Group: Celtic Nation
Well, barddas suggested me to post this tale in the Minstrels Gallery, so here it is.
It's a traditional one from the Orkneys (islands full of stories from the sea and the Norwegians that colonised them). The seal body of the selkie was thought to contain a human soul, usually of a drowned person.
This version comes from W. Traill Dennison's 'The Goodman of Wastness' and G. F. Black's 'The Goodwife of Wastness', both of them recorded from natives of the Orkneys in the 19th and early 20th C.
At the end of this tale a friend added a verse from Strathnaver (from Alan Temperley's 'Tales of the North Coast').
Just to help you, 'buddo' means something like 'my dear'.
I hope you enjoy it!
The Selkie Wife
Few know the goodman of Wastness who lived alone on a small farm that stood above the sea. He dug and he sowed and he laboured all the hours of daylight to make the two ends meet; yet he remained just as poor as a corrie crisosag?a dry old beetle. He never even had time to take a wife.
?Och, there?s nae enough food to bind a body to a soul,? he?d say. ?I canna manage twa o? them.?
Well, it happened one day that the goodman of Wastness was down on the ebb when he was surprised to hear snatches of song, girlish laughter and low cheery voices. The sounds seemed to be coming from the seaward side of some rocks at the far end of the shore.
The goodman crept forward and waded swiftly to the rock; the sight that met his gaze made him catch his breath in sheer astonishment. For there below him on a rocky shelf, just above the water?s edge, he saw a group of young men and maidens as naked as the sunsplashed rocks. Never in all his years had he cast eyes on such lovely faces, such smooth skins and such graceful limbs.
?Selkies! That?s what they are,? he murmured to himself.
He?d heard stories of the selkies or seal folk who sometimes come ahore, cast aside their seal skins and play their happy games.
?Aye, I ken who y?are,? he thought, seeing their skins upon a nearby rock. ?And what if I tak a skin for masel??? he thought. ?It?d kep ma bed warm or be a plaid for ma back.?
So the goodman of Wastness crept down sunseen, dashed across the sand and snatched up a silvery skin before any of the selkies could move.
What a to-do! Each lovely creature made a rush for the rock to seize a skin; then, diving into the sea, they swam away as fast as they were able, pulling on their seal skins as they went.
In the meantime, the goodman made good his escape with the selkie skin under one arm. Before he had left the ebb, however, he heard footsteps padding after him over the sand and the sound of a lassie softly weeping. As he turned he saw a lovely lassie holding out her hands towards him; and ever and anon she cried,
?O bonnie man, if there?s ony mercy i? thee human breast, gae back me skin! I canno?, canno?, canno? live i? the sea without it. I canno?, canno?, canno? bide among me ain folk without me ain seal skin.?
The goodman?s heart was moved by her sobbing pleas. Yet even more his heart was pierced by a strange sensation he had never felt before. His heart that had never loved a woman was now conquered by the beauty of the sea-lass, and he did not want to lose her.
?I dinna intend to return yon selkie skin,? he said. ?Y?ll nae be awa to sea again, ma bonnie lass. Y?ll stay wi? me and be ma goodwife.?
He put his plaid around the weeping sea-lass and took her by the hand, leading her to his farm. Once there he wrapped her in a blanket and gave her supper of bannock cakes and hot brose porridge. While she was eating he stole out to the barn, folded up the skin and hid it on a beam beneath the roof, where she would never find it.
Poor lassie. After her supper she lay down upon a bed and wept the whole night through. Likewise the next day too. And through the week.
But there came a time when her tears dried up and there was nothing for it but to make the best of her new mortal life. Her goodman was fairly kind to her, if a mite unpolished in his ways. And she became a thrifty, frugal, kindly goodwife. She bore her goodman seven children, four boys and three lasses, and there were not bonnier bairns in all the isle: with large gentle brown eyes and smooth white skin.
Although she appeared fair happy, there always seemed to be a weight upon her heart, and many a sad, yearning glance did she cast towards the sea. Of an evening, when the day?s work was done, she would sometimes sit upon the sandy ebb, gazing out to sea, as if searching for someone amid the waves. And she taught her bairns many a strange a doleful song that touched the heart of all who chanced to catch their music on the wind.
Now it chanced one time, when the goodman of Wastness had taken his sons fishing in his boat and the goodwife had sent two lassies to the ebb to gather limpets and wilks, that the selkie wife and the youngest lass were sitting alone at home. No sooner had her goodman and the children left the house than the selkie wife was in and out of the cupboards, feeling all along the shelves, peering under beds and tables, rummaging in all the chests and boxes, sighing all the while.
?Whist, Mam,? her little lassie said, ?what is it that ye?re seekin???
?Och, ma peerie bairn,? her mother said, ?I?m leukan for a bonnie selkie skin your father once brought hame.?
?Wad it be soft and silvery wi? bonnie bruin spots?? the lassie asked.
?Aye, ma bonnie bairn, that it wad! D?ye ken where t?is?? her mother cried excitedly.
Says the lass,
?Maybe I ken whar it is. Aen day whin ye were a? oot, an? Ded thought I was sleepan i? the bed, he took a bonnie skin doon; he glowred at it a peerie minute, then laid it upon the beam in our old stane barn.?
The lassie had hardly finished speaking when her mother rushed from the house towards the old stone barn. In an instant she was standing on a box, feeling with trembling hands along the beams. At last, as her dusty fingers edged along a beam they touched something soft?her selkie skin! Pulling it down, she clasped it lovingly to her breast and ran back with it to the house.
?Fare ye well, ma peerie buddo,? said she to the lass. ?I must awa to ma ain hame.?
She ran across the heather to the cliff, hurried down the cliff path to the sea, pulled on her long-lost skin and, with a last wave to her daughters on the ebb, she plunged into the sea.
When she was already far out to sea, she saw the fishing boat with her husband and her four sons. For several moments she swam alongside as if trying to tell them something. They were puzzled by the friendly seal that swam so close, its head lifted above the waves, looking at them with its lovely gentle eyes shining with a gleam that mingled joy with sadness.
All of a sudden, with a painful cry of recognition, the goodman of Wastness snatched up his net and went to cast it in the water.
But it was too late. The seal had dived under the waves and was soon far, far away, swimming out to sea. And beside her there swam a selkie man, crying with delight. As the goodman stared he heard a faint cry across the waves,
?Goodman of Wastness, farewell to ye.
I liked ye well, ye were good to me.
But I love better my man of the sea.?
And that was the last he ever saw of his selkie wife.
Yet every now and then, in the mouth of the night, he heard the faint sound of singing on the wind; and these were the words the voices sang,
Cha chum tigh fiodh fiodha sinn,
Cha chum tigh fiodh sinn,
Cha chum tigh bhan na slatan ruinn,
Cha chum tigh Bhreatunn ruinn.
The wood-wooden houses won?t keep us,
The houses of wood won?t keep us,
The white slatted houses won?t hold us,
The house of Britain won?t confine us.
'Godman of Wastness, farewell to ye.
I liked ye well, ye were good to me.
But I love better my man of the sea.'
The Selkie Wife