There’s something about selkies that captures the imagination, and there are many modern reworkings and retellings of the typical selkie tale – often told as a tragedy where the human lover pines away ever more once the selkie lover inevitably finds their skin and returns to the sea. Personally I’m totally on the selkie’s side on this; being kidnapped and forced to bear children against your will ain’t so romantic…Nonetheless, the lore is interesting, and the tales do have a tragic duty to them. This following tale was collected in Orkney.
In Orkney, selkie was the popular name for seal. Seals were popularly divided into two classes; namely, first, the common seal, here called tang fish, which had no power to assume the human form. These, like other inhabitants of the sea, were called fish. To the other class belonged all seals larger in size than the Phoca vitulina; such as the great seal, rough seal, Greenland seal, crested seal, and gray seal, — all of which have been seen in Orkney waters. And it was this class of larger seals that were called “selkie folk,” because they had the power of assuming the human form. The believers in this myth were never at a loss to account for its existence; but the causes assigned for the origin of this amphibious human race, so far as known to me, must have been imagined since the introduction of Christianity. Some say the selkie folk were fallen angels, who, for a more trivial fault than that of those consigned to the infernal regions, were condemned to their present state. Others held that the selkie folk were human beings, who, for some grave misdemeanour were condemned to assume the seal’s form, and to live in the sea, and were yet allowed to take human form and shape when on dry land. “And who kens,” said one of my old gossips, “but they’ll maybe some day get leave to come back tae their auld state.”
It was believed that males among the selkie folk sometimes held secret and illicit intercourse with females of the human race. Sometimes these marine gallants became the paramours of married women. The ballad which I hope later on to give is an instance of such connection. And however ungainly the appearance of these gentlemen when in the sea, on assuming human shape they became in form fair, attractive, and in manner winning; and by their seductive powers the female heart seems to have been easily conquered. And if the selkie gentlemen were attractive in the eyes of earth-born women, the selkie females were no less charming in the estimation of men.
Indeed, to see a bevy of these lovely creatures, their seal skins doffed, disporting themselves on a sea-side rock, was enough to fire with admiration the coldest heart.
Let it be noted that the selkie nymphs always appear in groups; they never sit alone combing their hair like the mermaid; and, unlike her, are not represented as wearing long golden hair. And, unlike the mermaid, the selkie folk were never represented as dwelling in “Finfolk-a-heem.”
It was only at certain periods and conditions of the tide in which the seals had power to assume the human
shape. But these periods were a subject of dispute among my oral authorities.
Versions of the story I am now to tell were at one time rife in every Orkney island; and some of them have already appeared in print. The man who told me this tale was a native of North Ronaldshay, was well read in
English literature, and so familiar with Shakespeare that any six lines of that author you quoted he would tell you from what play your quotation was taken. Though above superstitious belief in, he possessed an inexhaustible store of old-world tales. He often assisted me in clearing up some difficulty in Orkney folk-lore.
The goodman of Wastness was well-to-do, had his farm well-stocked, and was a good-looking and well-favoured man. And though many braw lasses in the island had set their caps at him, he was not to be caught. So the young lasses began to treat him with contempt, regarding him as an old young man who was deliberately committing the unpardonable sin of celibacy. He did not trouble his head much about the lasses, and when urged by his friends to take a wife, he said, “Women were like many another thing in this weary world, only sent for a trial to man; and I have trials enouch without being tried by a wife.” “If that ould fool Adam had not been bewitched by his wife, he might have been a happy man in the yard of Edin to this day.” The old wife of Longer, who heard him make this speech, said to him, “Take doo heed de sell, doo’ll may be de sell bewitched some day.” “Ay,” quoth he, “that will be when doo walks dry shod frae the Alters o’ Seenie to dae Boar of Papa.”
