The woman who shed her skin

Towards a humble
anthropocentrism in
the Outer Hebrides

Magnus Course

Except for the point, the still point,
there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Driving south across the causeway that links the Hebridean islands of South Uist and Eriskay, one can sometimes observe a seal walking on the water. Or perhaps waddling on the water is a more accurate, if less elegant description. This surprising vision is easily explained: at a certain point of the tide’s turning, the rocks where this particular seal likes to lie become submerged just below the Atlantic’s surface and the seal basks along the top of them until finally slipping away under the waves. The first time I saw this miraculous seal, it caught my attention to the extent that I almost crashed my car. And ever since, I’ve looked at seals with a mixture of bewilderment and suspicion. There is undeniably something about seals that draws deeply on some inner urge to anthropomorphise them, to look into their deep, dark eyes and see them as ‘friendly’, or ‘grumpy’ or ‘angry’. To understand seals as blurring the boundary between the human and beyond is not simply my own personal idiosyncrasy, but a phenomenon widespread around the globe. From the indigenous Mapuche communities of southern Chile where I lived for many years, to the west coast of Scotland where I’ve been working more recently, the idea that seals might live as humans under the waves, and can indeed become humans on land, is present in one form or another.

In this essay, I use both archival material on the seal-people tradition and my own ethnographic work with Gaelic-speaking fishermen in the Outer Hebrides to provide an answer to the question posed by the editors of this volume: what comes after after-nature? The answer I suggest is that what comes after after-nature is the same thing that came before after-nature and indeed could be said to have created nature as an ontologically distinct category in the first place: the human. To make this argument I’ll be drawing on material which, at first glance, might lead us in a very different direction. For the songs and stories of the seal-people at the heart of this essay correspond to what is often referred to as animism, and animism in turn is often understood as a way of conceptualising the world which challenges and disrupts the anthropocentrism of what Philippe Descola has called the ‘naturalism’ of the Enlightenment thinking to which we in Europe and elsewhere often imagine ourselves to be heirs (2013). What does all this ‘animism’, so frequently martialled to argue for a variety of versions of post-humanism, look like when we approach it, not as a series of closed propositions, but as open-ended invitations to reflect upon what it means to be human? In what follows, I bring my own ethnography into dialogue with some of the insights of both feminist STS studies and anthropology from beyond Europe to demonstrate how these seal stories foreground an ethics of care predicated on and constitutive of the human position, an ethics of care which clearly resonate with contemporary fishermen’s commitment to sustainability. In doing so, I aim to recast the human from an unquestioned ontological state to a contingent ethical one. For what I want to suggest is that although the lesson of the seals does indeed challenge and disrupt the dominant configuration of anthropocentrism, it doesn’t do away with the centrality of the human. It leads us instead to a human refigured, a human centred in and constituted through relations of care and compassion with the world around her: a ‘humble anthropocentrism’ to use Georges Canguilhem’s concept (1994; 2008).

The people of the sea

The Sea itself

In the Gaelic tradition of Scotland and Ireland, as in many other traditions around the world, the sea is understood to constitute a kind of mirror of the land. As the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean notes in his essay on sea-imagery in Gaelic poetry, ‘Gaelic folklore ascribed to the sea the counterpart of everything on land’ (1985: 99). So, we find accounts of the entire range of social forms: hierarchy, as marked by the ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ of all of the sea creatures – ‘They say all the creatures of the water do have their own king’ – a man in South Uist relates (Thomson 1954: 32); a division of labour, as marked by the existence of ‘herdsmen’ of ‘sea-cattle’, of villages surrounding castles; and so on. At first sight then, we seem to be dealing with a classic case of animism, a projection of earthly human sociality onto the marine world. Yet this broader structural isomorphism between land and sea fails to account for a key difference: that when viewed from a moral and religious viewpoint, the sea appears fundamentally different to the land. Thus Father Allan MacDonald, a priest and folklorist in Eriskay at the turn of the nineteenth century, was told that: ‘The sea is considered much more blessed than the shore [ … ] the sea is holier to live on than the shore’ (Gregorson Campbell 2005: 513). This notion was widespread in the Gaelic world: John Gregorson Campbell notes the saying ‘Cha d’thig olc sam bith on fhairge’, ‘Evil comes not from the sea’ (Gregorson Campbell 2005: 272), an idea which seems to be linked to the notion that neither ghosts, fairies nor demons could come below the high-tide line. Thus, a common strategy for evading pursuit by these supernatural creatures was simply to sprint for the beach (Gregorson Campbell 2005: 29). It is hard here to unravel the theological from the cosmological. There is certainly a tradition in Christianity which goes in quite the other direction, against the divinity of the sea: St Paul famously prophesises a paradise in which ‘the sea was no more’ (Revelation 21:1). And to this day, there is still a strong taboo in South Uist against letting a priest onto a boat, or even to touch a boat, despite the necessity of having a boat blessed by the priest at the Fishermen’s Mass. And likewise, we encounter the seemingly contradictory idea that, despite the idea that ‘evil comes not from the sea’, witches frequently go to sea or manipulate the sea in order to drown their victims (see Gregorson Campbell 2005: 179).

