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. 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.