AMY VAN DE CASTEELE reveals that not all Scottish fairies are landlubbers with these Selkies…
One of the most famous kinds of Scottish fairy is the Selkie, also known as the Seal-Wife, though there are male Selkies as well.
Some of the most famous Selkie stories hail from Orkney. In one of them, a fisherman spots a mother seal giving birth to two cubs, and he plans to snatch the cubs and make a waistcoat out of them; but when he grabs hold of them the mother seal gives him such a look of sorrow and anguish that he can’t find it in his heart to rob her of her young and he carefully replaces them.
Forty years later the fisherman, whose name is Mansie, is fishing for coal-fish on a tidal rock when he realizes that the water has risen too high and has cut him off. He is just about to meet a terrible, watery end when he feels something grab hold of his collar and drag him to shore. Once he can stand on his feet on solid ground he looks down and sees the seal, whose cubs he had once nearly stolen. His heart filling with gratitude, he says, ‘Geud bliss the selkie that dues no’ forget’.
In the above story the Selkie is portrayed as just a seal, but in perhaps the most well known story, her mystical nature is made much clearer. In this story, set in Wastness, a man spots some Selkie people disporting themselves in the water by the shore. He manages to steal one of their skins and they all disappear under the waves except for the poor Selkie-Girl who has no skin. She goes to the man and begs him to return it to her but she refuses and tells her she must be his wife. Reluctantly she agrees, for she cannot return to the sea in her human form.
Years go by and she lives quietly with the mortal man and bears him seven children. But then, one day, when the man is out fishing, she discovers her seal skin hidden in the rafters of their croft, above the bed. Bidding farewell to her children she runs down to the shore, slips into her skin, and vanishes beneath the waves where a male Selkie (her former partner) appears to greet her with joy.
As she swims away she encounters her human husband rowing home and pauses to say to him,
‘Goodman o’ Wastness, farewell to you!
I liked you well, you were good to me;
But I love better my man of the sea!’
And she never comes back again, leaving the bereft fisherman to raise his half-Selkie children and pine for his lost seal wife.
Both of the Selkie incidents recounted above are magical and beautiful in their way, but most Selkie stories have an overwhelming sorrowful note as they end with the seal woman returning to her underwater world and leaving human partner and children feeling abandoned and distraught. In some cases the husband even chooses to take his own life by drowning, unable to go on living without his beautiful and mysterious bride. Which all goes to show that if you want to choose a partner from the faery realm or the land beneath the waves, you must be prepared for a healthy dose of heartache.