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  The Origin of the Selkie-folk

Documented Finmen sightings

"Our skin-sewed Fin-boats lightly swim,
Over the sea like wind they skim.
Our ships are built without a nail;
Few ships like ours can row or sail."

The above account, from the Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, refers to the vessels of the "Laplanders" - boats which were constructed "with deer sinews, without nails and with withes of willow instead of knees."

Like the vessels of the Finfolk, these boats were so light that no ship could overtake them in the water.

This account, written in the late 12th or early 13th century, shows that the skin-boats had made an impact on the mind of the Vikings. This alone provides a good link to the folklore of the finfolk, but around 400 years later there came an interesting twist in the development of the legends.

In the 17th century, Orkney saw a spate of sightings around Orkney of people referred to in the contemporary accounts as “Finn-men”.

These kayak-paddling visitors were seen in Orkney and Shetland on a number of occasions and possibly resulted in new elements being grafted onto the existing finfolk and selkie-folk mythology.

For example, one was seen off Eday in 1682, but rowed away quickly when the islanders tried to catch him. In 1684 another was sighted off Westray and a "Finn-man’s boat" was once housed in the Burray Kirk.

The paddlers were renowned for the speed of their vessels, and accounts of fruitless chases by the islanders were obviously the root of the traditions surrounding the finman and his unparalleled rowing ability. The kayak also accounts for folklore's insistence that the finman's magical boat travelled with no sail.

For examples of these sightings, click here.

Mermaid solutions

The sea-going properties of the skin-covered craft also seem to offer clear answers to a number of other elements relating to finfolk, selkie-folk and mermaids.

The most obvious of these are the Orcadian accounts of mermaids, which insist that the mermaid's tail was not fishlike but was pointed.

Being made from sealskin (or other animal skin), these kayaks would also lose buoyancy, as the skin got wetter. Sodden kayaks have to be pulled clear of the water regularly to dry out, hence the descriptions of mermaids with pointed or triangular tails sitting on skerries.

As their buoyancy decreased, the wet kayaks would also drop beneath the surface of the water - once again neatly explaining the mermaid sightings in which the sea-creature was viewed from the waist up travelling at speed through the water.

Seen from above, the underwater kayak's form could also taken for a "tail" of sorts.

But perhaps the most interesting of all, is the idea of the kayakers removing their seal(skin) garments. Thus the sea-going creature becomes human.

The significance of the sealskin

But what of the selkie-folk? What do these kayakers have to do with the folktales surrounding Orkney's seal-people?

The answer is simple. The sealskin.

Tradition dictates that the selkie-folk became human after removing their sealskins. Without this skin, the shape-shifters were unable to return to the sea.

Immediately we can see parallels in the accounts of the kayaking finfolk, with their all-encompassing skin garments. Just like the kayak, these garments would have grown waterlogged over time and required drying.

The documented sightings of naked "finfolk", with their "skins" lying nearby undoubtedly lent much to the existing folklore.

The Little Ice Age

But why where these "finmen" seen around Orkney?

The usual explanation for these kayakers was that they had been “dumped” from ships returning from the Canadian Arctic. More recently, however, it has been suggested the sightings may be connected to a climatic deterioration experienced at the time.

At the time of these sightings, northern Europe was suffering from the “Little Ice Age”, a period which saw the sea temperature was around 5 deg c colder than now and Arctic ice extended as far south as Iceland.

Because of this, some writers have suggested that the historical finn-men were actually Arctic Inuit, who had followed the ice floes east and south.

This theory certainly explains the Orcadian tradition that the Finfolk had the ability to make a poor catch  – the drop in sea temperatures almost certainly affected the local fishing grounds.

Elements of the finfolk folklore were either added after the historical sightings, or more probably, were similar enough to existing Finman traditions to prompt the connection. This seems to be borne out by the instant assumption that the paddling kayakers were finfolk.

However the kayakers reached Orkney, their presence is well recorded, with even a few of their "canoes" surviving until recent years.

Examples of documented Finmen sightings

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