Despite its frequent association as a refuge from evil, the sea was certainly not seen as a refuge from danger. There exists a substantial number of charms against drowning, as well as a wide variety of taboos to be upheld while at sea. Many of these taboos are linguistic. For example, while at sea seals are referred to as bèist mhaol (bald beast) rather than ròn, the usual term for seal, and drowning is referred to as ‘travelling’, siubhail rather than by the usual word bàthadh’. Some of these taboos are still present among the Gaelic-speaking fishermen of Uist with whom I worked. In particular, the injunction never to turn back once you have set your course, as well as the idea that if possible, one should always avoid turning a boat anti-clockwise, but rather deiseal, clockwise in the direction of the sun. And the danger of the sea is also a central trope in centuries of Gaelic song and prose. The image of a loved-one’s body beneath the waves, hair tangling with the seaweed, is one of the stock images of Gaelic poetry from at least the seventeenth century to the present (MacLean 1985). Take for a recent example, a stanza from the lament ‘S daor a cheannaich mi an t-iasgach, ‘I paid dearly for the fishing’:

Tha do bhreacan ùr uasal

Ann an ùrlar an aigeil,

‘S tha do lèine chaol bhòidheach

Aig na rònaibh ga sracadh.

Tha do ghàrtanan rìomhach

Air ìnean nam partan,

‘S tha d’ fhaltan donn dualach

Na chuachaibh ‘s na phreasaibh.

Your proud fresh plaid

Is spread out on the sea-bed,

Your fine handsome shirt

Is being torn by the seals.

Your handsome garters

Are on the crabs’ claws

And your brown curly locks

Are tangled and matted.1

In Kenneth MacLeod’s famous essay, Duatharachd na Mara, ‘The Dark Mystery of the Sea’, he notes that ‘the old people would speak about the dark mystery of the sea, and with that they meant that there were things associated with it that were not at all associated with natural things such as stones or soil, that she had virtues that even the Seed of Adam could not fathom’ (1910: 242).2 The figurative depth of the sea is beyond fathom and I do not pretend to do anything other than dip my toes in it here. I want simply to make two related points: that while at one level there exists a certain symmetry between the sea and the land, this symmetry must always be understood within the context of asymmetry when viewed in moral or religious terms. And secondly, that this moral and/or theological asymmetry is not given or pre-determined in its content or direction; in some cases, the sea is a place of refuge against evil, in others, it is a realm untouched by God.

Good seals, bad seals

So, what place do seals have in all this? I want to suggest that in line with the sea itself, they display both a social continuity with humanity (as in a paradigmatic case of animism) but also, (and perhaps more importantly for the people who told and sang of them), a moral discontinuity with humanity. I will argue that it is this shifting combination of continuity and discontinuity, symmetry and asymmetry that allowed the people engaging with seal stories to reflect upon and reconsider, and ultimately, recentre, the relational parameters of what it means to be human. A good place to start is David Thomson’s 1954 compendium of seal stories from Scotland and Ireland, tellingly entitled The People of the Sea. Let me quote at length Thomson’s account of a South Uist man endowed with ‘vision’, speaking after an incident in which four fishermen drowned and one young boy survived:

And I saw two seals come ashore to him, swept in by the same waves. And the two seals did take off their skins and, when they did, two young women stood by this boy. And they went one either side of him. And they made to shift a coffin each. But the strength of the sea carried those coffins from them. So they went to another two coffins and this boy was between them looking on to the coffin in the centre. And the two seal women tried to draw these coffins back away from the waves. But it was no use again, for didn’t an awful size of a wave come and swamped them and left them there out of their hands. And I couldn’t see the boy. But when the wave drew back I saw the boy standing there half-drowned, and he holding on to this last of the coffins with every bit of strength he had left in him [ … ] And that was the last of it. I saw the two seal women sit down on the coffin and weeping by it. And I saw this boy go down on the shore and gather up the two sealskins and bring the two to them. And the two seal women stopped weeping then, and they took the skins from the boy and went back into the sea.

(Thomson 1954: 40–41)

Another well-known tale within the Gaelic tradition is that of the origin of Clan MacCodrum of North Uist. A fisherman sees and then seizes a sealskin left on a beach. No sooner does he do so than a beautiful woman appears at his side demanding the return of her ‘clothes’. The fisherman refuses, takes the woman home with him, eventually marries her and has children with her. He is always careful to hide her skin/clothes, and constantly shifts their hiding place to prevent her returning to the sea. Eventually, one of their children accidentally reveals that the skin is hidden in a haystack (what better emblem of agrarian patriarchy?), and the woman is thus able to return to her life as a seal. She promises to greet her children from a rock in the bay, ‘and early the next morning the children went down to the sea and there they found every kind of fish on the rock and their mother came and waved to them and called to them and she went on giving them fish until they grew up and prepared for marriage. Her sons and daughters married and that is how the Clan MacCodrum came to this earth’. (Thomson 1954: 198) An alternative account of this same tradition can also be found in John Gregorson Campbell’s collection: ‘There is a sept in North Uist known as Clann ‘ic Codrum nan ròn, ‘the MacCodrums of the seals’, from being said to be descendants of these enchanted seals. The progenitor of the family, being down about the shore, saw the seals putting off their coverings and washing themselves. He fled home with one of the skins and hid it above the lintel of the door. The owner of the covering followed him. He clad her with human garments, married her, and had a family by her. She managed ultimately to regain possession of her lost covering and disappeared’ (Gregorson Campbell 2005: 156).

