Fantasy, Fiction, ireland, Lore, love, Magik, Nordic, Orkney Islands, scottland, Seals, Selkie

Romance of the Scottsh Sea: Selkie Lore

“As soon as the seal was clear of the water, it reared up and its skin slipped down to the sand. What had been a seal was a white-skinned boy”
-George Mackay Brown


Selkie
is the Orcadian dialect word for, “seal”. The word derives from earlier Scots, selich, (from Old English, seolh) So, selkies are a very common sight across Orkney. Heads bobbing above the waves, they are often seen  by the shore, watching  inquisitively with uncannily human eyes.

In the Faroe Islands there are two versions of the story of the Selkie or Seal Wife. A young farmer from the town of Mikladalur on Kalsoy island goes to the beach to watch the selkies dance. He hides the skin of a beautiful selkie maid, so she can not go back to sea, and forces her to marry him.
He keeps her skin in a chest, and keeps the key with him both day and night. One day when out fishing, he discovers that he has forgotten to bring his key. When he returns home, the selkie wife has escaped back to sea, leaving their children behind. Later, when the farmer is out on a hunt, he kills both her selkie husband and two selkie sons, and she promises to take revenge upon the men of Mikladalur. Some shall be drowned, some shall fall from cliffs and slopes, and this shall continue, until so many men have been lost that they will be able to link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy. Unlike the Finfolk, who retained their malicious tendencies  throughout the years, the selkie-folk have come to be regarded as gentle  creatures,  with the ability to transform from seals into beautiful, lithe  humans.

In the surviving folklore, there is no agreement as to how  often the selkie-folk were able to carry out the transformation. Some tales say  it was once a year, usually Midsummer’s Eve, while others state it could be  “every ninth night” or “every seventh stream”.

Regardless of how often they were able to transform, the  folklore tells us that once in human form, the selkie-folk would dance on  lonely stretches of moonlit shore, or bask in the sun on outlying skerries (rocks).

The selkie skin

A common element in all the selkie-folk tales, and perhaps  the most important, is the fact that in order
to shapeshift they had to cast off  their sealskins. Within these magical skins lay the power to return to seal  form, and therefore the sea.

If this sealskin was lost, or stolen, the creature was  doomed to remain in human form until it could be recovered. Because of this, if  disturbed while on shore, the selkie-folk would hastily snatch up their skins  before rushing back to the safety of the sea.

Amorous encounters

. The selkie-men were renowned for their many encounters with  human females — married and unmarried.

A selkie-man in human form was said to be a handsome  creature, with almost magical seductive powers over mortal women. According to tradition, they had no  qualms about casting off their sealskins, stashing them carefully, and heading  inland to seek out “unsatisfied women”.

Should such a mortal woman wish to make contact with a  selkie-man, there was a specific rite she had to follow. At high tide, she  should make her way to the shore, where
she had to shed seven tears into the  sea.

The selkie-man would then come ashore and, after removing  his magical sealskin, seek out “unlawful love”.

In the words of the 19th century Orkney folklorist, Walter  Traill Dennison, these selkie males:

“. . . often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and  sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life.”

There is a folk song called, “The Maiden & The Selkie,”  that is a very lovely and tribal depiction of the romance of the Selkie-man to the women of the Orkneys, to hear it click the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om8LzIcFmbA

If a girl went missing while out on the ebb, or at sea, it  was inevitably said that her selkie lover had taken her to his watery domain —  assuming, of course, she had not attracted the eye of a Finman.

But while the males of the selkie race were irresistible to  the island women, selkie-women were no less alluring to the eyes of earth-born  men. The most common theme in selkie folklore is one in  which a cunning young man acquires, either by trickery or theft, a selkie-girl’s  sealskin.

This prevents her from returning to the sea, leaving the  seal-maiden with no option but to marry her “captor”.

The tales generally end sadly, when the skin is returned,  usually by one of the selkie-wife’s children. In
some accounts, her children go  with her to the sea, while others have them remaining with their mortal father. Tragic and connective the lore of the Selkie is a profound representation of the human connection and longing for the sea.

Literature

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry or The Grey Selkie of Suleskerry is a traditional folk song from Orkney. The song was collected by the American scholar, Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century and is listed as Child ballad number 113.

“The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.”

An earthly nourris sits and sings,
And aye she sings, “Ba lilly wean,
Little ken I my bairns father,
Far less the land that he staps in.”

Then ane arose at her bed fit,
And a grumly guest I’m sure was he,
Saying “Here am I, thy bairns father,
Although I am not comely.”

I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,

And when I’m far frae every strand,
My home it is in Sule Skerry.”

“It was na weel”, the maiden cried,
“It was na weel, indeed” quo she,
“For the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie,
To hae come and aught a bairn to me!”

