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  The Origin of the Selkie-folk

Selkie and Fin — one and the same?

Watchers from the Waves. Picture: Sigurd TowrieOver the years, and probably because of the way in which the tales were recorded, the Finfolk and selkie-folk in Orkney came to be regarded as two distinct supernatural races.

They practically became polar opposites — the selkie-folk said to be beautiful and reasonably benign, while hte Finfolk were dark, malevolent creatures.

But when we look further north, to the folklore of Shetland, we find no distinction between the two. The ability to shapeshift into seal form, for example, was simply one of the many magical powers attributed to the Finfolk.

This fact led Orkney's most respected folklorist and antiquarian, Walter Traill Dennison, to exclaim in the 19th century:

"Writers on the subject, trusting to incorrect versions of old stories, have often confounded mermaids and seals together, and have treated the two as identical. (Samuel) Hibbert in his valuable work on Shetland has fallen into this error, and has been followed by most others whose writings on the subject I have seen."

Quoting that his "old informants regarded the selkie-folk as a wholly different race of beings from the Finfolk", Dennison's interpretation of Orkney folklore has since become cast in stone.

However, what if these Shetland tales were not actually as wrong as Dennison believed, but were actually closer to the original tales — a purer strain of lore.

Outside Orkney, in recent years, and helped along by the advent of the internet, we have seen a transformation of the selkie-folk into “New Age” spirits of the sea — something completely at odds to the terror and fear they once inspired in the people of Orkney. What angelic being would require a mother to paint a cross on the breast of her daughter before letting her undertake a sea voyage? With this in mind, and looking back to some of the fragments of Orkney's earlier, and lesser-known, selkie folktales, we can catch glimpses of their original darker, malicious nature.

It is hard to say whether the fragmentation into selkie-folk and Finfolk tales took place over a long period of time, or was simply the result of interpretation and "categorisation" of later folklorists such as Dennison.

However, either through variations in telling, or shifts in emphasis, the original shapeshifting aspect of the Finfolk became detached, gradually developing until the islands were left with a distinct race — the selkie-folk.

In the same way, it is also possible that these traditions merged with an existing element of Celtic myth that would explain the existence of the motif down the west coast of Scotland and into Ireland.

So, now we have seen that the selkie-folk and the Finfolk were once one and the same, we need to investigate the roots of the Finfolk mythology to understand the development of the legends.

The origin of the Finfolk lore

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