These stories of the seal people are not confined to the Gaelic tradition, but exist in one form or another all around the coasts of northwest Europe. A paradigmatic seal-people or ‘selchie’ story recounted to Thomson comes from the Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland: a seal-hunting trip encounters, kills then skins a group of seals. A storm grows, and one of the hunters remains stranded on the rock in the middle of the ocean. As night closes in, a group of seal people move up onto the rock, and ‘he could hear a wailing, a kind o’singing, like the voices o’ the selchies. It was a lament he made out, when he made out the words, a lament for the loss o’ their skins, for now they sang i’ the lament that they could swim no more; they must live on land like men and women, they would ne’er again see the city o’ coral and pearl that lies below the waves’ (Thomson 1954: 153). Eventually one of the seals approaches the stranded hunter and agrees to return him to the shore in exchange for return of the skin of her son, the skin which will enable him to return to his life at sea.

Stories of seal-people saturate the folklore archives of both Scotland and Ireland, although frequently in a more fragmentary manner than those collected by Thomson and Campbell. A quick example in Gaelic comes from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, archived under the title Na Ròin a bha a Tilgeadh nan Clach, ‘Seals Throwing Stones’.3 The teller, Archibald MacInnes of Eriskay was repairing fishing gear on the uninhabited small island of Fuday: ‘This great roar was to be heard behind us and when we looked down there was a group of these seals rolling around on the beach as if they were going mad with laughter, and others with stones ready to throw at us. First one stone came, then two, then three until at last there was a shower of them falling around my ears. We stood up lest we were killed and headed for the vessel as fast as our feet could take us. We piled into it and we pulled away from the shore and we were definitely in time. The seals were not able to throw the stones as far as our boat, which was just as well. […] Iain turned to me, and he said: ‘If I was’, he said, ‘to believe that such a thing as spells existed I would say that those seals are people that are under a spell, being as clever as they were’. ‘Smart or not’, I said, ‘I will no longer approach them so boldly’ (Fomin & Mac Mathúna 2016: 56).

A seal morality

The stories above illustrate a degree of social continuity between humans and seals. Seals have, or at least had, the power of speech. They live in communities, towns and cities under the sea. They are bound by both kinship and friendship, and they possess social institutions such as marriage through which kinship emerges. They practise recognisably human ways of making a living: tending herds, hunting and so on. They, like us, mourn the dead. It is this basic continuity of social forms which allows the worlds of the seal and of the human to continually interpenetrate, to mingle, to flow together: seals and humans do deals, betray each other, marry, fall in love, save each other, have children and so on. We might be tempted then, to argue that in line with the contemporary focus on the post-human, the source of difference between seals and humans, their physical bodies, can simply be shrugged off as skin, as clothing; that what distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’ is nothing more than a superficial layering obscuring our fundamental unity.

Some readers may already have noted certain striking parallels between the stories of the seal-people and what has become known as Amerindian perspectivism. So, what is this perspectivism? Put simply, it is the observation that in many Indigenous American configurations different kinds of beings see different worlds in the same way. A couple of examples will make this clearer: in an Amazonian context, it is common to hear that peccaries see each other as human and that they see humans as jaguars. Jaguars, on the other hand, see each other as human but see humans as peccaries. These perspectival ideas are not confined to South America but are widespread throughout the Americas as a whole. Thus, for example, among many indigenous peoples of the northwest coast of North America it is said that salmon see each other as humans, they see humans as bears, and they see the leaves on the bottom of the river as salmon (Guédon 1984). The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has described this phenomenon of Amerindian perspectivism in terms of deixis (1998). In a conventional use of the term, deixis refers to the referential meaning of an utterance being dependent on the spatial, temporal or personal position from which it is emitted. Yet in the deixis characteristic of perspectivism it is the world itself which is dependent on the position from which its perception emanates, hence Viveiros de Castro’s label of ‘cosmological deixis’. A key point is that in perspectival ontologies not only do all beings appear human to themselves, but, as with the seal-people, they act towards one another as humans would – in other words they all possess human ‘culture’. For example, peccaries see themselves as living in villages, having shamans and frequently holding manioc beer parties (although what constitutes manioc beer for peccaries appears to humans as mud, while what constitutes manioc beer for jaguars appears to humans as human blood). The crucial point is that ‘Amerindian ontological perspectivism proceeds along the lines that the point of view creates the subject; whatever is activated or ‘agented’ by the point of view will be a subject’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 476, emphasis in original). And it is the occupation of this subject position, rather than any ‘natural’ essence, which defines one as ‘culturally’ human.