Then he has taken a purse of gold,
And he has laid it on her knee,
Saying, “give to me, my little young son,
And take thee up thy nouriss fee.

It shall come to pass on a summer’s day,
When the sun shines hot on every stone,
That I shall take my little young son,
And teach him for to swim the foam.

And thou shalt marry a proud gunner,
And a very proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that e’re he shoots,
he’ll kill both my young son and me.”

An interpolated 5th stanza has also been heard:

‘Twas weel eno’ the night we met,
When I’d be oot and on my way,
Ye held me close, ye held me tight,
“Just ane mair time ere the break o’ day!”
Phrase Key

nourris = nurse
ken = know
 staps = stops
bed fit = foot of the bed
 grumly = strange

The version I like best of this was done by Joan Baez. To hear it click below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zZy2Q3QY0Q&list=PL4593CF2488169FD8

Great books for more on Selkies:

  • Thomson, David. The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend
  • Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures
  • Williamson, Duncan (1992). Tales of the seal people: Scottish folk tales
  • “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan

Source material: http://www.orkneyjar.com/index.html

http://www.stolaf.edu/people/hend/VictoryMusic/July-MusicTrad_SelkieLore.htm

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9 thoughts on “Romance of the Scottsh Sea: Selkie Lore

    • Well, thanks so much for reading & responding. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Tomorrows piece will also be nautical, though I won’t say what the subject is. (Makes a deeply mysterious face). lol

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  2. Hello there,

    Thank you for sharing the Tales of the Selkies!
    As I was reading the last tale, I didn’t read it myself as I actually heard it being read to me as a “wee bairn” being read to me by my Maternal Grandfather back in the late 1960s and 70s.

    It as if I went back in time and I was sitting on his knees whilst he told me tales about Scotland and played traditional old Scottish dance music in the background on his old 78* records.

    His Mother was actually a Scottish Witch. She was a true healer, herbalist and a midwife in early Australian history.

    I could actually “hear his voice and feel his touch”. I can even now still feel his presence with me which I haven’t felt for a very long time now.

    Your blog has made me realise just how much I still miss him and how much he taught me so long ago. He passed on in his 83rd year back in 1990. I miss him so much still all these years later. Especially as I’m a Grandparent myself now.

    Now that Ive/he’s just read this to me, I finally remember so many stories and tales that he taught me so long ago as I was growing up.

    He was a very educated man, a World War II hero, a gentleman and a true Pagan.

    He had me reading Macbeth in only Grade 6. Then he took me to the theater to see Macbeth in Grade 7. Its still my favourite play to this day. I’ve since seen many versions of it performed in my lifetime thus far.

    I also read from your blog that you too love the Scene with Macbeth’s Witches a lot too hey:)

    Again I can’t thank you enough for this blog entry. It’s as if the Selkies themselves have called him to me. They have made me not only remember but relive some of my childhood’s fondest memories with him.

    Just like the bewitching Selkies themselves as when he talked, he had a way of making me feel like I was the most precious girl in the entire world.

    The memories of my own proud ancestry now resonate within me. The Scottish blood that still pumps within my veins so quietly yet steadily from both sides of my family so many generations ago.

    They were all free settlers to the then brave new Colony called Australia. They had it really tough but they were survivors. If not for the struggles and decisions of our ancestors none of us would be even here.

    Your blog post has made me realise that I need to learn far more about Scotland’s Folk tales and magick from now on than I have for a long, long time. Rather than other types of magick Ive been focusing on for quite a few years now.

    I also happen to live overlooking the sea here on the cliffs here in rural coastal Australia.

    I have always loved the sea and just occasionally we get the odd “selkie”, seal here ourselves that has lost its way. Until it/they decide to swim back to their own seal colony again. We also occasionally get Southern Whales here too. We get heaps of dolphins in our waters of course. As well as White Pointer Sharks and plentiful fish.

    I’ve always loved and respected the sea and my partner loves nothing better than to go out fishing and I love nothing better than to swim and snorkel.

    Beautiful writing indeed *KaiteLady*:)) I am definitely subscribing right now.

    May the Blessings of the Sea Goddess herself always be with you.

    Love CazWytch )O(

    • I am so very honored to be apart of that experience and I encourage you to continue seeking the root of your root. I would live to talk more about this with you as you delve into your ancestral magic. Please feel free to message me anytime.

      • Hi Katie,
        Thank you very much and thank you so much for writing your blog. Ive been connecting with my Scottish ancestors especially my Grandfather so much lately. Also as I live by the sea I did a lovely full moon ritual last night & the energy of the ocean was awesome down here in the Southern hemisphere. We haven’t got any stranded selkie here lately but when we do everyone in our town loves it a lot! I hope that you are well and happy my friend.☺
        Blessed Be,
        Love Caz xo

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