If you’ve read The Girl With The Sealskin Dress and are yearning for more, here’s a bonus chapter to read. Written in diary format, it told the story of Mairi’s first summer on Stromsay and originally lived between chapters seven and eight. Unfortunately, The Secret Diary Of Mairi Elphinstone Aged 13 1/2 (spot the tribute!) interrupted the flow of the story, so I left it out of the final draft. I still like the material, so here it is for you to hopefully enjoy.
(Don’t read on if you haven’t read Sealskin yet, because spoilers abound…)
Tuesday, 2nd April 1839
Daddy gave me a fine steel-nib pen and this handsome leather-bound journal on my thirteenth birthday. An entire book of pristine creamy paper, just for me! He urged me to let my imagination take flight and fill these pages with stories, poems, pictures and dreams. Alas, Mama’s death had stolen the sun from my heart, and Daddy’s decline made things a hundred times worse. Grief and despair grounded my imagination; reality was too painful to bear, let alone record. Now, here on Stromsay, fresh from my first flipper-flaps in another world, my mind stirs anew. Perhaps a record of my life will prove easier to understand than reality.
At last, I have something to write about.
Thursday, April 4th
I really must write smaller in future; Uncle Donald is not the type to idly hand out fresh journals as gifts. Anyway, yesterday Aunt Molly told me more about Tìr-fo-Thuinn, her homesea, as she calls it. It spans the North Sea, The Pentland Firth, The Minch, The Little Minch, the Sea of the Hebrides, The Sound of Harris and even the mighty Atlantic Ocean itself, and is home to selkies of all shapes, sizes and colours. Cruinne-cè-Mara, Aunt Molly’s birthplace, lies somewhere in the North Sea, far beyond the Pentland Skerries I can see on occasionally clear days. Just hearing about these places left my heart bursting with joy and wonderment! Another world lies beneath the waves, and only I have the ability to flit between the two at will!
I must don Mama’s skin and find Cruinne-cè-Mara as soon as I can.
Sunday, April 7th
A dispiriting day. Uncle Donald retired to the Northern Light after church, as seems to be his wont, so I took the opportunity to assume my selkie form and swim east, towards the Pentland Skerries. Alas, I could not stray more than a mile beyond Duncansby Head. A growing unease became an aching, desperate urge for land the further I drew offshore. Overwhelmed by fear and regret and longing, I returned to Stromsay, retrieved my clothes from a hidden nook and wept on the shore. I will persevere, however. This landsickness, as I have called it, will not defeat me.
I will see Cruinne-cè-Mara with my own eyes.
Sunday 14th April
I have just returned from an aborted trip to the Orkney Islands. Alas, landsickness thwarted me long before I reached Swona and I had to retreat, chastened and upset.
Keep trying, Mairi!
Tuesday 16th April
I am going slowly potty through loneliness. Collecting birds’ eggs is no fun on your own; nor is marbles, jacks or Old Maid. I have nobody to play rounders with, and kicking a ball against the gable end of our croft soon palls. It also drives Uncle Donald to distraction.
Most things do, I have found.
Anyway, so desperate I am for company, today I donned my gloves after dinner and snuck off to the village square. As ever, children from Upperton and Netherton were playing football in the field behind the schoolhouse. With at least twenty boys and girls on each side it was impossible to identify the teams, but it was an eagerly fought contest with no obvious winners. I hovered on the periphery of the game, waiting for someone to notice my presence and hopefully invite me to play.
I needn’t have bothered.
The match suddenly ground to a halt. That awful red-haired boy marched over, flanked by at least half of each team.
“Whit d’you want?” he demanded.
“I’m Mairi, and I was hoping I could join your game,” I said, wishing I were talking to anybody save him.
“You were hoping you could join our game, were you?” sneered a girl, mimicking my accent. “But you might get that frightfully posh dress of yours dirty!”
(Dear diary, do I really sound that snooty? And I thought this dress was rather ragged, too!)
“Aye, and your precious gloves might get frayed,” said a boy wearing short trousers and a tunic that was more holes than fabric. “Is it too cold for you here on Stromsay?”
“I have arthritis,” I said, refusing to be intimidated. “The gloves protect my hands.”
“Arthritis? How old are you, ninety?” laughed another girl.
“Old enough to know I was the fastest girl in Largs, and the best football player too,” I replied, hoping they would take the bait and invite me to show off my skills. Sure enough, mutters of no chance! and prove it! rippled around the crowd.
“Oh aye?” said the red-haired boy. “Where’s your precious Ellie Rasmussen? Any friend of hers is no friend of ours.”
