Friday 21 March 2014

The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry

An airthlie nourrice sits and sings,
And aye she sings, Ba lily wean!
Little ken I my bairnis father
Far less the land that he staps in.

So begins the old ballad of 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry'. As Laura Marjorie Miller discussed a few weeks ago in her guest post here, most selkie tales – or at least, most of those familiar to a modern audience – concern a seal woman who is captured or taken to wife by a mortal man, usually a fisherman who spies her dancing in mortal form on a moonlit beach and steals her sealskin robe, so preventing her from returning to her kindred in the sea.

In Margo Lanagan’s thought-provoking ‘Sea Hearts’ (UK title 'The Brides of Rollrock Island’), the men of the island take beautiful, passive, mournful selkie brides in preference to ordinary human women, but this communal act of selfish, sexual exploitation rebounds upon them. The men cut themselves off from genuine relationships, and they and their children suffer from the seal women’s terrible, unspoken grief.

My own 'Troll Mill' (the second part of 'West of the Moon'), opens when a fisherman’s wife, Kersten, thrusts her newborn baby into the arms of the young hero, Peer, and flings herself into the sea. Hampered by the baby in his arms, Peer tries to stop her:

Rain slashed into his eyes.  His feet skated on wet grass, sank into pockets of soft sand. She was on the beach now, running straight down the shingle to the water. Peer skidded to a crazy halt.  He couldn’t catch her. He saw Bjørn, bending over the boat, doing something with the nets. Peer filled his lungs and bellowed, ‘Bjørn!’ at the top of his voice.  He pointed.

Bjørn’s head came up. He turned, staring. Then he flung himself forwards, pounding across the beach to intercept Kersten. And Kersten stopped.  She threw herself flat and the wet sealskin cloak billowed over her, hiding her from head to foot.  Underneath it, she continued to move in heavy, lolloping jumps.  She must be crawling on hands and knees, drawing the skin cloak closely around her.  She rolled. Waves rushed up and sucked her into the water. Trapped in those encumbering folds, she would drown.

‘Kersten!’ Peer screamed. The body in the water twisted, lithe and muscular, and plunged forward into the next grey wave.

Writing 'Troll Mill', I found myself exploring various themes of possession – can one possess a child? – a wife? – another person? – and motherhood. I wanted to explore the paradoxical selfishness of a ‘good’ and likeable man, Bjørn, who has used love as an excuse for trapping the woman he wants. And I saw the selkie’s return to the sea, abandoning her child, as a metaphor for post natal depression.

'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry' differs from the ‘selkie bride’ legends insofar as the selkie in question is not female, but male. The earliest known version was collected by Captain F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy, who heard it sung by ‘a venerable lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland’ some time around 1852: he sent it to The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Later in the century it made it into Child’s Ballads, number 113, and an original tune for it was collected in 1938 by Professor Otto Andersen on the island of Flotta, Orkney, who heard it sung by John Sinclair:

Sadly I can’t find a recording. The best known tune for the ballad was written by James Waters in the late 1950s (sung below by Joan Baez).

As with most stories of human/otherworldly liaisons, in 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry' things have gone wrong from the very start. The ballad opens with the ‘airthly nourrice’ – the mortal woman nursing her child – lamenting that she doesn’t know who his father is. ‘Little ken I my bairn’s father, far less the land that he dwells in’. It’s easy to let the beautiful tune sweep you away into a pleasant mood of romantic melancholy. But stop, stop and think!  What does it mean, when a woman doesn’t know who her child’s father is? How can that happen? It can happen if that woman has been raped.  There’s a lot of rape in ballads, much of it quite casual, probably reflecting everyday life.

So here’s this woman, this unnamed woman, rocking and nursing her child, not knowing who his father is, and then something fearful happens.

Then ane arose at her bed-fit
And a grumlie guest I’m sure was he:
‘Here am I, thy bairnis father,
Although I be not comelie’.

‘One arose at her bed foot’ – in her home, in her bower, into the safe place where she’s nursing her child, there emerges, surges up like an apparition from the foot of the bed, this grim, rough creature which once forced itself upon her. (The illustration by Vernon Lee, above, powerfully suggests the uncanny terror of the moment.) And he acknowledges her child as his. And he tells her the terrible truth: he’s not even human, and if he has a home at all other than the wild sea, it’s only a tiny rock far out in the North Atlantic, far from land.

I am a man, upo’ the lan,
An I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae lan
My hame it is in Sule Skerrie.’

The woman reproaches him.  ‘It wasna weel,’ she says, ‘That the great Silkie of Sule Skerrie should come and aught a child to me.’ But in response, this happens.

And he has ta’en a purse of gold
And he has put it upo’ her knee,
Saying ‘Gie to me my little young son
And tak thee up thy nourris-fee.’

He’s paying her off, flinging money into her lap. ‘Pick up your money and give me my son.’ It’s like a blow to the face; his indifference to her is chilling. This is not a happy story, and the selkie, being a supernatural creature, has the gift of foreseeing how it will all end: badly.  One summer day, ‘when the sun shines hot on every stone’, he will take his little half-mortal son ‘and teach him how to swim the foam’. But by this time the woman will have married a man who can shoot with a gun. (I wonder if when this ballad was new, guns were new too?) At any rate, either by accident or by design, he will shoot both the selkie and his son.

An it sall come to pass on a simmer’s day
When the sin shines het on evera stane
That I will tak my little young son
And teach him for to swim the faem.

An thu sall marry a proud gunner,
An a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first schot that ere he schoots,
He’ll schoot baith my young son and me.

What was the point of it all, then?  If it was always going to end in such tragedy?  Why did the selkie take the woman in the first place, why did he father her child? You might as well ask, ‘What is the point of “Hamlet”?’  The ballad is a song, a poem, and if it’s about anything it’s about the harshness and unfairness of the world, and the brevity and beauty of life.  The best moments are in the last-but-one verse: it’s full of light: the glorious heat of the sun on the shoreline stones in the short, bright northern summer, and the sensuous joy and tenderness of the bond between the selkie and his ‘little young son’ as he teaches him to ‘swim the foam’. Those are the moments that make the story bearable – and surely, the ballad says, those are the moments which make human life bearable, however brief it may be.

 Joan Baez' haunting version of 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry', tune by James Waters.

Picture credit:  Vernon Hill's illustration of the tale. From Richard Chope's 1912 collection Ballads Weird and Wonderful


  1. Lovely post, and lovely song. Hasn't she got such a haunting voice?

  2. Thanks Cecelia - and yes, I just love her voice. So right for this song!

  3. I was walking around humming it, and my eldest reminded me that she has a version of it by a band called Kerfuffle (the cd is called K2, if you ever get a chance to hear it - it's faster, but very good also!)

  4. Looking at the Vernon Lee illustration again, I'm struck by the deliberately statuesque figure of the woman, the 'earthly nurse'. That's part of the unsettling quality of the picture, I think - that this Madonna-like woman with her infant must turn to deal with the rough, otherworldly male threat of the selkie.

  5. Great post with three great arts; lit, illustration, and music. Thanks!

  6. Great post, Kath. Here's the version I learned the song from, donkey's years ago - It's the Corries. It has the advantage of a Scots' accent, if not the right Scots' accent!

  7. Thanks, Sue - what a lovely version. Very very different, and yet the same tune, the same ballad!

  8. Hello, I was just wondering where you found the information on the origin of the recorded story?