“I’ll never let you go,” Jannet whispered. “They’ll not have you, whoever they are.”
When I was a child I lived by the sea. There was a little island just off the coast, Hilbre Island, and every other Sunday was what we called Hilbre Sunday, because then the tide was just right. You could walk out to Hilbre after breakfast – it took about an hour, and you had to go the right way or the quicksands would get you. I lost a gymshoe there once. It was sucked right off my foot.
My friends and I used to walk out to Hilbre and wait for the wonderful thing to happen – the tide would come sweeping round the island like a moat, cutting us off from land. We had to stay out there all day before it was safe to go home again. And round the back of the island were the seals. They used to fascinate me, the way they’d slither onto the rocks to bask in the sun, or come bobbing up out of the sea to watch the people on the island. I loved their round, wise eyes, and the strange, singing call they would make to each other. I never tired of watching them, and sometimes I used to swim with them. But I was always a little bit scared of them, you know. They were wild creatures, after all. They belonged to the sea.
Seals visit coasts and islands all round the world, and there are always stories told about them – how they befriend fishermen, how they haunt seal-catchers, how they lament the death of their young ones with singing that would break your heart. The grey seals, sometimes called selchies, or silkies, are said to come onto land and shed their skin and become people for a while – even to marry humans. Yet they never forget their origins, never forget that they belong to the sea.
I always wanted to write my own story of the sea and the seals. There’s a folk song called ‘The Silkie of Sule Skerrie’, about a seal-man who comes on land to claim his son. I wanted to create my own story round that song, building up from it and making it into something of my own. First I had to invent a community of islanders who would fear and respect the seals who visited them. I named my main character Gioga after a sea princess in an ancient story. In the legend, she rescued a drowning sailor by carrying him to his home in a little bay, Hamna Voe, on a small Shetland island called Papa Stour. So I decided to set my own story there, even though I had never been there. I could imagine it. I could imagine the crofters of long ago.
Everything was beginning to fit into place. It’s a wonderful feeling, when you know what you want to write about and the story takes shape in your head and haunts you. I knew I wanted to call it a folk-novel, as if it had grown out of years of retelling, and I wanted it to have the sound of a voice in it. I started to write it at last a couple of years ago. But then something very frustrating happened. As the result of an accident I lost the use of my writing arm! For a whole year I couldn’t type or even hold a pen, and yet I had this story burning inside me and longing to be written.
So instead of writing it I told it, as you might tell a folk story. I walked round the house and down the lanes and along the river telling my story into a little pocket tape-recorder. I visited Papa Stour in a stormy week in December and sat watching the seals in their furious sea at Hamna Voe, and told my story into a howling gale. It seemed to be the right way to do it, somehow. As a last touch the book was sent to the artist Sian Bailey, and she captured exactly the starkness of that tiny island and the lonely figures in the wild seascape.
And now the whole thing has turned full circle, because my story has become a song too. My daughter Sally, a professional singer/composer, has set a shortened version of it to music, and Daughter of the Sea has become a tale to be spoken and sung, just as it would have been in the old days, when people crowded into each others’ cottages to hear the stories of long ago.
In 2004 the opera of Daughter of the Sea received its world premier at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. The music is by Richard Chew and the libretto by Berlie Doherty. See my Using music page for more information or apply to my agent (see my Contact page). The opera has also been performed at the Adeleide Festival, Australia, conducted by the composer.
Children from Tickhill Estfeld Primary school in Doncaster sent me some very interesting thoughts (June 2005) about Daughter of the Sea. I thought they were extremely imaginative, and although none of this had occurred to me when I was writing the book, I decided to publish one of the letters here for other readers to think about.
Dear Berlie Doherty,
My name is Cleo Pollard…
Letter to Berlie from Cleo Pollard
We have also been doing about Easter and noticed that Daughter of the Sea is very similar in many ways. We assumed you knew this but perhaps not. My class and I couldn’t help noticing the following similarities; like how Jesus and Eilean both sacrificed themselves for others, and how Jesus died on the third hour, whereas Eilean died on the third wave. Also the fact that Gioga’s family and Jesus’ disciples both had a a supper together before Gioga and Jesus left the ones they loved. Jesus and Eilean both told stories, predicted what would happen and were pierced with a sword and a harpoon. The temple wall split in two and the waves did too. Did you intend to link the two stories or is it just a coincidence?
…I always looked forward to when our teacher picked up Daughter of the Sea. I’m going to miss those moments now we’ve read the whole book.
I thought that was an amazing set of ideas and very well expressed – and the class teacher Pam Wall informs me that the ideas came from the children.