It’s been a while since I posted on a folksong but I’ve had one going around in my mind for a fair time. It’s Child Ballad no. 113, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie. The version in my music collection is by Fine Friday with Kris Drever. Alas, I can’t find a rendering to link to. There are selkies in the world of After the Ruin: you’ll meet one in Tales from the Later Lands and there are others in the story I’m revising now.
Selkies are found often enough in tales and stories. It’s easy to see why. Their ability to slip easily between two worlds exerts a powerful grip on the imagination of those of us who can only stand on the shore, gazing out into the sea:
I am a man, upo the lan,
An I am a silkie in the sea;
And when I’m far and far frae lan,
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.
I’ve read a couple of recent, very good selkie novels, Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Simon Sylvestor’s The Visitors (winner of the 2014 Not the Booker Prize). Orkney is a haunting, lovely book with the truth never made plain, only ever glimpsed sidelong. If you’ve not come across it, I highly recommend a read. Neither book, however, makes big play with the central element of the old folk tales: the stealing of a selkie’s skin to bind it to the land, and usually to the man who stole it. Often, in such tales, the first her human children know of their mother’s past is when one of them stumbles across the skin and she cries out in joy and rushes off, nevermore to be seen upon the land.
Nor does the ballad. The great silkie himself is another of those unreliable lover types, who has loved a lass and skedaddled away to Sule Skerry leaving her holding the baby. Unlike most folksong fathers he comes back for the child. The twist in the tale (tail?) is that he’s also got secondsight, and so knows when and how his comeuppance will come. You didn’t think there’d be a happy ending, did you?
Sule Skerry itself is 40 miles west of Orkney in the Pentland Firth. There’s a lighthouse there built by the Stevensons (that great family of lighthouse builders and novelists). Since 1982 it’s been fully automated but until then the seals and selkies shared the skerry with the lighthouse keepers. They’ve got it to themselves again now.