Friday 1 March 2024

Seal songs and legends


Stories about selkies are ambiguous, evocative, sad.

            This is largely because of the way seals themselves affect us. Bobbing curiously up around boats, they seem to feel as much interest in us as we feel for them, and there is something human about their round heads and large eyes. Basking on sunlit rocks they are part of our world, yet are also natural inhabitants of an unseen, underwater world in which we would drown. For most of our species' co-existence, only in imagination could we follow them there.

My mother used to sing a lovely song called Song to the Seals (words by Sir Harold Boulton, music by Granville Bantock) about a sea-maid who sits on a reef calling the seals in a lilting, melancholy refrain: ‘Hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oiran ee la leu ran…’  You can listen to it here, sung by boy treble Sebastian Carrington.

And the sheet music includes a introductory note: ‘The refrain of this song was actually used recently on a Hebridean island by a singer who thereby attracted a quantity of seals to gather round and listen intently to the singing.’

            With so much inter-species interaction and fascination going on, it’s no wonder there are many legends and songs about selkies: seal-people who can cast off their thick pelts and appear in human form. The ballad of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry exists in a number of variants, but the earliest was written down in 1852 by Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy, and it was dictated to him by an old lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland. The ballad tells the tragedy of a woman who has borne a child to a unsettlingly Other selkie man, ‘a grumlie guest’ who brings a waft of salt-sea terror as he appears. ‘I am a man upo’ the land, he announces,

            ‘An’ I am a Silkie in the sea;

And when I’m far and far frae lan’

            My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’ 

As Lieutenant Thomas explains: 

The story is founded on the superstition of the Seals or Selkies being able to throw off their waterproof jackets, and assume the more graceful proportions of the genus Homo… Silky is a common name in the north country for a seal, and appears to be a corruption of selch, the Norse word for that animal. Sule Skerry is a small rocky islet, lying about twenty-five miles to the westward of Hoy Head, in Orkney, from whence it may be seen in very clear weather…

And he tells of coming in from the cod-fisheries on a foggy, windless morning, rowing ‘for nearly a mile through the narrow channels formed by a thousand weed-covered skerries’ and hearing the seals’ ‘lullaby’: ‘groans and sighs expressive of unutterable torment… followed by a melancholy howl of hopeless despair’.

A few years ago, wandering the fractured rocky shore of Longstone Island off the coast of Northumberland, I too became aware of this eerie sound. Keening, moaning, huff-huff-huffing – hooting like children who make long quavering ghost noises – a group of twenty or so seals were crying to one another as they lay on a ridge at the edge of the tide.

The unnamed woman in The Great Silkie is destined to lose both her half-selkie child and its selkie father: the Silkie predicts she will marry a mortal man, ‘a proud gunner’, who will shoot them while they play together in the bright summer sea.

The Sule Skerry selkie is male, but the best-known selkie tales tell of a seal-woman captured by a fisherman who sees her dancing on a moonlit beach. He steals her discarded skin, preventing her from changing back into seal form. Such stories generally end when the selkie bride recovers her hidden sealskin and returns to the sea, abandoning her human husband and children. ‘I loved you well,’ she sometimes calls, ‘but I loved better my husband and children in the sea.’ Unions between humans and faerie creatures rarely turn out well. These are disturbing tales of constraint and capture, power and powerlessness. And they are haunted by loss: the selkie’s longing for her own element and the heartache of man and children left behind.

I was thinking about this story while I was writing Troll Mill, the second of my fantasy trilogy for children set in a Viking-Norway-that-never-was, and I found within it a metaphor for post-natal depression. (That’s not to pin it down; folk and fairy tales are open to many interpretations.) But the thought gave me the heart of my book. Kersten is a seal-woman stolen – and named – by Bjørn, a fisherman. She lives with him in apparent content until one stormy evening she finds her sealskin cloak, races to the shore and thrusts her new-born child into the arms of the young hero Peer, before hurling herself into the sea. Left literally holding the baby, Peer cannot catch her; he yells a warning to his friend Bjørn, who runs to intercept her –

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 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. 

I wanted there to be an element of doubt. Is Kersten really a selkie, or is it simply a story the other characters make about her, in an attempt to explain what she did, and why? Years earlier, the daughter of a friend and work colleague of mine had killed herself in the grip of post-natal depression, and a great part of the book – I realised after I’d written it – turned out to be about motherhood and what it does to you, and the different ways people cope or don’t cope. I didn’t plan this, it just came out that way. There was Kersten, the mother who goes missing, lost or dead. There was Gudrun, older, capable, hard-working, the nurturing but sometimes short-tempered mother. There was a troll princess, drama-queen mother of the sort of spoiled brat other mothers dread. And there was Granny Greenteeth, my version of the dangerous English water-spirit Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into the green depths of the stagnant water she inhabits. She claims the motherless half-selkie baby, Ran, as her lawful prey even though the child will drown. She is the destructively possessive mother. 

Peer saw her, or thought he did: Granny Greenteeth in human form, sitting at the bottom of the millpond with Ran in her arms. A greenish light clung around them. Granny Greenteeth’s hair was waving upwards in a terrible aureole and she bent over Ran, rocking her to and fro. 