An expectant hush fell on the crowd. I knew the answer I gave would determine my future standing amongst the children of Stromsay. Even the red-haired boy appeared ready to forgive my previous assault and welcome me to the fold, if only I uttered five fateful words:
Ellie Rasmussen? I hate her.
Dear diary, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I turned tail and marched home, suppressing tears of sheer frustration and rage as the jeers and insults and Mairi loves Ellie! catcalls followed me on the breeze.
Oh, curse that Ellie girl! If only I hadn’t come to her rescue that afternoon. My life here is ruined, and it’s all because of her.
I miss her so much.
Friday 26th April
It has been stormy all week, but I have not let the incessant wind and rain thwart my plans. Every night, once Uncle Donald’s snores echo around our croft, I make for the Sgeirskerry, shed my clothes, don Mama’s skin and take to the sea. Tìr-fo-Thuinn knows nothing of torrential rain and gales; it dances with light on even the darkest of nights. Glittering pinpricks drift in the currents like stars come to life; passing jellyfish and squid glow like seaborne lamps.
Alas, I have now explored much of Stromsay’s seas without meeting a single selkie, let alone finding an underwater town, lobster farm or kelp field. They must live miles out to sea.
Will I ever overcome my landsickness and witness them for myself?
Saturday 27th April
I have only just realised: I have not found a single shipwreck in Stromsay waters! It is all so confusing. Wreckers must create wrecks, so where are they?
I am desperate to visit Ellie, but I am not sure I can. The memory of her whispering you’re one of them still brings tears to my eyes. I am no normal girl, that much is certain, but why am I to be feared and shunned?
Monday 29th April
I can barely hold my pen steady, let alone think straight. The full moon arrived last night, catching me unawares. Oh, the ecstasy and agony of those selkie songs is too much to bear! Uncle Donald has locked me in again, of course. How dare he deny me the chance to embrace my true heritage? I will not let it happen again. Next full moon I will be nowhere near this croft. I will be on the beach, waiting for my fellow selkies.
Wednesday 1st May
May has arrived, although one would not know it from the continuous rainstorms and gales sweeping in from the southwest. Nevertheless, the days are lengthening significantly; it is not long after three when dawn begins creeping over the horizon, and the evening gloaming lasts until ten. Aunt Molly says the Simmer Dim will soon be upon us, when the midsummer sun barely dips below the horizon and twilight never ends.
Surely the wreckers cannot operate on such bright nights?
Sunday 5th May
What an idiot I am, ending my last entry with such foolish optimism! Last night the wreckers braved the driving rain and took to the cliffs. I spent three freezing hours watching the lamp-carrier ply his evil trade on the cliffs, but thankfully no ships passed. He eventually gave up and headed home, as did I.
If only they failed every night.
I wish I could share this news with Ellie. Perhaps I should visit Castle Cammo and try my best to make peace. We were friends once, after all. Surely we can be friends again.
I will not apologise to Ellie, though.
I have nothing to apologise for.
I am unwell in bed, struggling with a cold thanks to last night’s clifftop vigil. Uncle Donald is getting suspicious, and not just because of my sudden illness. He had to nudge me awake in church today, and he regularly comments on how exhausted I look over breakfast. Aunt Molly helps conceal my sins, thankfully. She tells him my tiredness is down to women’s troubles, which quickly ends the conversation.
Thursday 9th May
Inspiration struck this morning while I was weeding our carrots in the incessant drizzle. I have always wondered why the wreckers shine lights on the cliffs; after all, doesn’t a light reveal the presence of land? But this morning I imagined myself as a ship’s captain, nervously approaching the Firth on a foggy moonless night. Rocks lie in wait everywhere, waiting to strike. Without the horizon to guide him, where does safe passage lie? Then he sees a light to port bobbing up and down like a ship at sail! So he steers in that direction because he thinks it is safe, and the Swilkie claims the ship for its own.
I used to think being shipwrecked would be romantic, like in Robinson Crusoe. Now I know differently.
Sunday 12th May
This afternoon I thought my time on Earth had come to an end. I was swimming off Gills Bay when a colossal beast loomed out of the green haze. I thought it was the fabled Cirein-Croìn of selkie folklore, a gigantic sea monster hungry for anything foolish enough to stray into its path. The beast headed straight for me, its huge mouth gaping as wide as the entrance to Hell. But then I remembered Mama pointing out the basking sharks in Largs Bay, which she called the gentle giants of the sea. They eat creatures too small to see, she said, and sure enough, it serenely swam past with a flick of its great tail, leaving me alone once more.
