Always a pleasure to have one of my local writing pals here, especially when she’s talking about legendary creatures. So, Chris, take it away!
Selkie tales are rife in the legends of Scotland and Ireland. They’re not so common in the Welsh. The nearest is possibly Dylan, the second-born son of the goddess Arianrhod. As soon as he was given his name, he went straight into the sea and became one with the sea creatures. That echoes the Welsh tradition that selkies are the souls of humans who returned to – or drowned in – the sea.
There seems to be two main threads to the Scottish and Irish tales, both of them featuring seduction. In some cases a selkie woman has her sealskin stolen, is forcibly married to her captor, only to abandon him and the children she bore him when her sealskin is found and restored to her so she can escape back to the sea. In others, the male selkie comes ashore as a handsome man seduces and then leaves a local lass, who subsequently has his child. When the child reaches a certain age, the selkie comes to claim his offspring, takes him to the sea to become a selkie as well. Those stories rarely end well, usually with the death of the selkie.
There are also the good deed tales. Help a seal and/or her pup, and she will return the favour when you need it most. Of course, the reverse holds true. Harm a selkie and their revenge will follow you and yours through the generations. That latter tradition probably reflects the ongoing war fishermen had with the seals, claiming they take vital fish stock – notably salmon – and ruin the fisherman’s trade. Not to mention the constant battle to survive the storms in fragile boats. It’s easy to blame a supernatural source for a storm that blows up out of nowhere and devastates a fishing fleet.
How about a non-supernatural theory on the origins of selkies? The Finnish and Saami peoples were great fishermen and travellers. They relied on seals for more than just meat. Their skins were used to make their kayaks, and their clothing. When they became waterlogged, the kayaks and clothes had to be dried out on the beach… So a Saami woman sitting on a rocky shore, stripping off her soggy coat, becomes the start of a selkie story… Then there’s the tradition that the Saami shamans had a reputation for sorceries and dark magics, all of which attached themselves to the selkie over the centuries…
It seems logical that the people who hunt seals are the ones who generated the stories, and they are known to the folk-tales of the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Greenland. But I haven’t been able to find much from the Inuit and Chinook. Only one I’ve found so far is where a baby is taken by seals from an ice floe while his mother is fishing. There are two versions. In one he changes into a seal, in the other he remains a human. But in both he can only return to the land [in his human shape] at certain times of the year.
With the concentration of the legends around the Scottish and Irish coasts, and with so many of them featuring seductions and offspring, it seems highly likely to me that the island and coastal communities have a fair bit of selkie blood in their family trees. Hence The Sinclair Selkie…
American Donal MacCraith is on a road trip along the western coast of Scotland and the Western Isles. His family roots are there, but his main reasons for the extended vacation are the songs and legends. He’s a folk-singer, come to collect some new old material. In Stornoway he meets the Shielingers and Niall MacLachlan. Donal is attracted to Niall, but doesn’t act on it, unable to guess if the man is gay or not. When he continues his exploration of Lewis in his rented motorhome, making for the small crofting community his grandmother left as a young woman, he finds Niall waiting for him on the road just outside the town. Donal invites him along, and Niall leaps at the chance.
Once out on the road, Niall makes a play for Donal, and they begin a casual no-strings relationship, though Donal senses Niall has an agenda of his own. Donal knows their fling won’t last, but that suits him at first. Later, though, he begins to want something more, even though he has the feeling Niall is using him. He’s right, and it’s the clue in the old stories of the Sinclair Selkie Donal’s grandmother had told him. That clue will lead Donal to the startling truth behind the legend, and they’ll both be faced with life-changing choices.
“What legend?” Niall raised his voice. “You’ve never said anything about it before.” There was a slight edge to his words and his gaze remained fastened on Donal.
“Oh, God,” Pat groaned. “You’ve done it now! Our Niall’s searching for old songs as well, only he’s more specific. He’s fixated on the seal-folk. He’s only been with us a week, but if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard him ask–”
“Shut up.” Fergus grinned. “It’s the legend of the Sinclair Selkie, like in the song, only it’s a mite darker. God, I haven’t thought about it for years.” He settled himself comfortably on the piano stool, and with the ease of a born storyteller, he launched into the tale. “Robert Sinclair was one of the many bastard sons of Ferghal Macauley, got on Agnes Sinclair when Ferghal was visiting Orkney some twenty and five years previously.” Around them, the pub’s remaining customers grew quiet, obviously listening. “Now, it so happened that young Robert was staying a while with his uncle, James Macauley, and Robert liked nothing more than riding out and exploring his uncle’s lands. He was returning from one such adventure at dusk, when he heard a lassie singing down by the shore. Her voice was so sweet and pure it drew him down to the sea’s edge.
“There he saw a young woman sitting among the boulders, combing out her long, long black hair in the light of the setting sun, and her beauty nigh on stopped the breath in his lungs. He immediately fell in love with her and decided she would be his, no matter what may be. When he rode closer, he saw that not only was she naked under the cloak of her hair, but a rich fur mantle lay beside her on the rocks.
“She was a selkie.” He paused for dramatic effect and took a swig of beer.
“Then the young Sinclair did what any man would. He snatched up the sealskin in one arm, the lassie in the other, and carried her away to his uncle’s keep. James gave him land near the sea, and that’s where Robert raised Creagliath, so’s his bride would be close to the waters she loved so much.
“Now,” Fergus continued, “this is where the legend parts from the song. If you’re expecting this tale to end with her bearing his children until she finds where he has hid her sealskin, then takes it back and abandons him and her bairns for the sea, then you’ll be wrong. She never did find it, so she was bound to him until the end of his days. Even his passing did not free her, for though he was dead and buried, he’d told no one where he’d hidden that mantle, not even his eldest son nor his favorite daughter.
“In time, she grew old and faded from the living world, forever bereft of the sea and her selkie kindred, and her half-human sons and daughters could not console her. Where her body lies, no one knows, but it is said her spirit still weeps among the ruins of that once tall keep, as she searches endlessly for her lost sealskin.
“And that, my friends, is the legend of the Sinclair Selkie.” He flourished a bow to acknowledge the spontaneous applause from his audience. “Is that how your folks remember it, Donal?”
“Pretty much.” He smiled, and didn’t mention that his gran knew another ending.