The news at the beginning of this week reporting the introduction of new laws to protect Scottish seals brought to mind an old Scottish legend told me as a child by my dear old, if not a little superstitious, grandmother.
The story went like this:
A seal hunter is woken one night by a stranger who states that his master requests the presence of the seal hunter and asks the hunter to go with him to his master’s abode. The seal hunter agrees and is taken, on the back a large black horse, many miles through the Scottish countryside to the edge of a cliff. On arrival at the cliff’s edge the seal hunter questions his escort as to where his master’s home is, at which point the stranger grabs the hunter and they both plummet downwards into the sea. The hunter wakes in a beautiful underwater kingdom, surrounded by the same animals that he has dedicated his life to killing and is approached by a large boar seal.
The boar seal leads him through the kingdom to a room where another seal lies dying with a huge knife wound to its belly. It turns out that this injured seal is the father of the large boar seal who invited the hunter to his realm, and the hunter recalls how earlier in the day, while hunting, he had stabbed a seal but not having killed it, only wounded it, the seal had managed to swim away with his knife blade still buried within it.
The hunter is told by the boar seal that he, as the one who inflicted the wound, is the only one who can save his father and requests that the hunter does so. The hunter removes the knife blade and magically the wound heals. The boar then tells the hunter that they will allow him to leave the underwater kingdom and return home only if he promises to surrender his job and vow never to harm a seal again. The hunter, feeling rather overwhelmed and more than a little homesick, agrees – worrying all the way home (on the back of that black horse again) how he will make ends meet now he cannot do what he has always done to make a living for himself. But when he returns home, before the stranger bids him farewell, he is handed a purse full of gold coins, enough to ensure that he will be comfortable for the rest of his life.
I’m sure the moral to this story is meant to be something along the lines of – if you do the right thing, and don’t harm others, you will be richly rewarded, but as a child the message I took from it was don’t hurt a seal or you might end up being taken to the bottom of the sea!
It would seem that seals now have more than just bedtime stories to discourage people from killing or harming them without good reason, as the new law makes it an offence to kill or injure a seal except under licence, with a potential penalty of a hefty fine or even 6 months in prison. Although seals can and do cause problems for the fishing industry, they are long standing residents of our seas and shores and I personally believe that more regulation of the way in which they are culled has to be a good thing – so the new law gets my seal of approval (excuse the pun, I couldn’t help myself!)
Fortunately it still remains legal to shoot seals as much as your heart desires – as long as it’s with a camera! So, for those who fancy spending some time admiring these intriguing animals below is a list of my favourite places to spot them around Scotland:
The Moray Firth Coastline
The shores of Loch Linnhe
The Orkney Islands
The Sound of Jura
The shoreline at Fast Castle, near Coldingham
And just a wee bit of advice -please remember that even the cutest of seals with the biggest, most appealing eyes are still wild animals and if you do get too close and make them feel threatened they may bite in defence. Keeping a safe distance ensures seal watching is an enjoyable experience for both you and the seal!