An Orkney Folk Tale: The Selkie Wife
In traditional tales, even the wildlife in the seas around Orkney are magical. The Selkie Wife is a story that was told in days gone by to family and friends around the hearth.
He could hear the sound of sobbing behind him and turning around, there was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen. She begged him to return her seal skin, as she couldn’t return to the sea without it, but he refused.
The man of Westness in North Ronaldsay went down to the shore one day to gather shellfish for bait for his fish hooks. Suddenly, he heard the sound of laughter in the distance. He followed the sound and saw that it was a group of selkie folk, sunning themselves on a flat rock. He knew that some seals could take off their skin and become human, and he could see their empty skins lying nearby.
The selkie girls were beautiful and Westness wanted to win one as his wife. He crawled, quietly, towards the skins before running through a pool of water to reach the skins. The selkie folk panicked, rushing to grab their skin and dive into the sea. But Westness was able to snatch one from the shore and he walked home carrying it.
He could hear the sound of sobbing behind him and turning around, there was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen. She begged him to return her seal skin, as she couldn’t return to the sea without it, but he refused. She had to live with him as his wife.
The couple got on well and she bore him seven children, four boys and three girls, all as lovely as their mother. Things went well on the farm and they had everything that they needed. But there was a sadness in her, as she longed to return to her own folk in the sea. She would sit for hours gazing out to sea with a faraway look in her eyes and the tears would trickle down her cheeks.
One day Westness took his three eldest sons to the fishing. The selkie wife sent her three eldest children to gather shellfish for bait. Her youngest girl was left at home, as she had hurt her foot. The selkie wife started to tidy the house, but she was really searching for her lost skin.
Her little girl asked her what she was looking for. Her mother said that she was looking for a lovely skin, to make the girl a pair of shoes to sooth her sore foot. The child smiled and said that she knew where a bonnie skin was hidden.
The selkie wife stopped what she was doing, frozen by this news, and asked where it was. Her daughter told her that when her dad thought she was asleep one day he took a lovely silvery skin down from the top of the wall, under the slope of the roof, just above the bed. The selkie wife ran to the place and took down her stolen skin.
She kissed her child goodbye, with tears in her eye, and ran down to the shore. She pulled on her skin with a cry of joy and dived into the sea. A large male seal swam to her and they met lovingly, for he was her selkie husband.
Just then she saw Westness and her sons’ boat sailing around the headland. She swam towards it and, lifting the skin from her face, said: “Good man of Westness, farewell to thee, I liked you well, you were good to me, but I loved far more my man of the sea.” With that she covered her face and the two seals dived down into the deeps and were seen no more.
Westness searched the shore for the rest of his days, looking for his selkie wife, but he never saw her beautiful face again.
Tom is a champion of folk tales from Orkney, bringing them back to the public through books and as a professional storyteller. His day job is at the Orkney Museum. Along with his wife, Rhonda, he runs Orkneyology.com to bring more stories into the world at a time when they are much needed.