"As soon as the seal was clear of
the water, it reared up and its skin slipped down to the sand.
What had been a seal was a white-skinned boy"
George Mackay Brown - Pictures in the Cave
Selkie is simply the Orcadian dialect word for "seal".
So, selkies are a very common sight across Orkney. Heads bobbing above the waves, they are often seen by the shore, watching inquisitively with uncannily human eyes.
To the onshore observer it is not hard to see how the legends surrounding the selkie-folk — the seal people — sprang into life.
Orkney has many tales concerning this shape-shifting race.
Unlike the Finfolk, who retained their malicious tendencies throughout the years, the selkie-folk have come to be regarded as gentle creatures, with the ability to transform from seals into beautiful, lithe humans. This, however, is a far cry from the original folklore — a topic dealt with further here.
In the surviving folklore, there is no agreement as to how often the selkie-folk were able to carry out the transformation. Some tales say it was once a year, usually Midsummer's Eve, while others state it could be “every ninth night” or “every seventh stream”.
Regardless of how often they were able to transform, the folklore tells us that once in human form, the selkie-folk would dance on lonely stretches of moonlit shore, or bask in the sun on outlying skerries.
The selkie skin
A common element in all the selkie-folk tales, and perhaps the most important, is the fact that in order to shapeshift they had to cast off their sealskins. Within these magical skins lay the power to return to seal form, and therefore the sea.
If this sealskin was lost, or stolen, the creature was doomed to remain in human form until it could be recovered. Because of this, if disturbed while on shore, the selkie-folk would hastily snatch up their skins before rushing back to the safety of the sea.
The selkie-men were renowned for their many encounters with human females — married and unmarried.
A selkie-man in human form was said to be a handsome creature, with almost magical seductive powers over mortal women. According to tradition, they had no qualms about casting off their sealskins, stashing them carefully, and heading inland to seek out “unsatisfied women”.
Should such a mortal woman wish to make contact with a selkie-man, there was a specific rite she had to follow. At high tide, she should make her way to the shore, where she had to shed seven tears into the sea.
The selkie-man would then come ashore and, after removing his magical sealskin, seek out “unlawful love”.
In the words of the 19th century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, these selkie males:
". . . often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life."
If a girl went missing while out on the ebb, or at sea, it was inevitably said that her selkie lover had taken her to his watery domain — assuming, of course, she had not attracted the eye of a Finman.
But while the males of the selkie race were irresistible to the island women, selkie-women were no less alluring to the eyes of earth-born men. The most common theme in selkie folklore is one in which a cunning young man acquires, either by trickery or theft, a selkie-girl’s sealskin.
This prevents her from returning to the sea, leaving the seal-maiden with no option but to marry her “captor”.
The tales generally end sadly, when the skin is returned, usually by one of the selkie-wife's children. In some accounts, her children go with her to the sea, while others have them remaining with their mortal father.
The story of the Goodman
o' Wastness is typical of one such tale.