#51 – “Selkie”

The selkie fowk (“seal people“) are shapeshifters of Scottish folklore. The merrow (“moruach” – “sea-maid“) of Irish mythology is sometimes also regarded as a seal-woman, as opposed to the more common notion of a mermaid. The 19th-century Scottish Folklorist Walter Traill Dennison insisted in his writings that selkies were distinct from mer-folk, because they could transform from their human form into seals, rather than being a permanent terrestrial/aquatic hybrid. In the old tales, this was often done by physically removing the sealskin like a garment, and leaving it in a hidden place, as in The Legend of Kópakonan, (kópakonan meaning “seal maiden“) as told in the Faroe Islands which lie north-north-west of Scotland, and about halfway between Norway and Iceland. The tale was retold as The Mermaid Wife in George Douglas’ Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales (1901): 

“A story is told of an inhabitant of Unst, who, in walking on the sandy margin of a voe, saw a number of mermen and mermaids dancing by moonlight, and several seal-skins strewed beside them on the ground. At his approach they immediately fled to secure their garbs, and, taking upon themselves the form of seals, plunged immediately into the sea. But as the Shetlander perceived that one skin lay close to his feet, he snatched it up, bore it swiftly away, and placed it in concealment. On returning to the shore he met the fairest damsel that was ever gazed upon by mortal eyes, lamenting the robbery, by which she had become an exile from her submarine friends, and a tenant of the upper world. Vainly she implored the restitution of her property; the man had drunk deeply of love and was inexorable, but he offered her protection beneath his roof as his betrothed spouse. The merlady, perceiving that she must become an inhabitant of the earth, found that she could not do better than accept of the offer.” [1] 

As in most variants of the story, the seal-woman bears the children of her human captor/suitor, but ultimately deserts both him and them when she has an opportunity to return to the sea and the seal-people. 

Folklore is like a conjuring trick sometimes; you desperately want to get to the bottom of it all, but when you do it only leaves you feeling disappointed and wishing you hadn’t. One possible origin of the seal-people legends is depressingly prosaic: In the Scottish folklorist and antiquarian David MacRitchie’s The Testimony of Tradition (1890), the author put forward the theory that the sea-skins of the selkies were exactly what they appeared to be. [2] Scandinavian fisher-folk, clad in seal-skins and paddling seal-skin lined canoes, arriving on the shores of Scotland and Ireland. Steal their boats and their weather-proof gear, and they won’t be able to leave again. Forced to stay, they might become wives and husbands – mothers and fathers – but there will always be that longing to return to their people. To don their seal-skins, and plunge into the waves from which they came. 


  1. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sfft/sfft57.htm 
  2. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40290/40290-h/40290-h.htm