Selchies – shape-shifting seals


The Selchie (or Selkie) is a seal that can shed its skin and take the form of a human on land.  These legendary creatures belong to the Hebrides and Shetland and Orkney isles, where seals have been hunted for their pelt, meat and oil.  The large soulful eyes of seals must have disturbed even hardened folk subsisting in these remote Scottish islands, and the tales of the selchies capture this ambivalence.  Feelings of loss and longing are all pervasive.

A  particularly tragic story is recounted in the Orkney ballad The Great Grey Selchie of Sule Skerrie, number 113 of the 19th century Child collection.  A selchie man seduces a woman, who bears his son, but the day inevitably comes when he resumes his seal shape and leaves her, taking their son with him back to the sea. In time the woman marries, and one day her husband brings her a present – a gold chain he found wrapped around one of two seals he’d killed that day.  The woman immediately recognises it as the chain worn by her son, and knows that her child and lover are both dead.

In many of the stories, a man traps a selchie woman on land by hiding her seal skin.  She bears the man children, and apparently puts down roots, but secretly yearns to return to the sea.

The legend of the MacCodrum clan tells they are descendants of a selchie.  One of their forefathers stole a seal skin momentarily left on the shore.  He hid it above the lintel of his cottage door, and offered shelter to the selchie woman unable to return to the sea.  They raised a family together, but one stormy day, a gust of wind dislodged the skin from its hiding place.  She didn’t think twice, bade the children goodbye and disappeared back to the sea.

The image above is a Faroese stamp depicting the capture of a selchie woman

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