Amy Liptrot on Hanna Tuulikki's 'Seals’kin'

Part of Aberdeen Programme

A colour film still shows a person, standing on sand dunes and surrounded by long grass. They have blonde hair and are dressed in a long black coat and black hat and carry a mottled piece of fabric.
Hanna Tuulikki, ‘Seals’kin’ (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

We commissioned writer Amy Liptrot to respond to Hanna Tuulikki​’s Seals’kin’ (2022). You can read or listen to Amy read the text below.

Seals’kin’ (2022) was presented on the LUX Scotland website in November 2023, followed by an online discussion event with Hanna, as part of our ONE WORK series.

ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.

Amy Liptrot is a writer who grew up on a sheep farm in Orkney, Scotland. Her bestselling memoir, THE OUTRUN won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing and the PEN Ackerley Prize for memoir, has been translated into 16 languages and adapted into a film starring Saoirse Ronan. Her second book THE INSTANT was published in 2022 and was another bestseller. She writes columns and reviews for various publications including The Guardian and Caught by the River and presented the BBC Radio 4 series The New Anatomy of Melancholy. She currently lives on Papay, Orkney and is writing a book about seaweed.

Getting Under the Seals’kin

Sometimes, when I put on a wetsuit to swim or snorkel in the sea, I have a strong sensation that I am pulling on a sealskin. When I remove the suit, to come back to land, I am hiding my transformative garment away. The idea of the sealskin as what Hanna Tuulikki calls a powerful ritual object” is deep in my psyche from my upbringing in the Orkney islands, where the local folklore is full of stories of selkies.

A selkie temporarily sheds their skin to become a human. Tuulikki’s beautiful short film Seals’kin’ seems to me to be a reversal of the usual tale of a seal becoming human: it’s about a human becoming seal. We meet a figure, played by Tuulikki, dressed in a souwester and black coat, perhaps in mourning, dragging a sealskin. They sing in a lilting melody to the seals, non-identifiable words, in strong high clear voice, continuing Tuulikki’s practice of mimesis’, or imitation, of different animals. The seals reply, dueting. The mysterious figure later dons a sealskin and enters the sea and it feels like their sadness takes them into the water

Filmed on the Aberdeenshire coast, on a dreamy pink January morning, it is a study of what it might mean to become with seal”. It’s a perfect location where they could be close to a seal colony but, across a stretch of water, without disturbing them. Clever camera work gives us a view of the seals through a telescope and a seal-eye-view from the water. We hear delicate sounds of gulls, wind, seal and sea, a curlew and an intake of breath as Tuulikki enters the water. Our selkie is then washed back up, and a striking shot of the figure, across a stretch of water from the colony, in various seal poses.

This last year I’ve become obsessed with a podcast of Irish writer Blindboy, a sprawling novel’ covering Irish history, art, food, mental health. He talks a lot about Irish mythology and his theory is that the purpose of folk tales is that they are a way of passing on wisdom about preserving biodiversity. I think that mythology and folklore is nature’s way of keeping the human animal in balance with the system in which we exist,” he says.

Forty percent of the world’s population of grey seals live around the UK, 95% of the European population, with a large proportion of that around the coast of the north and isles of Scotland. With such global importance, it’s no wonder seals feature heavily in our folklore.

There is respect, and some fear, for seals in the selkie tales. Perhaps this is a way of recognising the importance of seals in the food chain and as part of the marine ecosystem. Seals are predators, eating fish and seabirds. These sea canines, a keystone species, help to maintain ecological balance. They move nutrients from deep water into shallow waters, through their poo – feeding plankton and other species. They are also themselves prey: for orca, for polar bears. The afterbirths of grey seals at pupping times give important nutrition to sea eagles. Seals are part of complex ecological relationships which are often different than it might first appear. Seals were persecuted by fishermen in the 20th century but the cause of the decline of fish populations is overfishing, not seals.

In 1999, the uninhabited island of Linga Holm in the Orkney was purchased by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a sanctuary for grey seals. It is thought to be the third largest breeding ground for grey seals in the world. Another uninhabited Orkney island, Faray, which once had a human population of more than 80, also has a colony. They pup at the bottom of sheer cliffs and on remote peninsulas. Seals exist on the edges of our human territory – places that are inaccessible or where humans have abandoned. We share just a small portion of our territories – the foreshore and nearshore – the intertidal zone and sublittoral zone – and it is this that Tuulikki briefly enters.

Inherent in the sound of a seal’s call is a mournfulness. It sounds like a lament. I write this as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has restarted after a few days’ ceasefire. When I heard the news on the radio, I let out a cry. A howl. When Tuulikki seal calls, she is howling for all the griefs we carry. We are attracted to the call of the seal because in it we feel our own sadnesses.

Tuulikki is giving us the latest iteration of the selkie myth, here on my laptop screen, watched simultaneously by viewers on zoom, folk tales for the C21st, continuing to communicate important ideas about nature, more important now than ever.

Image description: A colour film still shows a person, standing on sand dunes and surrounded by long grass. They have blonde hair and are dressed in a long black coat and black hat and carry a mottled piece of fabric.

Supported by Aberdeen City Council Creative Funding.

Audio Version

Part of Aberdeen Programme

The LUX Scotland Aberdeen Programme aims to support early career Aberdeen-based artists and curators. The programme has run from since 2018 and has included job opportunities, workshops, screenings and online commissions. The programme was led by Project Manager Rachel Grant between 2021–24.

Supported by Aberdeen City Council Creative Funding, this continues our previous work to support, develop and promote artists’ moving image practices across Scotland, and builds on our work in the Aberdeen area, which began in 2018.

Learn more