Millennium Memory Bank: William Shiel on the Farne Isle Seals



The Farne Islands are located off the coast of Northumberland . They are home to a large colony of Atlantic Grey Seals. In this recording, local fisherman William Shiel (b. 1928) recalls taking visitors to the area to see the seals. He explains that the animals were so accustomed to human activity that they would not be bothered by the proximity of the boats.

Shiel had learnt to recognise the seals from gashes and marks on their fur. He describes one remarkable seal which was fully grown but had no fur – exposing its long nails on its flippers. The seal became known locally as ‘The Naked Seal’.

Millennium Memory Bank

During 1998 and 1999, 40 BBC local radio stations recorded personal oral histories from a broad cross section of the population for the series The Century Speaks. The result was 640 half-hour radio documentaries, broadcast in the final weeks of the millennium, and one of the largest single oral history collections in Europe, the Millennium Memory Bank.



Q: What do you think’s the biggest thrill for people coming to the Farne Islands? So, the first time people come?

MS: Well, there are the seals, they’re the first thing we do with people is show them the seal colony usually, and then from there get them in among the birdlife, you know.

Q: How close do you get to the seals?

MS: Oh, you can get maybe twenty or thirty yards, something like that to them.

Q: They look like big Labradors, don’t they?

MS: They are, they’re a big animal. Well, these grey seals, the bull, he can be eight to nine feet long, and they weigh six or seven hundred pounds, big animals, you know, big, broad animals. Yeah.

Q: People can hardly believe that they’re so close really.

MS: Yes, well, that’s the thing about the Farnes, you can get quite close to them and especially – they can – they seem to get to know about a boat, you know. I’ve heard my father say they used to go hauling pots quite close to seals, and the seals in the summertime, they would never move ‘cos they got to know the boat and the boat never interfered with them or anything like that. They just got on with our work pulling the pots in, and the seals just lay there on the rock quite close to them. ‘Cos in the summertime they used to fish quite tight to the islands, you know.

Q: Do you think you recognise some of the seals?

MS: Oh, you can pick out a seal with a gash here and that sort of thing. There was a seal out on the Farnes there for a few years, it had no fur. It was fully grown, but it was completely smooth skin, no fur. Aye, we used to – you could see how exposed the long nails were on its flippers. Usually the – well, all the seals are – the fur covers most of the claw. Now, this seal you could see the full length of these claws and what a length they were, it’s surprising, aye.

Q: So, you’d look out for that one?

MS: Oh, yes, aye, we’d say, “Aye, that – ” we used to call it “the naked seal,” it had no fur, that’s what we called it, “the naked seal.”

Q: When was that?

MS: Oh, this would be – that’s twenty years ago now, mmm, aye.

Millennium Memory Bank: William Shiel on the Farne Isle Seals
7 March 1999
Sound recording
William Shiel, Virtue Jones
© Audio: © BBC; Image: Frogfish Photography / Barcroft via Getty Images
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British Library

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