Granny or Jenny Greenteeth is a fresh-water spirit, a nixie not a selkie, and her origin in English folklore is likely to have been as a bogey to frighten children away from dangerous ponds. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology (1835) says that the Danish water spirit, the nøkke, wears a green hat and that ‘when he grins you see his green teeth’. Grimm adds that ‘there runs through the stories of water-sprites a vein of cruelty and bloodthirstiness which is not easily found among daemons of mountains, woods and homes… To this day, when people are drowned in a river, it is common to say: “The river-sprite demands his yearly victim,” which is usually an innocent child.’

Unlike nixies, selkies are not cruel, though they sometimes take revenge on those who have mistreated them. They are not spirits, but creatures of flesh and blood like ourselves, as the Shetland and Orkney islanders who told selkie stories in the 1940s to David Thomson for BBC radio (and published later in Thomson’s book The People of The Sea) knew full well. One story Thomson heard in the radio age was told by Shetlander Gilbert Charlson, and it couldn’t be plainer about the physicality of the selkie race. A band of men land on the Ve Skerries (the ‘Holy Skerries’) to stun the seals there and skin them alive: 

‘Ye’d no sooner stun your seal than you’d set to and skin him, you understand, for if you left him there he might come back to life and go back into the sea while you turned around. T’was hard to be sure if they were dead or no, for it’s very hard to kill them…’ 

The tale was already over a century old, for it is also found in Samuel Hibbert’s Description of the Shetland Islands (1822). Hibbert’s account is just as graphic: 

They … stunned several of them and while they lay stupefied, stripped them of their skins, with the fat attached to them. They left the naked carcasses lying on the rocks, and were about to get into their boats with their spoils and return to Papa Stour, whence they had come. 

As they prepare to leave, a huge swell rises; the men all leap for their boats… The Ve Skerries are the very ones through which Lieutenant Thomas RN rowed in the 1850s  coming back from his cod-fishing expedition, and he described them as “almost covered by the sea at high water, and in this stormy climate, a heavy surf breaking over them generally forms an effectual barrier to boats.” So the men are swift to leave: but one is left behind. Unable to bring the boats close enough for him to jump, his friends give up and row for home, knowing he’ll be washed away.

            And now the seals return to the skerry, moaning and crying for the deaths of their kin; crying even more for those still alive, who without their skins can never return to their home in the sea – this glosses the truth of actual, living, skinned seals still writhing on the rocks... The the one crying the loudest is a female selkie called  ‘Geira’ – or ‘Gioga’ in the older version – for her son Hancie has lost his skin and must now be forever exiled. 

            Seeing the shivering, stranded fisherman fated to die from exposure or drowning, Geira offers to carry him on her back all the way home to Papa Stour, if in return he will find and restore her son’s sealskin. The man is willing, but he is desperately afraid of the turbulent waves. So he asks her permission to cut slots in the thick sealskin of her shoulders and flanks, two for his hands and two for his feet, so that he can hold on firmly ‘between the skin and the flesh’ and will ‘no slip in tae the sea’. So dear is her son to Geira that she agrees, and carries the man away through the storm and all the way back to Papa Stour. The story ends: 

‘And this man went across the island in the night, when he landed. He walked down by the Dutch Loch and on to Hamna Voe. He made sure his comrades were sleeping. And he went there to the skeo [a little stone house used for the curing of fish]. And he chose out the longest and bonniest skin out o’ a’ that lay there and took it to the old mother selkie, Geira. It was the skin o’ her son, Hancie, and away wi’ that she swam.’

            David Thomson: The People of the Sea 

So there’s a tale of co-operation between human and selkie, even though the man was part of a team slaughtering and skinning the seals. The relationship between the two races is not an equal one. The men prey upon the seals in order to live – to sell the skins, and make shoes and garments from them. They use the seals, and also they depend upon them: they owe them. And they’re uneasy about it, uneasy about killing these creatures who seem so much like…  people. One more quotation from The People of the Sea, from eighty year-old Osie Fea: 

‘It’s no wonder they were thought to be like us,’ he said. ‘For the seals and ourselves were aye thrown together in our way o’ getting a living, and everything we feel, they feel, ye may be sure o’ that.’

            ‘I wouldna care to be near them,’ said Margaret Fae.

            ‘I have watched them,’ said Osie, ‘as near as I am to you. I have seen a mother out by the Seal Skerry when the sea was full o’ wreckage. There was a ship wrecked out by and it was rough, and this wreckage was tumbling her young one about so he couldna win ashore. I could see the anxiety gazing out o’ her eyes like a woman’s. The very same. The very same as a woman’s.’ 

It is surely from this sense of identification, of empathy and of guilt, that the stories were born. 


 Picture credits:

The Seal Woman of Kopakonan, Faroes. Read her story on the Faroes website at this link

The Seal Woman of Kopakonan: photo by Annebjorg Andreasen


  1. Fascinating Katherine. These selkie tales seem to be peculiar to Scotland and the Celts. In NZ we have taniwha and the Australians have bunyip both act as warnings to children to stay away from dangerous water but have nothing like the selkies. The statue is imposing (would love to see it).
    Seals are returning to our coasts in abundant numbers so there’s the making of a novel for sure

    1. Thankyou for the comment - I hadn't heard of the taniwha! Will look it up.