The Selkies

Throughout Irish, Scottish, Icelandic, and Scandinavian folklore are stories about seal people, also called selkies. Selkie is the name in Orkney for “seal" . Orkney is a very beautiful group of islands in the very north of Scotland. 

Selkies can transform from one creature to another by shedding their sealskin, and alternatively, putting it on again.Some stories say they can only transform from a seal to a human once a year, on Midsummer’s Eve; others insist that it is every ninth night. 

 

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Long, long ago, on the wild Scottish islands of Orkney, a fisherman spent all day at sea but caught only a few small fish. Night began to fall, and still the fisherman had very little in his nets. He rowed to shore and tied up his boat. 

 

As he walked across the pebbly shore toward his cottage, he heard happy, singing voices. He turned and saw a very rare sight indeed: a group of Selkie people playing on the shore.  He crept closer to have a better look but they heard him, snatched up their seal skins -  so they could turn back into seals - and rushed into the safety of the sea. 

 

But one young selkie wasn’t quick enough. The fisherman grabbed her fur skin before she could put to back on and she couldn’t turn back into a seal. Out at sea, all the seals watched as their friend and sister stood stranded on the shore, still in her human form.  

 

The Selkie looked at the fisherman and held out her arms with a smile on her face and hope in her large eyes. Everything in her face showed that she believed he would be a good man and let her have back her skin and return to her friends, family and her home in the sea.  But the man just stood there, grasping her seal skin to his chest, with a strange smile on his face. 

 

"O bonnie man!” she said to him, “If thur's inny mercy in thee human breest, gae me back me ain selkie skin! I cinno live in da sea withoot it. I cinno bide amung me ain folk waythoot me selkie-skin.” (Which to you means, “Oh handsome man, if there is any mercy in your human heart, please give me back my seal-skin. I cannot live in the sea without it. I cannot live among my own people without my seal-skin!”)

 

The fisherman couldn’t help but pity her. But he was not a kind enough or a generous enough man to put her feelings before his own. She was beautiful and he had heard in legends (that he had never believed to be true until now) that if a human man married a Selkie women, she would not argue, stick up for herself or ask him to do very much at all. He thought this was something he would like very much, whether she liked it or not!

 

“I’m going to make you my wife," he said. "Without your sealskin you'll have to live on land. I love you - you’re beautiful!”

 

"No, please, sir," cried the young woman. "My folk will be worried about me, and I shall never be happy on land. And how on earth can you possibly think that you love me? We’ve only just met - and this is hardly a good way for love to grow.”

 

This wasn’t exactly the kind of conversation the fisherman had expected but he  was still determined to make this beautiful woman his wife. Everyone would think he was clever and charming and generally wonderful if he managed to find such a wonderful woman as this to marry him. So he pressed on.  "My cottage is cozy, I will keep you warm by my fire, and I'll feed you fresh fish every day.” 

 

He saw the doubt in her eyes. He saw the sadness when she heard his decision to force her to leave everything she loved. He saw her pity as she understood he was deep down a miserable man who had to force someone to spend time with him. And he said to her, “I promise you will live a happy life on land.” and he clung onto her seal skin even tighter than before. 

 

“I hear all your promises,” said the Selkie, “and I see you will not give me any choice.” She knew she was stuck until she could get back her seal skin, so she followed him home to his cottage. 

 

For the next few days, the Selkie hunted his and low for her seal skin. But the fisherman had hid it up his jumper, terrified she would escape him and go back to the sea. And after a few weeks, she got bored of this hide and seek. She was a wise woman and she reminded herself of the wisest lesson of all: that today is not forever. This situation would end one day, and until then, she would make the most of today. So she made herself a promise. She would never cry “poor me”, but instead, enjoy the land-living side of her Selkieness for as long as it lasted - because one day, it would - of course - be over. She would make the best of this unexpected twist in her life - even though she was being forced into a marriage with a man who was holding her a prisoner.

 

So instead of crying and hunting for her skin, she quietly encouraged the fisherman to become more considerate, kind, thoughtful and gentle. And sure enough, he turned himself into a kinder, more thoughtful man. He even started to feel bad about what he had done to trap his Selkie wife. And as the days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and months turned into years, they had seven wonderful children, who were the best of both of their parents. 

 

But sometimes, the children would find their mother sitting on the beach, gazing wistfully out at the sea. "Mammy," the children would say, "why do you look so sad?” She would shake her head and kiss them and say, “Dinnae fass (don’t worry), ma bonnie bairns; I’ve just been dreaming too long.” But the children could feel their mother’s wistful longing for the sea. And they felt it, too. 

 

One day the fisherman and their three eldest children went to sea in their boat, and the next three children went to the village to buy some shopping. The Selkie and her youngest child stayed at home. The Selkie looked out of the cottage window and saw the waves crashing on the shore. Far away she could see, on the slick, black rocks, the seals playing and barking and singing. Her friends, her family, the Selkies she loved.

 

She sighed deeply, and her youngest child said, "Mammy, why does the sea make you feel so sad when you love it so much?” Without thinking, the mummy said, "I was born in the sea, but I can’t go back home.” 

“Why not, Mammy?”

“Because your daddy’s put my sealskin somewhere safe, and I cannae find it.”

 

Now the wee one, like all children in Scotland, knew the Selkie stories, and she knew right away what her mother was. And she knew where the skin had been hidden. She ran to the chimney and pulled out the sealskin from its hiding place.

 

With her bright big eyes glistening with tears and love and disbelief, the Selkie hugged the sealskin tight and hugged her seventh child even tighter. “I will always love you and I will see you soon,” she said, “But just now, I have to go.” 

 

And clasping the sealskin to her heart, she ran toward the sea. Just then the other children came back and watched with amazement as she put on her seal skin and ran into the sea. Before she turned into a seal, she blew them all a kiss. And the children clapped and laughed and skipped with delight to see their wonderful mummy greeted by dozens of seals, all leaping from their slippery rocks and swimming towards her. They had never seen her so happy in all their lives and although she wouldn’t be making their meals or sewing their clothes every day, they knew they were full of her love and that she was happier than they had ever known her before.

 

Just in time to see the Selkie turn into a seal, the fisherman came up the beach. His face fell as he saw his wife frolic in the waves with the other seals, happy and free once more. 

 

“Daddy!” called the oldest child, as she saw their father come back towards the cottage. “I think you have some explaining to do!” He looked at his children, and saw a happiness on their faces he had never seen before - and he saw that they understood, too. “You are also Selkie people, my loves,” he said to his children. “and you can visit your mother whenever you like. It will be my job to make sure no-one ever steals your skins from you.”

 

And so this is how it was. The children who were, you remember, the best of both their parents, played and lived most happily both in the sea and in the water. Their mother sometimes came ashore and their father sometimes spent lovely sunny days in his boat with his family of Selkies all around him.  They were the most unusual and the best family any of the children could have wished for.  And never again, as long as he lived, did the fisherman try to trap anyone - or any thing -  into doing something they didn’t want to do. 

 

 

Let’s Think!

 

  1. What did the fisherman do wrong?

  2. When could he have put it right? Did he ever put it right?

  3. What stopped him (from doing the right thing)?

  4. What could the Selkie have done instead of wait patiently?

  5. What do you think about the Selkie returning to her family, friends & home?

  6. Were her children happy for her or sad?

  7. Who was generous?

  8. What lesson did the fisherman learn?