Monday, 27th May
It is full moon tomorrow, if my reckoning is correct. I plan to run away in the evening, before Uncle Donald gets home from the sea, and hide in a cave until night falls and the singing starts. I can hardly wait!
Tuesday, 28th May
Oh, how I despise my cursed uncle! Instead of going fishing he helped Aunt Molly and I on the croft. We fed hens, earthed up potatoes, ploughed furrows, mucked out the pigsty and milked cows together in stolid silence. I couldn’t even visit the privy without him waiting outside! Now I am locked in the ben once more, driven halfway to madness by the siren-like selkie songs. Part of me wants to smash the window and be damned with the consequences, but I am too afraid.
I am all too aware of how damning those consequences could be.
Wednesday, 29th May
Aunt Molly and I met Charlotte Pearson, Hamish’s selkie bride, by the village green today. She gave us a shy nod and a barely audible hello before hurrying home. Dear diary, she looked so exhausted and unhappy! I wonder if she went back to the beach last night. Aunt Molly refuses, I know. It hurts too much, she says. If I found her skin she’d be free of Uncle Donald’s spell. Then again, Aunt Molly is my only ally on Stromsay.
Would I really be selfless enough to set her free if the opportunity arose?
Saturday, 22nd June
Today is the summer solstice. Midnight it may be, but dusk still lingers on. I write this by my window, facing a greenish-blue northern sky laced with straggling clouds. It is so bright I could write outside if I wanted to.
Oh, midsummer! It is supposed to be a time of joyous celebration here on Stromsay, but I have nothing to celebrate. This evening Aunt Molly took me to the Simmer Dim Dance at Stromsay Mains. The Mains is a large farm maintained by the venerable Kennedy family on behalf of Lord McWhirter, and is Stromsay’s other centre of community life. They hold dances and socials at least six times a year, Aunt Molly says, and the midsummer celebration is second only to Hogmanay in terms of attendance, frivolity and alcohol consumption. Even Uncle Donald came, so popular is the event.
We headed for the farm not long before sunset, walking quickly to keep the swarms of midges at bay.
(Honestly, Dear Diary, they are like nothing else I have ever encountered! I thought the midges in Largs were bad, but the Stromsay midge is another proposition altogether. They must have razor-blades for teeth!)
Anyway, we trooped into the largest barn with the ceilidh band in full swing. At least two hundred islanders were already in attendance, chattering, singing, dancing and playing. People sat on barrels, hay-bales, sacks and other makeshift chairs; couples reeled and jigged up and down the straw-covered floor, whooping and skirling at the top of their lungs.
Unsurprisingly, Uncle Donald made straight for the ale barrels at the back and remained there all night with Mr Pearson and two other Upperton men I vaguely recognised. Aunt Molly and I sat on a bench near the ceilidh band, but she was soon swept off her feet and onto the dance-floor. My new home groans under the weight of ancient traditions, I have found, and the men obviously consider it the height of good luck to dance with a selkie. Poor Aunt Molly was hurled from partner to partner, always smiling and never tiring. Charlotte Pearson suffered the same fate, as did three other women with obvious hints of selkie heritage in their eyes and bearing. A boy and girl sat awkwardly together on the table next to me, neither of them much beyond sixteen. It was obviously their first public tryst, given the presence of their expectant parents watching nearby.
And what did I do, dear diary? I sat quietly by myself, never once asked for a dance nor even spoken to. I didn’t mind at first, so mesmerised I was in the music. Hamish Pearson might be a selkie-stealing oaf of a boy, but he plays the accordion beautifully; a young woman called Isa Murdo coaxed the most wondrous sounds from her fiddle, her melodies ecstatically exhilarating and sorrow-laden in turn. Oh, how I wish I could play an instrument and lose myself in music!
Apologies, dear diary; I am getting distracted. The music may have been enthralling, but it couldn’t stave off the loneliness threatening to overwhelm me. The children of Stromsay chased each other around the dancing sets, bounced balls off the barn’s rafters, buried themselves in the remnants of last year’s hay and generally had a wonderful time. I longed to join in, but I am definitely persona non grata after that encounter behind the schoolhouse.
Anyway, It was some time before I noticed Ellie and her mother sitting alone in a corner. They both looked desperate to join in the frivolities, but like me, they remained studiously ignored by everybody present. Jessie Gilchrist (like Ellie, I will not use the name Rasmussen unless I can help it) has recently borne the full brunt of Ragnar’s cruelty. It wasn’t just her black eye, bruised neck, haggard dress and thinning hair that shocked me so; it was the deadness in her eyes. She looked terrified of shadows, suspicious of the world and everything in it, broken, defeated. She has lost the will to fight. Ellie still has that defiant spirit, at least.
