The Story of Cullswick

The Story of Cullswick

The fishing village of Cullswick is perched far up north on the Shetland coast. It bears a quaint, mellow look much the same as its aged folks. A pebble strewn beach leads to the small harbour dotted with Yoals and sixareens bobbing to the waves. 

The only tavern here, a stone structure aptly christened ‘The Clachaig*’ with a French window facade, overlooks the harbour offering spectacular views of the frigid North Sea.  It is here that the village men can be found post afternoon, wistfully gazing into the sea over a pint of ale. The women are conspicuous by their absence.

To this village, one day came a writer. A dejected soul in the trough of his career, he came seeking inspiration. Weary after his travels, he sat himself at ‘The Clachaig’ and ordered a pint. 

His thirst quenched, he took stock of his environs. 

An old man, a fisherman by his looks, sat on an upturned barrel outside, nursing a tankard of ale and gazing at the briny expanse. His wispy blue eyes, set in a wizened, weather beaten face were cocooned in a snowy beard. The face bore evidence of rugged labour. There was sadness, a longing in the man’s face. He sat as if waiting, as if hoping for something. 

 As the writer looked about, he eyes fell upon many such men.

‘What’s his story?’ he asked old Malcum, the tavern keep, cocking his head towards the old man.

‘Oh, Sean?’ snorted Malcum. ‘Bah! He’s radge* is what. He sits there every day pining for his love.’

Intrigued the writer asked, ‘tell me his story?’ 

Malcum sighed. Then his expression softened. ‘Ah! Many moons ago, he fell in love with a Selkie*.’

‘A Selkie?’ incredulously the writer asked. ‘What nonsense!’ 

 ‘Nae, ‘tis true.’ nodded Malcum. ‘He caught her in his fishing nets out by the isles. When he pulled her into the boat, her skin shed to reveal her.’ 

‘Utter balderdash!’ the writer scoffed. ‘Selkies aren’t real.’

 ‘Aah! Fair like the northern snow, her russet tresses framed her face,’ Malcum ignored the writer and continued wistfully. ‘The emeralds that sparkled in her eyes bewitched all. Aye, they did! And, her voice…oh, her voice… it was the gentle tinkle of charmed bells. I tell you, old Sean was ensorcelled. He hid her skin and forced her to marry him. But…’

 ‘But, what?’

 ‘The lass pined for her kin. The winds that blew, whispered messages from her ilk. By and by, she grew melancholy. Till one day…,’ Malcum paused and looked at the waters of the bay, ‘she found the skin Sean had hidden. That day, she transformed, dove into the bay and disappeared, never to be seen again.’ 

 ‘Bloney! You mean that now he just sits there waiting for her to come back?’ the writer said in a contemptuous tone.

Malcum’s voice dropped a notch. With misty eyes he looked at the men scattered around the tavern and replied with sadness, ‘Aye, he does…we all do.’

Author’s note –In Scottish mythology, Selkies were sea lions that could shed their skin and take human form. They were thought to live on the shores of Orkney and Shetland. When a female selkie shed her skin and a human captured it, she was forced to become his wife. If she were to ever find her skin again, she would return to sea, leaving her husband to pine and die.

Clachaig – the stone place
Yoal, Sixarees – Scottish fishing boats
Radge – mad, crazy in Scottish
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Sonal Singh
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