The Scots word selkie is diminutive for selch which strictly speaking means “grey seal” (Halichoerus grypus). Alternate spellings for the diminutive include: selky, seilkie, sejlki, silkie, silkey, saelkie, sylkie, etc. The term “selkie” according to Alan Bruford should be treated as meaning any seal with or without the implication of transformation into human form.

W. Traill Dennison insisted “selkie” was the correct term to be applied to these shapeshifters, to be distinguished from the merfolk, and that Samuel Hibbert committed an error in referring to them as “mermen” and “mermaids”. However, when other Norse cultures are examined, Icelandic writers also refer to the seal-wives as merfolk (marmennlar). There also seems to be some conflation between the selkie and finfolk. This confounding only existed in Shetland, claimed Dennison, and that in Orkney the selkie are distinguished from the finfolk, and the selkies’ abode undersea is not “Finfolk-a-heem”; this notion, although seconded by Ernest Marwick, has been challenged by Bruford.

There is further confusion with the Norse concept of the Finns as shapeshifters, “Finns” (synonymous with finfolk) being the Shetlandic name for dwellers of the sea who could remove their seal-skin and transform into humans according to one native correspondent.
Scottish Legend
Many of the folk-tales on selkie folk have been collected from the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland). In Orkney lore, selkie is said to denote various seals of greater size than the grey seal; only these large seals are credited with the ability to shapeshift into humans, and are called “selkie folk”. Something similar is stated in Shetland tradition, that the mermen and mermaids prefer to assume the shape of larger seals, referred to as “Haaf-fish”.
Selkie Wife and Human Lover
A typical folk-tale is that of a man who steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife. But the wife will spend her time in captivity longing for the sea, her true home, and will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. She may bear several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she will immediately return to the sea and abandon the children she loved. Sometimes, one of her children discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. Sometimes it is revealed she already had a first husband from her own kind. Although in some children’s story versions, the selkie revisits her family on land once a year, in the typical folktale she is never seen again by them. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them returned to their seal form.[citation needed] In one version, the selkie wife was never seen again (at least in human form) by the family, but the children would witness a large seal approach them and “greet” them plaintively.

Male selkies are described as being very handsome in their human form, and having great seductive powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. In one popular tattletale version about a certain “Ursilla” of Orkney (a pseudonym), it was rumored that when she wished to make contact with her male selkie would shed seven tears into the sea.

Children born between man and seal-folk may have webbed hands, as in the case of the Shetland mermaid whose children had a “a sort of web between their fingers”, or “Ursilla” rumored to have children sired by a male selkie, such that the children had to have the webbing between their fingers and toes made of horny material clipped away intermittently. Some of the descendants actually did have these hereditary traits, according to Walter Traill Dennison who was related to the family.

Illustration by James Brown
Orkney Tales
A version of the tale about the mermaid compelled to become wife to a human who steals her seal-skin, localized in Unst, was published by Samuel Hibbert in 1822. She already had a husband of her own kind in her case.

Some stories from Shetland have selkies luring islanders into the sea at midsummer, the lovelorn humans never returning to dry land.

In the Shetland, the sea-folk were believed to revert to human shape and breathed air in the atmosphere in the submarine homeland, but with their sea-dress (seal-skin) they had the ability to transform into seals to make transit from there to the reefs above the sea. However, each skin was unique and irreplaceable.

In the tale of “Gioga’s Son”, a group of seals resting in the Ve Skerries were ambushed and skinned by Papa Stour fishermen, but as these were actually seal-folk, the spilling of the blood caused a surge in seawater, and one fisherman was left abandoned. The seal-folk victims recovered in human-like form, but lamented the loss of their skin without which they could not return to their submarine home. Ollavitinus was particularly distressed since he was now separated from his wife; however, his mother Gioga struck a bargain with the abandoned seaman, offering to carrying him back to Papa Stour on condition the skin would be returned. In a different telling of the same plot line, the stranded man is called Herman Perk, while the rescuing selkie’s name is unidentified.

Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane
Farose Legends
In the Faroe Islands there are two versions of the story of the ‘seal wife’. A young farmer from the town of Mikladalur on Kalsoy island goes to the beach to watch the selkies dance. He hides the skin of a beautiful selkie maid so she cannot go back to sea, and forces her to marry him. He keeps her skin in a chest, and keeps the key with him both day and night. One day when out fishing, he discovers that he has forgotten to bring his key. When he returns home, the selkie wife has escaped back to sea, leaving their children behind. Later, when the farmer is out on a hunt, he kills both her selkie husband and two selkie sons, and she promises to take revenge upon the men of Mikladalur. Some shall be drowned, some shall fall from cliffs and slopes, and this shall continue, until so many men have been lost that they will be able to link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy. There are still occasional deaths occurring in this way on the island.

Peter Kagan and the Wind by Gordon Bok tells of the fisherman Kagan who married a seal-woman. Against his wife’s wishes he set sail dangerously late in the year, and was trapped battling a terrible storm, unable to return home. His wife shifted to her seal form and saved him, even though this meant she could never return to her human body and hence her happy home.

Statue of Selkie or Seal Wife in the village of Mikladalur on Kalsoy

Selkie Ilustration by Sarah Green
Before the advent of modern medicine, many physiological conditions were untreatable. When children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairies. The MacCodrum clan of the Outer Hebrides became known as the “MacCodrums of the seals” as they claimed to be descended from a union between a fisherman and a selkie. This was an explanation for their syndactyly – a hereditary growth of skin between their fingers that made their hands resemble flippers.
Scottish folklorist and antiquarian, David MacRitchie believed that early settlers in Scotland probably encountered, and even married, Finnish and Sami women who were misidentified as selkies because of their sealskin kayaks and clothing. Others have suggested that the traditions concerning the selkies may have been due to misinterpreted sightings of Finn-men (Inuit from the Davis Strait). The Inuit wore clothes and used kayaks that were both made of animal skins. Both the clothes and kayaks would lose buoyancy when saturated and would need to be dried out. It is thought that sightings of Inuit divesting themselves of their clothing or lying next to the skins on the rocks could have led to the belief in their ability to change from a seal to a man.

Another belief is that shipwrecked Spaniards were washed ashore, and their jet black hair resembled seals. As the anthropologist A. Asbjørn Jøn has recognised, though, there is a strong body of lore that indicates that selkies “are said to be supernaturally formed from the souls of drowned people”.

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