There are many Scottish stories about selkies, but the most common is a tragic story of theft, love and loss.
Seals live close to people in many coastal and island communities in Scotland. They hunt the same fish, those big eyes and round heads look almost human in the water, and when they sing, you’re sure you could understand the words if only you listened hard enough.
There is a widespread belief that seals can become human, perhaps only at certain times of year: the spring tide, midsummer, full moon. And that on those magical nights, they shed their sealskins to sing and dance on the shore.
Once, a young man of the village crept up to watch them. They danced naked on the beach, pale skin visible in moments of moonlight, and they played music like he had never heard. And one of the young seal women, one of the young selkies, was so beautiful that his heart was lost.
So he crawled slower than the tide over to the pile of sealskins at the edge of their party, and he hunted for the softest, smallest, most perfect skin. This must be hers! He rolled it up, shoved it under his jacket and crawled away to his house overlooking the shore.
When the party was finished, all the songs sung, all the dances danced, and the morning light threatening in the east, the selkies rushed over to the pile of skins. The selkies found their own skins and pulled them on like capes, swirling round and engulfing their human bodies. They all became seals again and slipped into the sea.
All but one. All but the young selkie girl. Naked and shivering, with no seal skin to put on.
So she was grateful when the young fisherman appeared in the dawn light with a blanket, and took her home for a hot drink and a warm by the fire.
And she was impressed at his commitment to search for her sealskin. All along the beach, under every rock.
But he never found it, and she had to be content to live in his house by the sea. To hear and smell and watch the waves, but never to swim there again. For a selkie can’t become a seal again without her sealskin. So she thought she would never be with her family, her brothers and sisters and children again.
When he asked her to live with him forever and be his wife, his love for her was so apparent, and her home and children in the sea so impossible to reach, that she said yes.
She was as happy as she could be, close to the sea, loved by her man, bringing up her family, listening with tears in her big brown eyes every full moon as her seal family sang on the beach.
But one Sunday, while her husband and children were at church, a place she had never felt entirely comfortable, she was spring cleaning. Every shelf dusted, every flagstone gleaming, she clambered up a ladder to deal with the cobwebs among the roof beams. As she poked and prodded the duster into a dark corner, a dry old bundle fell down on her head.
A sealskin. Bound up with string. Hidden, binding her here forever.
She cut the knots and let the skin unroll. It still smelt salty.
She thought of her children at church. She thought of the sea, and the fish, and the currents, and the songs. She thought of her children under the waves. And she thought of her husband, pretending to search for a sealskin that he had hidden himself above her head.
When her family came back from church, she was gone. The fisherman saw the old string cut into bits on the floor and he knew where she had gone.
Now, the fisherman’s children go down to the shore every evening, and hear the sad song of the seal floating in the bay. Crying because she left her children on the shore, to be with her children in the sea.
- This story was told for Scotclans by Lari Don, children’s author and storyteller, who researched selkies for her new book First Aid for Fairies and Other Fabled Beasts. More information at www.laridon.co.uk