No doubt Ragnar will beat it out of her someday.
Anyway, I noticed Ellie stealing the occasional glance in my direction. This got my hopes up, of course — is she going to come and talk to me? — but Ragnar’s arrival put paid to that. The music didn’t stop, but the people of Stromsay parted like the Red Sea as he marched in, drunk as a House full of Lords. He spotted his wife and stepdaughter at once – I suspect he knows to look in unobtrusive corners — and actually dragged poor Jessie out a side door by her hair! Ellie raced after them, punching Ragnar’s arms and back, but they must have felt like mere tickles to a man-beast that size. Alas, not a single person in the barn intervened. Nothing to do with us, I heard one person mutter between gulps of ale.
Dear Diary, sometimes I truly despair of humanity. Why do we love spreading trivial gossip and meddling in affairs we have no business with, yet studiously ignore criminal behaviour like Ragnar’s?
Before I finish for the night (my right hand is cramping up) one other incident warrants mention. Not long after the Gilchrists left in such ignominious fashion, I noticed Francesca McAdam sitting alone. She too appears shunned by the other children of the island; perhaps that is why she and Ellie were friends once. Desperate for company (and eager to find out more about Ellie’s awful father) I sat beside her. She is nearly fifteen if I remember correctly, and was dressed immaculately in a navy-blue dress with white lace trim. Mousy brown hair hung all the way to her waist, and she sports the pallor of someone who rarely ventures outside. A furrow in her forehead makes her look permanently surprised, even suspicious. If I didn’t know better I’d say she was made of porcelain.
“Hello Francesca,” I said. “I’m Mairi.”
“How do you know my name?” she asked nervously.
“Ellie told me,” I replied. “Would you like — ”
Dear Diary, Francesca actually squealed and fled the dance altogether! One or two people stared balefully in my direction, as though I’d done something wrong. I’ve never seen such naked terror in a girl’s eyes before. Something dreadful must have happened between Ellie and Francesca.
I suspect Ragnar’s hand in this.
Wednesday 26th June
It is full moon today. Uncle Donald did not let me out of his sight again, and I am once more locked in the ben as the selkie songs drift sweetly across the island.
Perhaps this is merely another monthly curse I must bear.
Thursday 27th June
Aunt Molly gave me leave of the croft this morning, bless her, so I took to the sea in selkie form and swam straight for the cove near Ellie’s croft. I was hoping to find traces of the selkies’ visit, but they had left nothing behind on land nor sea. Only the faintest scent of something clean, fresh and faintly herbal floating in the currents hinted that some unusual creature had recently been here.
I was about to follow the scent when I noticed Ellie stumbling downhill towards the cove, obviously in tears. I hauled my blubbery body onto the skerry and watched her wash her bloodied arms and legs in the sea. She had a black eye and a cut lip too, and her cheeks were livid red. What a thrashing her stepfather must have given her! I’ve never seen Ellie cry before. I know she hates me now, but it still hurts to see her so upset. Oh, how I wish I could offer her some help or comfort. Ellie looked up and noticed me lying on the skerry. I met her lonesome, forlorn gaze and thought it’s me, Mairi with all my might. Alas, it did not work. She shook her head sadly and wandered off in the direction of Castle Cammo, leaving me more alone than ever. Oh, I miss her so much! Doesn’t she miss me too?
I shouldn’t delude myself, Dear Diary. She would have come to see me by now if she did. At least she kept my true identity a secret.
Perhaps I should count myself lucky to be alive.
Saturday, 20th July
Dear diary, will it ever stop raining?
Sunday 25th August
I have not seen the slightest hint of the wreckers since May, and after two backbreaking months of work on the croft, I do not have the energy or the inclination to assume my selkie form. Life almost seems normal, apart from those torturous full moons. I have little time and energy for idle contemplation or dreaming, that much is certain. My days are an endless procession of digging, ploughing, milking, churning, shelling, cooking, peeling, trimming, chopping, feeding, carrying, darning and sewing. Up at dawn with porridge for breakfast; soup for lunch and fish for dinner, or meat if we are lucky. Mending clothes in the evening by candlelight, or reading my dwindling supply of books until I can no longer keep my eyes open. It is not a dreadful life, but it is not what I dreamed of I dreamed of as a younger girl.
If I have learned anything from my time on Stromsay thus far, it is that dreams never come true.