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In Scotland there are many tales of selkies, seal folk who can shed their skins and take human form. Selkie stories flourish in communities close to the sea, particularly the Orkney and Shetland Islands and parts of Ireland. Selkie men are handsome with a penchant for loving and leaving human women. The selkie who loses his skin is condemned to life on earth not sea until he can find his skin again. Capturing a selkie woman has, according to legend , given many a man a good marriage, but he always runs the risk that should she find her skin he will lose her to the seas.
I came across my first selkie tale before I went to school; the story, and the book, have stayed with me over nearly 40 years. Rereading the story The Selkie Boy by Helen Clare for the article, I realised it holds many elements key to good selkie stories. It is the story of a young boy living in the Orkney Islands, one of seven children, who knows his parents are not his true parents and is seen as different “for he was a dreamy bairn, and happiest when he lay sleepy in the sun all by himself.” He swims well, loves the the sun and the sea and its creatures.
The boy learns from a girl whose father has a small selkie skin he found on a rock that to speak to a selkie you must shed seven tears in the water. He offers the girl’s mother an oatcake for the skin which she gives to him. The next morning, early, he swims for the rock he has seen selkies on, sheds his tears to the sea and thus speaks to his selkie parents. He fetches the skin he kept on land for safekeeping, putting it on as he enters the sea. He is never seen on land in human form again. Some believe he has drowned, “but the wisest said they always knew he was a selkie boy, who had lost his skin and was looking for it.”
Next time you are on a northern shore and notice seal heads bobbing in the water, or seals basking on rocks in the heat of the sun, ask yourself whether, actually, this creature with wise eyes and shining skin, could be one who has the power to take human form.
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