Having spent many years working and living with indigenous South American people whose outlook is distinctly ‘perspectival’, I’m often surprised when anthropologists see some kind of natural affinity between post-humanism and perspectivism. For what always struck me was that when presented in their full ethnographic context rather than abstracted as philosophical propositions, these perspectival narratives were ultimately a kind of hyper-anthropocentrism; because anything could be human it was even more important to define what was really human. This point emerges most clearly in Carlos Londoño Sulkin’s important work among Muinane people in Colombia which describes how while other species may see themselves as human, they are actually always ethically flawed (2006). So, peccaries see themselves as human, but are incestuous; jaguars see themselves as human, but are cannibals, and so on. The thrust of perspectivism, then, if we follow Londoño Sulkin, could potentially be understood not so much as ontological, but ethical. And it is this understanding of the human as a contingent ethical position which I wish to take forward from these discussions of perspectivism into our consideration of the seal-people.

Perhaps a good place to start is with the recurring, central motif of the theft of the skin, a theft that is perhaps key to revealing a fundamental discontinuity between humans and seals. Let us take, for example, the figure of the fisherman in the story recounted above, of the founding of Clan MacCodrum in North Uist: it is his theft and hiding of his seal-wife’s skin that binds her, unwillingly, to him. Without her skin, she cannot return to the sea, to her people, to her true identity. It is only through her child’s unintentional revelation of the location of her skin that she is able to escape and return to the sea. This story seems to tell us a lot about ‘Man’s’ mastery over nature. It speaks to us about gender, about the difficulties of virilocal post-marital residence in Gaelic areas of the time, of a woman’s continuing bond with her children, even across the species divide, but perhaps most importantly, it reveals a particularly gendered version of a possible relationship with the non-human. As a vibrant line of feminist scholarship has pointed out, the traditional phrasing of ‘Man’s dominion over nature’ is not coincidental but reflects a particularly patriarchal ‘dominion’ constituted through tropes of conquest, theft and rape. The story also tells us about possibility, about the possible fecundity and fertility of cross-species relationships. The couple have children, they are happy, and even after recovering her skin and returning to the sea, the seal-wife continues with her relationship of responsibility and care towards her children, visiting them daily and providing them with food until their marriage. The children of Clan MacCudrum are still present today and would have been known to the people among whom these stories circulated. We can perhaps see in this aspect of the story a different vision of a human/non-human relationship, one premised not on ‘dominion’ but on an ethics of care, a point to which I shall return. This relationship is contrasted with the previous relationship based upon patriarchal domination, one initiated through a theft and a betrayal, and maintained through an enslavement. And the consequences of this? The misery of all parties: the sadness of the seal-wife and the eventual abandonment and loneliness of her human husband. These stories seem to be somewhat reminiscent of those Western Apache stories documented by Keith Basso (1996) as moral correctives, but rather than being tied to the topography encountered every day, they are tied to the creatures encountered every day, a point made in the context of Amerindian perspectivism by Londoño Sulkin (2006).

It seems to me that what is at stake is two versions of anthropocentrism, both of which place the human centre stage, but within very different kinds of relationship with the non-human. In the figure of the husband, we see the classic figure of an arrogant, patriarchal anthropocentrism which seeks to dominate, control and subjugate the seal-wife. Yet we are also offered a version of a humble anthropocentrism in the figure of the children who care for and are themselves cared for by their non-human mother, without ever losing their own humanity (remember they are the first generation of Clan MacCodrum, an indisputably human clan).

Yet while in the cases discussed above, the moral failing is on the human side, there are also tales of the moral failing being on the side of the seals. The ideas that seals can become angry and attack people indiscriminately is also present, as in the example from Eriskay of seals pelting unsuspecting fishermen with rocks. And within the Irish Gaelic tradition, there are several accounts of people being killed or lured to their deaths by seals, or at least, supernatural deaths attributed to the volition of seals. We cannot simply say, then, that seals serve as rhetorical exemplars of moral goodness against which human failings stand out in stark relief. The asymmetry is not consistent, but it is always present. This argument can be extended from the ethical to the political. For example, we learn from a man in County Mayo, that the seals meet once a year to elect their king. ‘There is one day in the year, you understand, when they send the seals in thousands from along the coast to choose their king. And they disperse to their own places after’ (Thomson 1954: 141). Like the Scottish and Irish people of the time, the seals lived under a king. However, unlike the people of the time, this was a king of their choosing, chosen on an annual basis. A bit like Clastres’ famous Indian chief, the seals offer an image of an alternative society, a different way of living and of organising power, but one which for a variety of reasons seems to fall apart when applied to human society. The seal-human relationships seem so full of potential for imagining alternative forms of life, yet so doomed to failure, that the stories seem to reverse Donna Haraway’s prior reversal of Lèvi-Strauss: seals are so good to think with, that we can’t possibly live with them (see Haraway 2003: 5)

