My retelling/review of this tale comes from my Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper. The tale is set in The Orkney Islands which lie to the north of the mainland of Scotland. Seals are referred to as selkies and can be seen swimming/basking on the rocks. This Scottish tale tells of the author’s interpretation of the folklore surrounding selkies. It was thought that they could take off their skin and become human!
The tale centres around Magnus, a fisherman who lived alone on the bay in Orkney Island of Sanday. He wished that he could spend his life with a lovely girl. He had so many plans of what they could do together, but he was crippled with shyness. He resigned himself to being alone.
One summer evening, Magnus had real issues with catching fish. He kept on seeing seals in the water. Magnus had heard that the seal people gathered together at Midsummer. The older people of Sanday had said that the selkies had swum onto the beach and slid their skins to take the form of humans. Then they would dance away through Midsummer’s Eve. Magnus assumed that this is why there wasn’t any fish for him- the selkies must have been eating all the fish.
The next day which was Midsummer’s Eve, Magnus took his boat out further. Later in the day, he saw the selkies in human form in the water. He was amazed at how beautiful and magical they were. A sudden storm came and most of the selkies managed to get their skins back on and get back into the water. Magnus thought he heard a cry and thought it must’ve been a seabird. Early the next morning, it was still going on. Eventually, he came across a young woman with long hair. She was shivering with the cold. Magnus gave her a blanket and pulled her into his boat. The woman was beautiful in a very unique way. He took her to his cottage where she lay down to rest.
Whilst she was resting, Magnus took the boat out again. He’d heard that selkies could sometimes lose their skin. He sailed in and out and eventually found a sealskin caught up on the rocks. When Magnus arrived home, he intended to give the young woman her skin so that she could return to her family in the sea. He soon realised that he had fallen in love with her. He hid the skin at the bottom of a chest. He locked it up.
Magnus tried to feed the young woman but she wasn’t interested. She was scared of him. Magnus recalled that selkies like music, so he took down his fiddle and eventually, the woman became more confident around him. She’d accept his food and drink. He explained about the storm and told the woman that she could stay there as long as she wanted.
The following day, Magnus was successful with the fish. The young woman ate hers raw. With the fish remaining, he sold it and with the money, bought the woman a dress. Eventually, Magnus gained her trust enough to propose to the selkie-woman. The next summer, a child was born. Both Magnus and the selkie-woman were very pleased with their son. On Midsummer’s Eve, they realised that there was a flap of skin between the baby’s big toe and second toe. The selkie-woman realised her feet were the same and that Magnus didn’t share that quality. The selkie-woman realised how deeply she missed her own people. At first, Magnus refused to let her go as he was scared that he would never see her again. However, he knew that her heart would break if she didn’t return to the sea. Magnus gave her back her selkie skin and told him to never forget him or their child.
The next night, she didn’t return. However, he found a seashell beside him and his son. This kept on happening. When their son wouldn’t settle, taking him to the sea always helped. When Midsummer arrived once more, Magnus forced himself to stay awake through the night. No seal or selkie came to the beach. Out on his boat, Magnus and his son searched for his selkie-wife. Eventually the head of a seal poked up, he thought it was just another seal, but the eyes altered and he realised it was the eyes of his wife. 🙂 ❤