A little while ago I came across a lovely retelling of the selkie folktale. The Selkie by Mara Freeman is one of the many selkie tales that are so deeply entrenched in Orcadian folklore. They have spread in various forms down the western shores of Scotland Ireland and Wales.
The Song Of The Seals
The lovely descriptive narrative of Mara Freeman happily reminded me of our trips to Scotland. The moon rising over the western sea. The yellow Iris. The seals swimming sleekly through the waves or resting on the sharp dark rocks. The part that really made my back tingle, however, was the part that described the bride sitting next to her husband but seeming distracted by some other music. A reminder of her life as a selkie no doubt. I have been on the shore at dusk and heard seals “singing” some way off. The strangely human sound is beautifully haunting. The singing sometimes referred to (in folklore) as the Dan nan Ron was feared because it was thought to bring the unfortunate listener under some enchantment.
In this version of the tale, the selkie changes into a beautiful woman. There are many variations of this story, Sometimes the selkie transforms into a handsome man as in The Great Selkie O’ Suleskerry.
I identified with this story on different levels. My involvement with the Shemaron Project (the restoration of an old herring boat), gave the reference to herring a strong personal association. Before they disappeared from around our coastlines, herring was the staple food for much of the British Isles. The ancient Norse Saga Helmskringla describes catching multitudes of herring. This rich source of food has been the sustenance for fishermen over thousands of years. Therefore reference to herring also connects the tale through history.
Putting to sea in those early times was a risky business. Because they were at risk of drowning or being forced to land on a different part of the coast fishermen didn’t always return home.
The Sea Sami
The nomadic Sea Sami fished from kayaks made from seal skins. The kayaks moved speedily through the water but they became waterlogged. As a result, the boats needed to be hauled onto the shore to dry out. It is therefore plausible that ancient inhabitants of Orkney and Shetland saw these seal skin kayaks being brought ashore. Furthermore, trysts might have developed between the local people and the exotic arrivals from across the sea. Of the theories I have read concerning the origin of the selkie stories, this resonates most strongly with human nature.There are similar stories about the Finfolk that originate with the selkie tales in Scandinavia. The selkie tribes, however, were known for their benevolent nature. Whereas the Finfolk were imbued with magical powers which they used for malevolent purposes.
These stories entwine nature and history with daily life on an equal level, they demonstrate a bond that must evolve from having great respect and living closely with nature.