It was 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
One of the reasons why there are so many selkie myths, is it brought the families of folk lost at sea comfort to think that their loved ones had joined the seal folk. That they might see them one day if they came ashore and took off their skins. There was also a strong belief that selkies were fallen angels and a curse would befall anyone who took their lives. The story below is my version of a traditional tale in that vein from Orkney.
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 want to sea on a Friday, for this was when the sea was at its cruellest and the gods least merciful. 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 when he was just a wee bairn. 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 surely 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.
“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 drunken 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 noticed she was a hideous blue colour and 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.
Later that day 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 until as an old man he could dance no more.
When James died, it was said that a thousand grey seals cried for his loss on the shore.
JOHNNY CROY AND HIS MERMAID WIFE
In the traditional tales from Orkney, these sea goddesses were said to be the daughters of the Fin Folk. A race of dark amphibious sorcerers who hungered for the love of mortal men, for it meant they could forever keep their beauty. If they were forced to marry one of their own kind, they would grow into an ugly old Fin-wife. The story below is my version of one of these traditional tales.
Long ago, Johnny Croy was the bravest, boldest, and bonniest man in all of Orkney. One day while he was out searching for driftwood on the shore of Sanday, he heard strange singing coming from the other side of a crag. His curiosity got the better of him, so he peeped around it and it was then that he saw a mermaid, combing her long golden hair, with a silvery petticoat hanging down from her waist that looked a bit like the tail of a fish.
While she combed and sang her bewitching song. Johnny became overcome with love for this beautiful creature. He quietly crept up behind her, threw his arms around her, and stole a kiss from her lips. The mermaid leaped to her feet and hit him so hard that he was thrown onto the rocks. She quickly gathered up her shimmering tail and ran into the sea. When she was safely out in the water, she stared back at him with angry eyes. It was then she noticed how handsome Johnny was and knew that if she took a mortal lover, she could keep her youth and beauty forever.
As he pulled himself to his feet, Johnny spied the silver comb on the sand. He picked it and upon seeing this the mermaid let out a bitter cry.
“My silver comb! Oh, give me back my precious comb!
He told her she could have it back but only if she agreed to live on the land with him, for he could never love another after seeing such beauty.
"I cannot live in your land” replied the mermaid. “I cannot abide your black rain, white snow or your yellow sun. Come with me and we can live under the sea where the winds do not blow, and the rains never fall”.
They both tried to tempt the other come with them, all the while falling more in love. This went on until the mermaid spotted some folk coming their way and swam out to sea, singing mournfully, about the loss of her treasured comb and handsome man.
Johnny went home with a sore heart and the treasured comb in his pocket. He told his mother the local Spey Wife, what had happened. She bitterly chastised him for falling in love with mermaid, saying such a union was against god and that he must cast the comb into the sea, and forget her. Warning him that if he kept the comb, the mermaid would come looking her greatest treasure and he would be forever under her spell. But Johnny had no intention of giving up the comb and his power over the maid from under the waves.
He thought about little else until one morning he awoke to find the sea siren standing at the foot of his bed. She was so beautiful that he wondered if he was dreaming.
"I’ve come for my golden comb and to see if you will come to live with me in my crystal palace under the waves."
Once more Johnny refused, adding that that if she did not agree to be his wife, his heart would surely break. So, the mermaid agreed that she would live with him on the land for seven years but on condition that at the end of that time he would come and live with her people under the sea. Johnny made this solemn promise, and they were married shortly after.
On her way to the church the unholy creature shook and shivered. During the ceremony she stuffed her hair in her ears while the priest spoke but folk soon forgive her as she was a loving wife to her husband and in the seven years, they had seven bonny bairns.
When the final year ended, they made ready for a long sea voyage. But Johnny’s mother who had never warmed to the mermaid was not happy that she was about to lose her only son, so he quickly said his goodbyes to his tearful mother and went to help pack the boat. It was then that the Spey Wife who was minding the youngest child, heated a cross of wire in the glowing embers of the fire. With a cold heart she burnt a cross into the baby’s back. The child screamed in agony, but the old woman did not care, only muttering a son for a son, a son for a son under her breath.
Before the boat was ready to sail, the mermaid came to fetch her baby. She tried to lift the cradle with the screaming bairn, but it would not budge. She flung back the blanket to lift the child out in her arms. But the moment she touched him, her skin burst into flames and she run down to the beach screeching in agony. With tears streaming from her deep blue eyes, she ordered her husband to push the boat out. The whole of Orkney could hear her lamenting the loss of her baby.
"Alas, alas, my bonnie boy, for I must leave him to live and die upon the land!"
A strange wind blew as if from nowhere, the boat disappeared, and Johnny Croy, his mermaid wife and their six bairns were never seen again. His mother brought up the baby and named him Corsa Croy, which means Croy of the Cross. Like his father he grew up the bravest, boldest and the bonniest man in the islands. In time, Corsa had many adventures of his own before he died at the age of two hundred, for it is said that the descendants of sea-folk are always blessed with long life.
Rowan engaged all my senses when she began to weave her captivating tale. I was swept away to a time and place where time stands till and delight filled my soul. Every gesture and inflection of her velvet voice thrilled my being. I did not wish the story to end and was spellbound, transported, and transformed by her mastery of the art of storytelling. (Jan Lucier)