exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Tale of the Selkie

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A long, long time ago, in the Highlands of Scotland, a fisherman was walking along a beach towards his home when a strange sound reached his ears. He looked around until his eyes fell upon a group of men and women dancing on the shore in the moonlight. He approached them quietly, hiding himself behind a ridge of rock, and as he drew closer to them he realised that they were not men and women at all, but selkies, the seal folk.

All were naked, and their smooth, unblemished skin was as pale as pearls. The heaps of grey and brown that he had taken for seaweed were in fact their enchanted seal skins, scattered carelessly across the sands. A single shining skin lay at his feet, and he took it up to examine it. The seal folk caught sight of him and shrieked with fright as they scrambled to retrieve their seal skins and retreat to safety of the sea.

One by one they disappeared beneath the waves until only one selkie was left. She had the fairest face the fisherman had ever seen, though she was a pitiful sight, lamenting the robbery by which she had become an exile from her brood and a tenant of the upper world. She wept and cried and begged the fisherman to restore her property to her, but the fisherman was in want of a wife and would not give up the chance to wed such a beautiful maiden. He offered her his protection and his love, and a comfortable life under his roof, and the selkie had little choice but to accept the offer, for she could not return to her kinsfolk without her seal skin and the fisherman was not likely to return it. He took the selkie to his home, and hid her seal skin well.

The fisherman always treated the selkie maiden with kindness, and their strange arrangement continued for many years. The couple had several children, and the fisherman’s love for his seal-wife was unbounded, but though she seemed content, the selkie had a heavy heart. She desperately missed her home and her kinsfolk, and would often spend her evenings walking the shoreline and gazing longingly out across the sea.

And so the years passed in this way until one day it happened that one of the children, in the course of his play, found a seal skin beneath a stack of corn. Delighted with his prize, he ran with it to his mother. As soon as she laid her eyes on the skin she was bursting with joy, her rapture only tempered when she looked upon her bewildered children. After hastily embracing them she fled towards the shore, clutching her seal skin to her breast until she reached the waves where she threw on the skin and plunged into the sea.

On his return the fisherman learned of his son’s discovery and sprinted to the beach, but he only arrived in time to see his seal-wife take to the water.

“Farewell!” she called to him, “May all good attend to you! I loved you well and you were kind to me in your own fashion, but now I return to the first husband I loved.”

In a split second she had disappeared beneath the waves, and was never seen again.