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The People of the Sea

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  307 ratings  ·  44 reviews
Raised among Scottish fishermen and storytellers, David Thomson was obsessed from childhood by the Celtic seal legend, the body of tales and songs about the "selchie," or gray Atlantic seal. In the early 1950's he took a journey to seek the legend out, in the Hebrides, on the east coast of Scotland, on the west coast of Ireland - places where magic co-exists with reality a ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published December 14th 2001 by Counterpoint (first published 1954)
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Dec 23, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Of all the houses I remember with love the house called Tigh na Rosen is the sweetest smelling and the brightest begins Thomson's account of his lifelong fascination with seal lore.

I don't know why it begins this way; the house is of little importance to the remainder of the book and is only referred to once or twice in passing. Perhaps this is a mental association on the author's part, the place he lived when he first became interested in selchies, starting with his mother's cousin La's reminis
Jul 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Here is Seamus Heany's introduction quoting Wordsworth's definition of a poet to apply it to David Thomson
a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind
I may as well give up then! This made me laugh and feel extra grateful for Aubrey's new group.

In addition to an off-putting introduction (that's to say it put me o
Ancestral Gaidheal
I bought this book some time ago, but it seemed destined to remain on my "to be read" shelf. Earlier this year, while on holiday in Scotland with a small tour group, I noticed one of my fellow passengers was reading this book and when I enquired about it, she was unable to tell me much, which of course piqued my interest. This was just one of a series of co-incidences in which the legend of the selkie were brought to my attention: just before, during and after the tour of Scotland.

As well as wat
Mar 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
This book is many things: oral history, travelogue, folklore, poetry, treasure. It's the reassuringly salty tang of the seaside air, a glimpse of glossy eyes in the water, finding humanity in nature and vice versa. It's a product of a particular place, or set of places, and a time that I worry would otherwise be lost to us:

Mrs. Charleson clicked her tongue. "The old people were full o' superstitions," she said.

"Maybe," said Gilbert.

"And maybe superstition is right," said his father.

"Well," sa
Apr 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
The haunting record of a journey in search of the man-seal legends of the Celts. David Thomson's travels in the Hebrides and the west coast of Ireland brought him into contact with a people whose association with the sea and its fertile lore runs deep. These simple people were gifted with the most ancient storytelling arts. They told of men rescued by seals in stormy seas, of babies suckled by seal-mothers, and of men who took sea-women for wives--stories centuries-old handed down to them by the ...more
Eustacia Tan
Jan 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
In summer the sun slants across the garden, but the drawing-room smells of rose and of potpourri and is always cool. In the drawing-room you do not forget about the sea.

This book was not written recently and it shows (in a good way).

The People of the Sea is a form of a travelogue, or perhaps I should say it’s a collection of stories about seals and/or seal people. But despite this being a journey around Scotland and Ireland to collect stories, and despite this being inspired by an event in his c
Sep 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Somewhere between memoir and a record of folklore, David Thomson journeyed Ireland and Scotland in pursuit of the Atlantic seal-- the selchie-- and its stories. Thomson renders speech fluidly, with care and attention to the speaker's voice, such that the reader is there with him in the ruins of the Black House, or at the public house, or by the fire in the home of a stranger listening to the tales. It's clear that the village life, the backdrop of the tales Thomson recorded was one in flux-- cha ...more
Sep 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
One of those books that you slow down your reading pace in order to enjoy the experience. A sensitive and gentle tale exploring the simple lives of isolated Irish and Scotish communities, and the role of storytelling in their lives, now all but lost. Beautiful recording of an fragment of a dying mythological tradition.
I saw seals every day on the Cornish Coast arround the time I was finishing this book!
Jun 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ireland
If you had one shot at writing a great book, would you choose sealskin as a subject?

Maybe you should. Nah, already been done.
May 01, 2009 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Wow- I had no idea I would ever be interested in this, but it looks fabulous.
Katie Marquette
Apr 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"So maybe people one time had the power to see what's hidden from us. In the hills there's something to be seen, I'm sure o' that. And on the sea."

"We believe what we believe [...] And there's no way to ken is it right or wrong."

This is one of the most unique, puzzling, and beautiful books I've ever read. My husband finds my newfound interest selchies ('seal folk' of the Celtic Isles) somewhat amusing. David Thomson also had a hard time describing his deep interest in the folklore around the gre
Sophy H
Dec 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating look at the folklore tales of Scotland and Ireland regarding selchies or seals and their relationship with people/as (half land, half sea) people.

Like Niall519 mentioned, I would have preferred it had Thomson told us a little more of selchie lore instead of the heavy reliance on reminiscence, since many of the "tales" were similar if not the same but repeated. Nevertheless, the communities in which he immerses himself, come across as friendly and conversational.

Intriguing if not a
This is such a beautiful book, albeit melancholic in atmosphere sometimes. Written in the 1950s and accounting experiences before then, I guess a lot of this is a world long since lost. Not that I want to look at things through rose-tinted glasses. Life was tough and dangerous and for women there wasn't much doing. But at the same time it has been fascinating.

