A traditional story re-told by Andrew Wright
Rory MacCodrun lived on the island of Berneray. He was a fisherman and he lived alone on the island; there was just his cottage and his boat and nothing and noone else.
Rory MacCodrun’s father and his grandfather had both seen the seal people on that one day in the year when they came to the land, took off their seal skins and danced and played at the water’s edge. Rory MacCodrun had never seen them and longed to do so.
One day, as Rory was walking along the shore he heard the sound of voices, of laughter and shouting and singing. He wondered who it could be; he lived alone on the island. He crept towards some rocks and peeping over, saw twelve, thirteen, fourteen young men and women, running, laughing and dancing at the water’s edge. He thought, ‘They must be visitors to the island.’ He looked for their boat but he couldn’t see it. And then he knew that they must be the seal people.
As he crouched behind the rocks he saw the rolled up skins of the seal people at his feet hidden beneath the rock; the skins were black and white, silver, dark brown and golden brown.
“What a keepsake! If I take one of these skins I will be able to show it to people and say, I, too, saw the seal people like my father and my grandfather before me.’ He took a golden brown sealskin, put it beneath his jacket and then ran, bent double, to his cottage.
He closed the door and stood with the skin in his hands. What could he do with it? He hid it above the door in the thatched roof of his cottage.
That night he sat by his peat fire mending his nets. Suddenly, he heard the sound of knocking. Who could it be? Nobody lived on the island except him. He went to the door and there stood a young woman with long golden brown hair hiding her comeliness.
“Mortal man! Mortal man! Please help me! For I have lost my seal skin and without it I cannot return to the sea with my brothers and sisters!”
Rory knew that her skin was just above her head in the thatch of the roof above the door but he could not make himself give it to her. At last he asked her to come into the cottage. He put a plaid around her shoulder.
She said again to him, “Mortal man, mortal man, please help me for I have lost my seal skin and without it I cannot return to the sea with my brothers and sisters.”
Rory could not do it; he could not give it to her. At last, he said, “Stay! Stay and be my wife for I will love you all my life!”
She replied, at last, “I will marry you; without my seal skin I cannot return to the sea and without you I cannot live on this earth.”
And so they married and they loved each other. They had children with the same golden brown eyes and golden brown hair as her. And just as she used to sing sad songs as she walked by the sea’s edge so did they learn to sing those same songs.
They become known as Rory MacCodrun’s seal children.
One day, as Rory was walking to his boat a hare ran across his path. Now that was unlucky in Scotland. He wondered if he should turn back but he decided to continue. ‘If the wind rises, I will turn around and come back.’
The wind did rise and the little fishing boat bobbed about. Rory turned her around and went back to the land. As he approached the shore he saw his children standing together at the water’s edge. Rory beached the boat and ran towards them with a heart like a stone.
“What is it my children?”
“It’s mother! She has gone into the sea and not come back!”
“There was a wind. The door blew open. Something fell from the thatch. She ran towards it, picked it up and cried with joy. Then she kissed us all and ran down to the sea. She put on this thing and dived into the sea and swam away! And she hasn’t come back!”
She never did come back. Rory MacCodrun’s seal children, grew up, left home and became famous singers of sad songs about the sea.
And Rory? He often walked along the shore, looking out to sea, hoping he might see a golden brown seal bobbing in the waves.
Short notes on the story
This is a story from the oral tradition in Scotland. I have tried, in my version of the story, to retain this spoken quality. Indeed, I have told the story many times myself over the last ten years. Written versions of the story tend to elaborate the descriptions and attempt to add a ‘poetic’ tone. I think the story and the fundamental setting are more than enough!
The island of Berneray is in the Hebridean Islands off the West Coast of Scotland. Berneray is about 10 miles long and only a handful of people live there to this day. In former times many Scottish people, living as farmers and fishermen lived in isolation from other people. In their loneliness they must have responded warmly to those very human faces of seals when they raised their heads out of the water to take a look at a human being.
An outline of suggested teaching ideas
1 Age range
Teenagers and adults (but it is very clear that the theme is understood by young children and that the story engages them)
2 English level
Intermediate and above to appreciate the language fully. However, pre-intermediate students can get a lot out of this story.
3 Language focus
Fluency in the four skills
4 Educational ideas: Social focus
Personal relationships and power
Theft: understandable but not justifiable
Roots: the importance of roots in a sense of identity
5 Suggested teaching aids
• A map of Scotland to show where the islands off the West coast of Scotland are.
• Photographs of the islands (but not of the traditional images of Scotland showing smart highlanders in kilts playing the bagpipes…this story relates to the lonely, hard life of the crofting communities).
• Photographs of any traditional fishermen working at sea…
• Photographs of seals.
Suggested teaching plans
To engage the students and to focus their minds on the feeling of the story play appropriate music. The Irish singer, Loreeda McKennitt communicates that mixture of sadness and loneliness on small islands under vast heavens.
To focus the students’ minds show where Scotland is on a map or globe and where the Hebridean islands are to the North West of Scotland. Show pictures of the sea and of traditional fishermen.
Ask the students about the most lonely place they have ever been to.
Teach the new words which are essential to understanding the story and which you want to teach before the story. For example, seal. Explain how the seal’s face can look very human as it rises out of the water. It is easy for people, working alone, to imagine that the seal is as much human as it is animal.
Teach no more than two or three words before the story or you will lose story readiness.
Tell the story making sure that you support the students’ understanding of the words by your acting the meaning of them and/or showing a picture. For example, seal skin (as you tell the story point at the picture of the seal and then slowly mime pinching your skin at the wrist and then taking off the skin as if it were a shirt). In this story almost all the key words can be understood by their position in the river of meaning of the story and by your mime.
Don’t risk stopping the story to set a task and risk losing the spell of the story.
This is a very moving story and it is essential to give first importance to what the students want to say rather than the language forms they are using to express themselves.
Here are nine activities inviting a personal response to the story:
1 Ask, ‘Which is the most important moment for you in the story? Tell your neighbour. Tell him or her your reason, if you can do so’. Emphasise there is no correct answer to this question; the answer must be based on personal feelings.
2 ‘Brainstorm onto paper what you can see, hear, smell, and feel at that important moment, the moment you chose’. Also what the people say, think and feel. Explain your notes to your neighbour.
For homework write these up as a highly detailed part of a story. Make a class book of these personal highlights’.
3 ‘In pairs or groups create an extension of the story for ten minutes and then each student must leave his/her pair/group and tell his/her group’s story extension to at least one or two other students…the room will be full of storytelling. Each student will write their version of the extension for homework.’
4 ‘You are one of the seal children in later life. Write a song about your mother which expresses how you feel and what you think.’
5 ‘In pairs and then in class discuss: Why do people want souvenirs? What sort of souvenirs do you have of special moments or times? Which are the most successful souvenirs for you?’
6 ‘In pairs then in class discuss: What are your roots? Which places would be very difficult for you to live in?’ Your roots means where you feel you belong…where you feel at home.’
7 ‘In pairs then in class discuss: What are the rights and wrongs in this story?’
8 ‘Write a version of this story set in your society, in your times.’
9 ‘Write five alternative beginnings to the story. Don’t change the essential facts though you may select from them. Exhibit all these beginnings and vote for the one you prefer. Discuss the difference between writing a story and telling a story.’
Ditto: five continuations and alternative endings.