The idea which I want to take away from these ethnographic and archival fragments is that of a continual process of rethinking and recentring what it means to be human. It is precisely the continuities between people and seals which allow the discontinuities their discursive force. Discontinuity and continuity, difference and similarity, are not fixed relationships but in continual movement, shaping and re-shaping what it means to be human. To quote Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, ‘Ontology grounded in relationality and interdependency needs to acknowledge not only an essential heterogeneity, but also ‘cuts’ out of which heterogeneity can flourish’ (2012: 204). Perhaps the ‘human’ is just such a cut, for these stories surely (to steal a phrase from T. S. Eliot) dance around a point, a point that is the human. The key idea is that the human is neither abandoned nor diluted; it is reflected upon and critiqued but it does not disappear; it is, I argue, recast in a humbler light constituted by and constitutive of, not a fixed ontological state, but a contingent ethical position. But what might this humble anthropocentrism look like in practice? What place might it have in a world in which our relationship with the ‘Parliament of Beings’ can so often seem broken beyond repair? To answer this question, I want to turn now to my own ethnographic work with contemporary Gaelic-speaking fishermen in the Outer Hebrides to see how the particular ethic of care continues to resonate in their relationship with the sea.

The care of the sea

Hebridean inshore fishing

Dòmhnall pauses from his focus on the winch, to observe the strange creature’s progress across the deck. Its colours shift almost imperceptibly at first, like an hour hand watched, but as it moves from the red of the gunwales to the blue of the non-slip mat laid across the deck floor, an indigo tinge grows and spreads across it. Dòmhnall can’t resist; he scoops up the creature by its forlornly waving tentacles and places it on his fluorescent plastic jacket, exclaiming ‘Gibealach bochd!’, ‘Poor octopus!’ in his native Gaelic. But before we can ascertain whether its colour-shifting abilities are up to the challenge of hi-viz yellow, we’re called back to attention by the crewman, Stephen, that the next lobster creel, cliabh-giomaich, is in sight. Dòmhnall peels the octopus off his jacket and throws it back into the sea. Some fishermen invert the octopuses that come up in their creels; a quick flick turns them inside-out, killing them and revealing their organs to the world. For they are great raiders of both prawn and lobster creels, entering and devouring all within, leaving only husks. But Dòmhnall lets this one go.

We’re on a smallish, 30-foot boat – the Azalea – with a small cabin, a small diesel engine, an open deck and a winch to the starboard side. It is captained by its owner, Dòmhnall, and has a single other crew member, Stephen. It is typical of the inshore fishing fleet of the southern Outer Hebrides, fishing for langoustines (‘prawn’ as they are known locally) and both brown and velvet crab off the calmer eastern side of South Uist, Eriskay, and Benbecula in the autumn, winter and spring, and then moving around to the west, to the open Atlantic for the more lucrative lobster fishing of the summer.4 The entirety of the catch is pooled in oxygenated tanks at the shellfish cooperative in South Uist, and then shipped, live, to Spain on a weekly basis and sold in a colossal fish-market just outside Barcelona. None of the fishermen is rich, but they do earn a living – an increasingly difficult achievement in a region with one of the lowest average incomes in the British Isles.

On a nice sunny day like today, I like being out here. Dolphins, porpoise and seals abound. Previous visits have revealed basking sharks and killer whales, and the most bizarre of the ocean’s wanderers, the sunfish, laid out lopsided on the choppy surface like a punctured beach-ball. The breeze is fresh, and the spray casts rainbows with each crash of the bow. There have also been less pleasant days, days with grey, overcast skies, cold, cold winds, and creeping damp, days when the seasickness pills that I take each morning are pushed to their limits. But even these days are good, for there is something irresistible about watching a creel emerge from the sea, a shape and form coalescing in the deep and then bursting through the surface as the winch hauls it through. I’m here with not one, but two ulterior motives: the first is my interest in the sea, and more specifically, my inchoate attempt to understand what the sea is from the perspective of Gaelic culture; the second, and more concrete motive, is to gather data for a report I’m preparing on behalf of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association. The remit of the report is to illustrate the deep and enduring connections between Hebridean fishing and the Scottish Gaelic language. Its purpose is to broaden the scope of the current political debate about the imposition of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by the Scottish Government around parts of the Hebrides and elsewhere in Scotland.5

The goal of the report I completed on behalf of the fishermen was to illustrate that the cultural and linguistic values of fishing had been completely overlooked by and omitted from the various impact assessments carried out, and thus was in breach of both national and European legislation, in particular the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which clearly placed member states under an obligation to take these values into account. My primary focus was on language, and it soon became clear that fishing played a fundamental role in the maintenance and transmission of Scottish Gaelic.6 But it also gradually became apparent to me that fishermen’s insistence on the importance of Gaelic could not be extricated from a broader commitment to a particular relationship with the sea. In what follows, I seek to describe their engagement with the sea, not simply as a means to achieve an economic end, but as an end in itself.

