.

My urge to be swimming in the sea comes to a head two or three times a week, and I like to go first thing in the morning, before the day gets under way and imposes other priorities. I scan the weather forecast for the week and choose the days of lowest wind. But Orla needed to be taken for a walk every morning, so I swam every day for the week of their visit, rain or shine, wind or calm. And after they’d gone, I decided to keep going with daily morning swims. 

It gave another dimension to the experience – an element of self-challenge, to be sure, but also a heightened awareness of the range of colour in sky, sea and sand, of the sensation of moving air and salt on skin, of the warmth that floods your body after a few minutes of immersion. The sea in Orkney always feels warm enough, all through the year; only the wind chills to the bone as you get out, racing across the sand to your layers of changing robes and hot flask of water.

Previously I might have avoided those mornings when the tide was low, uncovering beds of seaweed. I always had a frisson of fear when swimming through their fronds; what sea jellies might be lurking, their poisonous tentacles indistinguishable from the bootlace seaweed? But once I had made the decision to swim every day at around 7.30 whatever the tide, I lost my fear of those ‘mermaid’s tresses’, and swam through them with growing confidence. Occasionally one got wrapped around a wrist or ankle, but their gel coating untangled them if I just kept swimming. And this gel felt wonderful on my skin – a sea version of aloe vera perhaps. I even harvested some for breakfast; their other common name is sea spaghetti. 

Orla didn’t join me in the sea very often – she is after all a land retriever, not a water spaniel – but I did catch one photo of her coming out of the shallows. There is a seal watching her, its black head looking rather similar in shape to hers: a dark selkie and a golden princess. One of them is therian in mythology – that is, a shape-changer; a selkie is a seal which can become human. In Orkney legend a man so loved his selkie wife in her human form that he stole her seal skin in order to prevent her ever returning to her natural being. 

Might the same happen in reverse, on one of my lone winter swims? Will some seadog of a seal emerge from the deep, wrap me in a fur cloak and take me to live in his underwater kingdom, to be his golden princess? I hope not.

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