It's hard to classify this book. In some ways it's travel and childhood memoirs. It's also a study of folklore, of Irish and Scottish cult
Monica Davis
Jul 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
A very enjoyable read in which culture blends with magical tales. This non-fiction work delves into the world of legends and folklore surrounding seals as selkies, mermaids, and people. The explanations are passed along through wonderful stories and recollections of locals from small fishing villages.
really fantastic book collecting different bits of seal folklore around ireland. its full of information, but gives the feel of learning around a hearth fire rather than a dry academic approach. wish i could find more by him
Feb 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: celtic
Beautiful, quirky story of one man's love of the sea and the story of the selkie legend. Could just as well be under travel section, as he travels to the Hebrides and Ireland's West Coast. Lovely writing on an engaging topic. ...more
Mar 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
As much about sea-Gaels and Orcadians as the marine fey and the sea they interact with, a beautiful interweaving of observation and folk-telling. See ...more
Kristen Ringman
Jan 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
Beautiful REAL stories about the selchies of Ireland and Scotland...
Betsy Cornwell
Apr 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Gorgeous. Amazing. Fascinating. I love this book so much.
May 01, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, 2004
A thorough examination of the mythology behind the seal-folk; a great read for anyone interested in traditional tales.
Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Amazingly well put together. Wish there were more out there like this.
Nathalie (keepreadingbooks)
This one is rather difficult to define – it is neither a study in folklore, a straightforward collection of myths and legends, a memoir, a travel narrative nor a nature book. It’s mostly a mix of all of these things, sprinkled with what I assume might be some fiction too (you can’t be certain, but with a book that refuses to be defined, the author is free to do pretty much what he or she wants to enhance the narrative).

Thomson acquires an interest in selchies – mythical creatures that take the f
Jay Callahan
May 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
An enjoyable book, structured as reminiscences and retellings of stories from the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland (and Orkneys) that focus on the interactions of seals as magical or at least also human beings; their interactions with humans. The author has a warm sympathy for human societies now vanished, and for seals, and writes well. As someone who lived years in those societies, though, he does sometimes indulge in some fey mush, as well.

"Fey mush"? It is a question of the style, though
Kathy Leland
Oct 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anna Jennings
Shelves: non-fiction
I've been very slowly reading this book for almost two years now, not because it's long or difficult, but simply because I didn't want it to end. It's a rare and beautiful talent that can bring forth an entire culture and a way of life right before it disappears altogether in to modernity. Thomson wrote this book in 1954, his account of travels in the remote sea coasts of the Scottish Isles and Ireland in search of legends of the selchies [or selkies], mythological creatures in the form of seals ...more
May 31, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: hebrides
I have a special fondness for collectors of folklore who gathered just before their subjects nearly went out of existence. This book exactly fits that scenario. The writing is wonderful. Thompson begins the book with several stories from his own childhood in northern Scotland that show an early fascination with the seals. Later, as an adult, he travelled around the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland talking with fishermen, farmers, and their families asking to be told stories of the selchies ...more
Jun 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I picked this up at a used bookstore on a whim and I'm so happy I did. I LOVED it. I'd been interested in selkie stories ever since I saw The Secret of Roan Inish. This book is basically an account of the author wandering around Ireland and Scotland for several years listening to people tell seal stories. It was just so evocative and the stories were so gripping... would that we still had such a strong oral storytelling tradition in our culture today. I am itching to visit the Hebrides now. BONU ...more
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Fishface by: Goodreads
Simply a collection of the selchie tales the author was able to collect travelling around Scotland and Ireland, all of them charming and -- to the tellers -- often 100% true. I was startled to read that one of the tellers of these tales takes it as a fact that (among others) a family named Coneely is believed to have been descended from a selchie -- the plot of the movie THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, presented as fiction. Apparently if you're an Irishman, it's just a fact. This was a great read. ...more
Mick Bordet
A nice collection of folk tales, tied together in a narrative that is both charming and frustrating. On one hand it gives a real feeling of the hospitality of remote fishing communities, the likes of which are probably all but gone these days, but there are numerous detours along the way, some of which interrupt the flow.
Mar 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed this book. Not only are the folk tales lovely, Thompson’s prose also tells of a way of life that has since changed in Scotland and Ireland. He does a great job of bringing to life a world where selchies were believed in and life’s rhythms were slower.
Alex Clare
Jul 09, 2017 rated it liked it
This is almost a stream of consciousness, coalescing into more formal stories, normally told by one of the characters met on the author's travels. Best when read in the tradition of Joyce...
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

David Thomson (1914 – 1988) was a writer and BBC radio producer. He was born in British colonial India to Scottish parents. As a child, he lived in Scotland, as well as in Derbyshire and London, where he attended University College School.

From 1943 to 1969 Thomson worked for the BBC as a writer and producer of r

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