The health of the sea

At the heart of fishermen’s relationship to the sea is the claim that the fecundity and vitality of the sea does not exist despite human engagement but because of it. Contrary to the stereotypical stance – which one fisherman referred to as ‘the demonisation of fishermen’ – by environmental lobbyists, the fishermen’s relationship with the sea is not limited to a concern with stock levels of target species but concerns the marine environment as a whole. Their measure of the ‘health’ of the sea refers to several factors: the quantities of species observed, the diversity of species observed and the range of size of individuals within a species. Fishermen are concerned if only small or only large exemplars of a particular species are encountered. For example, while we were out just off the southeast corner of Uist, fishing with rods for mackerel to bait his prawn creels, Pàdraig was concerned that all of the mackerel seemed to be particularly large, ‘Where are all the young ones?’ he wondered. This constant concern with diversity both within and across species was not limited to life below the surface. All of the fishermen with whom I worked had a deep and intimate knowledge of creatures of air, land and sea. Sailing out of Eriskay in search of prawns, Calum explained to me how you could tell the age of both herring gulls and common gulls by the differing patterns of their plumage; just north of Barra, Alasdair expounded his theories on the relation between sea eagles and wader populations; while back on land in Ludag, Angus somewhat sheepishly offered me a small net bag of carrageen, a seaweed used as a traditional gelatin substitute for a sweet milk pudding. This intimate knowledge of the marine environment as an integrated and interconnected whole certainly has pragmatic elements. As is well known, clusters of certain ‘indicator’ species serve to identify the location of target species. And what constitutes a ‘target’ species is itself constantly shifting as tastes and prices, and thus the economic viability of fishing, change. For example, nobody in Britain eats velvet crab, but it commands a high price in Spain. Over the years, the nature of fishing has changed dramatically, from domestic to commercial, and across a wide variety of target species (Coull 1996). Yet despite these factors, fishermen’s knowledge of and concern for the sea cannot be reduced to pragmatic considerations alone. Even the oldest fishermen retain a sense of surprise and wonder, marvelling at creatures such as basking sharks and killer whales, and even the everyday meetings with octopus and lobster. As Dòmhnall explained to me, ‘I’ve been fishing every year of my life since I was eight. Now I’m 52 and I’ve never seen an identical year’.

Yet fishermen are not simply external observers looking in at the life of the sea; their presence, their engagement, their acts of care, constitute a part of that life. For at the centre of the complex webs of exchange which constitute marine life, are the fishermen themselves. It is through their selective ‘harvesting’ or ‘hunting’ of certain species that a certain balance, and therefore fecundity, is maintained. As one Benbecula fisherman put it to me, ‘If we stop, the sea will die’. A widely cited example is Broad Bay off the coast of Lewis, where a blanket ban was placed on fishing around twenty-five years ago. A recent survey of the bay revealed a seafloor covered in nothing but starfish, a ‘dead’ sea from the fishermen’s perspective. Here it is worth noting Stefan Helmreich’s distinction between ‘life forms’ and ‘forms of life’ in contemporary limit biologies (2016). No fishermen would deny that the starfish are alive (a ‘life form’) but all would concur that their blanket monopoly of the sea bed does not equate to life (a ‘form of life’). The latter is always both relative and holistic, always premised on relations between a multiplicity of species. One could take this observation down the path of a post-humanist critique of anthropocentrism, that the relativity of life and the irreducibility of life, always relativise the role of the human. However, the fishermen with whom I worked take this observation in the opposite direction, one which follows the stories and songs of the seal-people which they grew up listening to, one in which the human plays a central role.

For if the difference between a dead sea and a living sea is nothing more nor less than people’s engagement with it, what is it about human engagement that makes a difference? More specifically, why do fishermen claim that their practices constitute care of the sea? The practices they mention in this regard are all oriented towards sustainability. Such practices include self-imposed voluntary closures of certain fishing grounds during spawning seasons of certain species, the return of ‘berried’ (i.e. egg-bearing) female lobsters to the sea, the imposition of minimum size limits for both crab and lobster and the return of all non-target or undersized catches to the sea. The fishermen emphasise, firstly, that these are traditional practices that have been carried out for centuries, and secondly, that these are self-imposed restrictions emerging from their own knowledge of the sea and from their own duty of care as ‘custodians’ or ‘guardians’ of the sea. They demonstrate what to the fishermen at least, is the self-evident truth that, as Pàdraig commented to me, ‘The people that should manage the sea are the people that are working the sea, that live in that fishing community’. Sustainability is, and always has been, necessarily part of their practice, as Dòmhnall noted, ‘We’re not going to cut our own throats now and in the years to come’.7 Moreover, as we shall see, the sustainability they practise is not rooted solely in economic self-interest; rather they feel it is the necessary ethical stance which humans must take. Whereas some proposed solutions to environmental crisis seek to remove humans from the equation – indeed, this is precisely what Marine Protected Areas aim to do – fishermen see the best way forward as one which places them and their constitutive ethics of care centre-stage.

