TRADITIONAL SCOTTISH TALES

It w​as believed by some storytellers, especially in the highlands and islands, that if someone recorded a story while a ‘teller was telling it’ that part of both the story and the teller died with it. This led to many stories being passed on without any names connected to them. Sadly, all these old tellers are long since dead but I like to think they would be happy that these traditional tales are kept alive. It is common to find many versions of the same stories, as they travelled with tellers and each storyteller tells them in their own way. I have rewritten all the stories below and ask that you do not take my versions without asking first please. 

THE SEAL KILLER

It was only during hard times that the people of the Scottish Isles would kill seals to make use of their skin and blubber. For it was thought that the killing of a seal would result in grave misfortune for the fisherman who took their life, but there is always one who thinks they know better. He was a fisherman from Orkney called James and he paid no mind to this or any other old superstition. He made no secret of the fact that he hated seals, because according to him they stole his catch and ripped his nets. 


He mostly lived his life, as he pleased. Not caring for the company or opinions of others. The only thing he respected, was that he only fished for six days a week. He never killed on the lord’s day. Like his father and grandfather before him, he would row out to the skerries, sing and just wait for the seals to come to him. Now not many people know this but seals love music, especially the fiddle. They will come if you call to them, sometimes they will even sing back. James had been taught the seal song before he could walk upon the land and the seals would gather around his boat to listen to the ancient tune. Perhaps this is one of the reasons people believed they were fallen angels, or lost fishermen, for they were more than just animals. 


One day, the seal killer was out by the rocks, singing and waiting for a catch, when a huge seal broke the surface of the sea. James wasted no time and plunged his knife deep into the seals chest, but before he could catch it, the seal dived beneath the waves with his knife still in its body. He cursed out loud, more annoyed at losing the knife, than losing the seal. There was plenty more of them, but the knife meant something to him. Not because it was sharp and good for skinning but because it belonged to this father. By all accounts, a harsh man but a good father non the less.


Dismayed, he rowed back to the shore and climbed the steep hill back to his cottage. Still full of anger, he poured himself a large dram to drown his sorrows. The he poured another and another. That evening the weather mirrored his black mood, bringing a wild storm to the waters close by the shore. Full of whiskey, the seal killer had fallen asleep in the chair beside the fire and was awoken by a loud knocking at his door. When he opened it, a tall stranger with a black cloak asked him.


“Are you the seal killer?”

“Aye, I am. Whit de ye want?”

“I’ve a job for you but you must come with me now.”

“Can it nae wait till mornin’ said James?”

“No, said the tall stranger, I will make it worth your while, but you must come with me now.”


Still half drunk, the greedy seal killer grabbed his oilskin and before he knew it, the tall stranger pulled him onto the back of a large black stallion. They rode off into the dark night, lashed by the storm that lay siege to the land all around them. Finally, they stopped at the top of a high cliff and dismounted. Then the stranger suddenly wrapped his arms tightly around James and threw them both off the cliff. Before they hit the surface of the water, the stranger placed his mouth over the seal killer’s lips and blew into his lungs. 


James struggled to break free, but the stranger was too strong, so he gave up fighting, fearing that he was probably already dead. Then they sunk slowly to the bottom of the sea but to his surprise, he wasn’t dead. Perhaps this is all just a nightmare. Whatever it was, he was there on the seabed and he was breathing underwater. 


Then the stranger took the seal killer into a magnificent underwater chamber. Where the most beautiful woman he had ever seen lay very still on an ornate silver bed. It was then James saw the handle of his father’s knife was sticking out of her chest. His heart was so full of dread, that it nearly stopped beating. The stranger spoke.


‘‘This is the queen o’ the Selkie people. You stabbed her in the chest and the wound is slowly killing her. According to our laws, she can only be saved if you show deep remorse for what you have done and pull out your knife.’’


Well, for the first time in his life the seal killer was truly sorry. He fell to his knees and begged the queen’s forgiveness before carefully pulling out the blade. Almost as soon as he had, as if by magic the wound began to close. The selkie queen opened her eyes. James gasped, it felt like she had looked right into his soul and an unfamiliar feeling of awe washed over his being. 


The stranger took his arm and said, “it is time to go but before I set you free, you must make a solemn promise to never kill another seal.”

“I promise I will never kill another seal said James.”


Then he gave James a box and told him not to open it until he got home. Before he knew what had happened, the seal killer found himself lying on the shore beside his boat. Wet and weary from all that had happened, he climbed up the cliff path to his stone cottage. Relieved to have made it home safely, he opened the box and was so overwhelmed by the kindness of the selkies he cried. For it was filled with white money. He had killed so many of these creatures, but still they gave him their treasure.


True to his word, James never killed another seal. He buried the knife beside his father’s grave and bought himself a fine fiddle with the silver coins. Six days out of seven, he would take out his boat and play it to an audience of grey seals out by the skerries. He never married or had children and lived the remainder of his days quietly in the wee cottage by the sea. Except for every full moon, when a beautiful selkie with a scar on her breast would come ashore, take off her seal skin and dance with James upon the wet sands.


STORYTELLING FEEDBACK

"Rowan Morrison doesn't just tell a story. She becomes the story and she weaves her listeners into the magic of that." (Ursula Aerts)