The Selchie (Seal-Woman)

Image from Anne E. G. Nydam

Intro: I told this story at the Riverway Storytelling Festival this past weekend.  I’d first written it a couple of years ago.  Amazing how much it has changed as I tell it. Enjoy.

If you’d like to watch the YouTube video, click here.

I was born on the east coast of Canada. My father had joined the Canadian army shortly before I was born, so we moved often in my growing-up years, to the far north and out west.

Sometimes other kids would ask, “So, where is home?” I didn’t know which town I should call home. But I did know my home was Canada.

When I was a young woman I moved to the United States with my former husband. I am happy here. Upstate New York is beautiful. My husband, my children, my grandchildren, and most of my friends are here, so I don’t expect to live again in Canada.  Still, if you ask me  “Where is home?” I will still say, “Canada.”

Because I have always felt the pull of a lost home, the legends of the selchies, the seal-people, resonate with me.  Here is my version.

On an island off the north coast of Scotland lived a fisherman named Angus. He was a good man, a decent man, a kind man, but he was also a very lonely man.

One day he came home late from fishing. He was tired and decided to rest a bit on the grass near the shore before walking up to his cottage. (Surely not something for a grown man to do, he might have told you.) He fell asleep, and when he woke up, it was already night. In the moonlight he saw women dancing on the flat rocks near the shore. They were beautiful. And they were stark naked.

He knew who they were, even though he had never seen them before. He’d heard about the selchie, the seal-people, but he’d never believed in the legends. He’d heard that sometimes the great gray seals come ashore, take off their skins, and change into human beings. After awhile, they put their seal skins back on and return to the sea.  But if they can’t find their skins, they must stay on shore and live as human beings.

Now I told you that Angus was a good man, a decent man–but such a lonely man. And so he did what he should not have done. Quietly, he took one of the furry pelts and hid it in the rocks.

After awhile, one by one, each woman retuned to her fur skin.  Each put in one leg and then another, and her lower body changed into that of a seal. Each put in one arm and then another, tucked in her head and became a seal again. And one by one they slipped back into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

Finally only one woman was left. She came to face Angus and pleaded with him,

“Please…give me back my skin so I can go home.”

He hesitated a second, “No.” And again, “No…Stay with me. Marry me. I will be a good husband to you.”

And though she cried and begged, he would not give her back her skin. Finally she did marry him, for what else could she do?

And he tried hard to be a good husband to her. He loved her with all his heart and would have given her anything in his power to give–except the one thing she longed for most. The one thing that he wrapped in burlap and tied with twine. And often he changed the hiding places, hoping that she would never find it.

Years went by. They had three children, two boys and a little girl. While he was fishing, she would often take them to swim in the sea.  Never have children loved the water as much as they. The only person who loved diving and swimming more was their mother.

One day, the younger boy went up to the cottage to get a drink of fresh water. He came back to the shore and said to his mother,

“Mother, I have seen the most peculiar thing. Father was in the cottage, standing on the kitchen table. He had a package this big,” and he showed her the size with his hands, “wrapped in burlap, tied with twine. And he was pushing it into a space in the rafters.”

The moment the boy’s mother heard those words, she began running back to the cottage. She pushed the table against the wall, climbed on it, began looking for the package, pulled it down.

She ran back to the shore and all the while, she was untying the knots on the twine, peeling back the burlap. By the time she reached the shore, she held her own seal skin in her two hands.

“Children,” she said. “I must go back to the sea. It is my home. There I have another husband and children too.”

She looked earnestly at each of them. “I love you. Come with me.”

The older boy, in anguish, said, “No. This is our home. And Father needs us. No.”

And even while she was talking, she was putting one leg into the skin and then another, and her two legs changed into the lower body of a seal.

She said again to her little girl, “Come with me.”

And she was putting one arm into the skin and then the other and tucking in her head.

The little girl said nothing, but put her small hand into what was now the flipper of her mother. In the space of a heartbeat, she was transformed into a small gray seal. And mother and daughter dove into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

For a long. long time the boys and their father were mournfully sad. Still, ever after, whenever the three of them went fishing, two gray seals, one larger and one smaller, swam near their boat and led them to the place where the fish were plentiful.

Then mother and daughter dove deep again to their home in the cold sea.


Copyright by Margaret French

6 thoughts on “The Selchie (Seal-Woman)

  1. Margaret,
    I love your version of the Selkie story! It is a subject that intrigues me, too. One of my favorite stories to tell is “The Seal Killer’s Adventure” wherein sea dwellers are called the Ronin. I pieced mine together from 3 versions. It’s quite a popular traditional tale. One was in an old book called “The Talking Tree”, another was from a book Andy Davis had about sea people (sorry I can’t remember the exact title) and the third was online.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dear Margaret,
    I really enjoyed your Selkie story on Saturday. I loved the way you put on the seal skin. I also am very fond of and drawn to Selkie stories, songs and music. I grew up on the Pacific Coast and often would watch the seals. Jean Redpath, a singer from Scotland, has a song about the Selkies. It is on her CD “Song of the Seals.” I sing part of the song in one of the stories I tell by Jane Yolen, “The White Seal Maid.” Another version of the song is on Solas’ “The Words That Remain.”

  3. Janet, thanks for the compliment. How interesting to hear about other versions of Selkie stories. I’ll be looking them up. Here’s an observation that you may find interesting. Several people express anger at the fisherman for stealing the skin. As for me, I tend to feel sorry for him & the loneliness that leads to such a tragic consequences.

  4. Never get tired of Selchie Tales. I heard an AFRICAN tale from a high school boy last week – a hunter finds a bushcow and takes her skin and she must come and live with him. The other women grow jealous, sensing her specialness. …

    We decided it wasn’t right for the story-for-first-graders assignment he’d been given for his senior seminar. But he played with it and made it a tale that works. I’ll get to hear it tomorrow I hope.

    Such tales of having your identity STOLEN are very important. I think many of us feel a deep reverberation from them, whether our identity is our country, our inner essence (which someone disapproves of), or a disability or difference the world tries to “fix.” Too bad they almost always end sad. Still, I loved it.

  5. As someone, like you Margaret, who is not from this land originally, I think Marni brings up a very real point about identity. I too love Silkie tales and tell a version of the one you have shared with us. There is something about the sea that draws us, and maybe there is a primordial wish in most of us that we too could swim and breathe under the seas and oceans and dance as the sea folk do.

    I wonder if the reason dragons sometimes pull us in, is that dream we all had (some still have) from our childhood where we could fly and sore above the clouds. That and the power dragons have over everything of course.

    There are some amazingly powerful Silkie stories. One of the other ones I tell is about the couple who live near the seals and name them all and visit them all the time. One day they find one with a bad cut, so they bring this injured bull back to their home to treat – otherwise it would die. It is healed and they return it to the sea. Then one winter the wife gets sick and no one can cure her. A stranger arrives and helps cure her and help with the farm/free holding. When the husband and wife, now healed herself, ask what the stranger would like for payment not only for helping cure the woman, but also for helping the husband look after their land, the stranger says the debt is paid in full and lifts his sleeve to show a scar on his arm. It was the seal, in human form, they had saved before. And so this tale has a happy ending! It is from Duncan Williamson’s book Tales of the Seal People, Scottish Folk Tales. A must for any book shelf.

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