Generations of care

I’ve described above fishermen’s understanding of themselves as the ‘guardians’ or ‘custodians’ of the sea, as the element which ensures and maintains a sea full of life. However, at the heart of my argument is not ecology, but what fishermen say in other registers, in the inter-linked registers of ethics and kinship. I seek to describe here how and why the value of their role in the sea cannot be exhausted by the scientific, economic, or any other paradigm. They fish the way they do because it is the right thing to do. Their knowledge of the sea cannot be extricated from their ethical stance towards it. Care, knowledge and labour go hand in hand, resonating with Puig de la Bellacasa’s statement that ‘Care is more than an affective-ethical state: it involves material engagement in labours to sustain interdependent worlds, labours that are often associated with exploitation and domination’ (2012: 198). As Angus, the manager of the shellfish co-op, explained to me, ‘Small boats support more people, they give more people a go at the fishing. It’s the big factory trawlers from elsewhere that do all the damage. We could go down that road, but it wouldn’t be right’. The benefits of fishing are seen as extending beyond the immediate interests of fishermen to the communities – both human and non-human – which fishing sustains.

Not just the forms of their practice, but also the ethical rationale for their practice is inherited from previous generations. All of the fishermen with whom I worked were themselves sons of fishermen. As one Uist fishermen commented to me, ‘You’ve got generations and generations of experience passed down. My father would say to me, “You’ve got to go to this place at this time and there’ll be lobsters there.” And I did that, and I’m doing that, and that’s the way it works, and my grandfather did that as well’. The various traditional sustainable practices described above – the avoidance of spawning grounds, the return of egg-bearing females and undersized catch – were acquired not through external legislation, but from fathers and grandfathers, from cousins and uncles. Likewise, knowledge of the best fishing areas for particular species, and the changing of these areas during seasonal or meteorological shifts are all acquired from prior generations. Use of technological innovations such as GPS, fish finders, etc. is seen as supplementing but never replacing this knowledge. An example provided by several fishermen was the use of ‘marks’, geographical reference points for particular areas of the sea bed, so, for example, when the summit of a particular mountain comes in line with the end of a particular island, you know you’re over an area of raised, rocky seabed particularly good for lobster in late summer after heavy winds, and so on. Techniques of material culture are also inherited; for example, Dòmhnall makes his own lobster creels, with a wooden bottom and hoops wrought from discarded broadband cabling. He learnt this technique from his grandfather (minus the broadband cable!) and shows me the catch records to prove that these wooden-bottomed creels are twice as effective as the commercially produced steel creels. Much of this continuity with prior generations is expressed through fishermen’s particular commitment to the Gaelic language. Whereas 61% of the population of South Uist speak Gaelic, 83% of fishermen do. As one Benbecula fisherman told me, ‘It’s [Gaelic] been nurtured in fishing more than anywhere else. There’s very few jobs where you speak Gaelic all day; just fishing, so it’s being strengthened all the time’.

In practising fishing, fishermen are not simply earning a living. They understand themselves to be both maintaining and transmitting a particular relationship with the sea, a relationship which sustains both fishermen and the sea itself. In doing so, they are also constituting a link between generations in the sense used by Pogue Harrison when he says that ‘there exists an allegiance between the dead and the unborn of which we living are merely the ligature’ (2005: ix). Without the sustainable practices and knowledge inherited from fishermen in previous generations, and without the transmission of this to future generations, there would be no fishery in Uist. The sea would be as dead as the communities which it supports. As Calum tells me as we grade prawn for size, ‘If we go out of it, well, that’s going to be a major loss I would say. We keep these islands well populated; we keep up their culture and their language’. There is a deeply held concern that young people are struggling to enter fishing, that previous government schemes to subsidise them starting out in fishing are under threat, and that the younger generation will have little choice but to leave the islands.

Whereas some environmentalists entertain a utopian post-human vision of ‘a world without us’ (see Weisman 2008) and in this case, ‘a sea without us’, such a vision is nothing but dystopic for the people with whom I worked.8 For them, ‘a sea without us’ can be nothing other than a dead sea, a sea deprived of its vital – in both senses of the word – element: us. The fore-fronting of this concern occurs in a historical and political context in which people are haunted by the spectre of their own future absence. Human dwelling in the southern Outer Hebrides is not and cannot be taken for granted. Current pressure from reduced council services, from a lack of infrastructural investment and from high levels of unemployment have led to an ever-worsening trend of depopulation. These pressures coalesce in the widely held idea that many people ‘in government’ would – despite 8,000 years of continuous human habitation – like to see Uist turned into a conservation park, a place in which the human no longer has a place. As one crofter exclaimed to me, ‘The most endangered thing here is us!’ Although the loss of the human presence here may seem unlikely for now, it is precisely what happened to prior generations during the infamous Clearances of the mid-nineteenth century, when landlords across the Highlands forcibly evicted thousands of people in a process of ‘rationalisation’ and ‘improvement’ of their estates (Hunter 1976). The historical legacy of the Clearances, when the majority of the population of South Uist was forcibly exiled to Canada to make way for sheep farms, is still bitterly recalled in song and poetry, both in Uist and in those communities in Cape Breton where the exiles ended up (Stewart 1998; Campbell 1990).

