“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.
. 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:
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.
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!”
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:
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