Well, it happened one day that the goodman of Wastness was down on the ebb (that portion of the shore left
dry at low water), when he saw at a little distance a number of selkie folk on a flat rock. Some were lying
sunning themselves, while others jumped and played about in great glee. They were all naked, and had skins as white as his own. The rock on which they sported had deep water on its seaward side, and on its shore side a shallow pool. The goodman of Wastness crept unseen till he got to the edge of the shallow pool; he then rose and dashed through the pool to the rock on its other side. The alarmed selkie folk seized their seal skins, and, in mad haste, jumped into the sea. Quick as they were, the goodman was also quick, and he seized one of the skins belonging to an unfortunate damsel, who in terror of flight neglected to clutch it as she sprang into the water.
The selkie folk swam out a little distance, then turning, set up their heads and gazed at the goodman. He noticed that one of them had not the appearance of seals like the rest. He then took the captured skin under his arm, and made for home, but before he got out of the ebb, he heard a most doleful sound of weeping and lamentation behind him. He turned to see a fair woman following him. It was that one of the selkie folk whose seal skin he had taken. She was a pitiful sight; sobbing in bitter grief, holding out both hands in eager supplication, while the big tears followed each other down her fair face. And ever and anon she cried out, “O bonnie man! if there’s onie mercy i’ thee human breast, gae back me skin! I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ live i’ the sea without it. I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ bide among me ain folk without my ain seal skin. Oh, pity a peur distressed, forlorn lass, gin doo wad ever hope for mercy theesel’!” The goodman was not too soft-hearted, yet he could not help pitying her in her doleful plight. And with his pity came the softer passion of love. His heart that never loved women before was conquered by the sea-nymph’s beauty. So, after a good deal of higgling and plenty of love-making, he wrung from the sea-lass a reluctant consent to live with him as his wife. She chose this as the least of two evils. Without the skin she could not live in the sea, and he absolutely refused to give up the skin.
So the sea-lass went with the goodman and stayed with him for many days, being a thrifty, frugal, and
She bore her goodman seven children, four boys and three lasses, and there were not bonnier lasses or statelier boys in all the isle. And though the goodwife of Wastness appeared happy, and was sometimes merry, yet there seemed at times to be a weight on her heart; and many a long longing look did she fix on the sea. She taught her bairns many a strange song, that nobody on earth ever heard before. Albeit she was a thing of the sea, yet the goodman led a happy life with her.
Now it chanced, one fine day, that the goodman of Wastness and his three eldest sons were off in his boat to the fishing. Then the goodwife sent three of the other children to the ebb to gather limpits and wilks. The youngest lass had to stay at home, for she had a beelan foot. The goodwife then began, under the pretence of house-cleaning, a determined search for her long-lost skin. She searched up, and she searched down; she searched but, and she searched ben; she searched out, and she searched in, but never a skin could she find, while the sun wore to the west. The youngest lass sat in a stool with her sore foot on a cringlo. She says to her mother, “Mam, what aredoo leukan for?” “O bairn, deu no tell,” said her mother, ”but I’m leukan for a bonnie skin, tae mak a rivlin that wad ceur thee sare fit.” Says the lass, “May be I ken whar hid is. Ae day, whin ye war a’ oot, an’ ded tought I war sleepan i’ the bed, he teuk a bonnie skin doon; he gloured at it a peerie minute, dan folded hid and led hid up under dae aisins abeun dae bed.” (Under the aisins — space left by slope of roof over wall-head when not beam-filled.)
When her mother heard this she rushed to the place, and pulled out her long-concealed skin. “Fareweel, peerie buddo!” (a term of endearment), said she to the child, and ran out. She rushed to the shore, flung on her skin, and plunged into the sea with a wild cry of joy. A male of the selkie folk there met and greeted her with every token of delight. The goodman was rowing home, and saw them both from his boat. His lost wife uncovered her face, and thus she cried to him: “Goodman o’ Wastness, fareweel tae thee! I liked dee weel, doo war geud tae me; bit I lo’e better me man o’ the sea! “And that was the last he ever saw or heard of his bonnie wife. Often did he wander on the sea-shore, hoping to meet his lost love, but nevermore saw he her fair face.
George F. Black, County Folklore Volume 3: Orkney and Shetlands, 1903, 170-176.