Towards a humble anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism, it would seem, is not exactly hot stuff in social theory right now. The idea that the human perspective is, or even should be, necessarily central is under attack from all sides. For some, it underlies an intellectual configuration which portrays an external ‘nature’ as a resource to be conquered. For others, it is simply a dangerous remnant of a very particular genealogy of Western thought that should be ‘provincialised’ (see Chakrabarty 2007) to allow other non-anthropocentric understandings to flourish. Both of these overlapping critiques see going beyond the human as a necessary step, both intellectually and practically, as we struggle to deal with environmental carnage on every side. It is hard to disagree. For the discipline of anthropology, a discipline which as its name suggests has placed the anthropos at centre-stage, this is something of a challenge. As Bruno Latour noted at a recent American Anthropological Association conference – with some irony and a smattering of glee – anthropology is rushing to abandon the anthropos, just as the rest of the world is seeking to place it full centre-stage through the now ubiquitous references to the Anthropocene. Calls to expel the human from our thinking don’t just come from without, but from within anthropology. Take for example Margaret Weiner’s remarks in a collective essay on the relation between STS and anthropology: ‘Could anthropology be other than anthropocentric? What would a nonanthropocentric anthropology look like, in the Anthropocene? All those anthropos seem an exercise in human narcissism!’ (in de la Cadena & Lien 2015: 468). Nevertheless, here I have argued that we should pause, that we should not exile the anthropos quite so eagerly or hastily, and even that we should return to the human as the central point of our endeavours. The basis for this pause is simply an acknowledgement both of the wide variety of forms that anthropocentrism takes, and of its inevitability. There are, for sure, the arrogant, hierarchising and colonialising forms, which have been so rightly critiqued. But there is also anthropocentrism in a more subtle key, one which understands the human to be as much an ethical position as an ontological one, one form of which I hope to have described in this paper.

At the centre of this essay – in both the stories of the seal-people and the concerns of contemporary fishermen – stands the figure of the human. But is this human the much-maligned Enlightenment ‘anthropos’ whose tragic self-exile from the ‘Parliament of Things’ (Latour 1993) has led to environmental catastrophe? Well, not exactly. In the stories of the seal-people we see an alternative conceptualisation of the human, one which undeniably places the human at centre-stage, but which does not extract the human from life. In the particular Gaelic context I have been describing, this understanding of what it means to be human stems from a cosmological outlook in which the capacity to be ‘as human’ is not restricted to humans alone. In exploring what is sometimes, rather dismissively, referred to as Gaelic ‘folklore’ – a wealth of oral and written material dating back as far as the seventh century – I have described a relationship between human and non-human which is highly porous and malleable.9 We learn that to fail to respect the seal-people, to see them as ‘just’ animals, would lead to vengeance and disaster. At the centre of these stories, then, is a recognition of not just the relational quality of human life, but also of the ethical responsibilities that constitute it. Tempting as it might be, it would, I think, be profoundly distorting to claim that the fishermen with whom I worked are some strange anachronistic enclave of European animism (see Candea & Alcayna-Stevens 2012). They are not. They are, as already mentioned, well-versed in the registers of science, but they are also the heirs to and participants in a religious tradition which has a profoundly developed understanding of both life and the human. I think it would be distorting to ignore or dismiss this cultural background, for the fishermen with whom I worked all grew up hearing these stories of the seal-people and listening to their songs. While I doubt any of them would concede to a belief in seal-people, they all recognise what is at these stories’ heart: that humans stand within, not outside, the web of life.

In describing the values and practices of Hebridean inshore fishing as a kind of humble anthropocentrism, I have sought to delineate a particular view of the human. To say that the human is the point from which life is measured is not to commit to a static, universalising or essentialising understanding of the human. As Monica Greco puts it, ‘the fact that the individual, the organism, and indeed the human form, should be regarded as ontologically contingent, does not contradict the perspective that might place the living being at its centre’ (2005: 20). I think this is a point with which the Hebridean fishermen described in this paper might concur. Perhaps most importantly, Greco, following Canguilhem, imagines an anthropocentrism which ‘rather than affirming a right of supremacy, suggests a kind of humility, an acknowledgment of (inevitable) partiality or, to use Canguilhem’s own expression, a form of “honesty”’ (2005: 20). I think the Hebridean version of humble anthropocentrism that I have described here resonates with such a project. It is simply an honest acknowledgment that we are not aloof spectators, but players in the game. Much contemporary writing in a post-human vein imagines, both literally and rhetorically, a world without us. Building on what I’ve learnt from fishermen in Uist, I’ve suggested that maybe this is not the most productive line of thought regarding our editors’ question of what comes after after-nature. Rather, I would suggest that the measure of life, like the measure of anything in a post-Einsteinian world, must come from a point. For better or worse, we are this point; both the measure of life, and life itself.