Mythology: The Selkies


Throughout the centuries, grey and harbour seals have returned year after year to breeding grounds on the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys, and the Faeroe Islands of western Scotland. It is not unusual to encounter them in the surrounding waters, or to see their sleek heads bobbing just above the surface of the chill sea.

It seems natural that stories and legends would arise from the seals’ presence on and near the islands, and for those stories to pass to us through the many generations who loved to hear and tell the tale of these graceful creatures with their wise and wistful eyes. The legend of the Selkies is an ancient one, and among the better-known of the Scottish sea legends.

Though there are as many stories as there are tellers of stories, our version of the Selkies’ legend centers on those starry Midsummer nights when the souls of drowned humans, heretofore captive in the bodies of seals, are given the chance to walk and dance again.

On that night, under a bright moon, the seals come ashore together. They begin to stretch and twist, roll and lengthen their bodies, until their temporary transformation is complete. They stand awkwardly at first on naked human legs, but are soon clambering among the rocks to find safe hiding places for their most prized possessions – the recently-shed seal skins – for without their skins, they can never return to the water.

The Selkies dance to the music of the sea, to the tempo of water lapping against the shore, to the crashing of waves. They may venture away from the shore in search of companionship, captivating lonely men and women of nearby villages, for the Selkies become beautiful and graceful humans. A lonely woman may even call her Selkie lover ashore by shedding seven tears into the sea. Many Highland clans claim kinship with the seals as a result of just such encounters between humans and wandering Selkies.

Villagers know they can hold a Selkie captive by discovering and hiding its skin. Although the Selkie has no choice but to stay ashore with its captor, it will never overcome its longing for the sea, and will search high and low until it discovers the hiding place of its skin. Once the skin is in the Selkie’s hands again, nothing can keep it from returning to the sea – neither husband or wife, nor children or home.