It is possible that these old folk beliefs are the remnants of our ancient racial memory, from a time when Mankind had much stronger empathy with animals. Perhaps we were able to communicate telepathically with them. As the sea is where all Life first began, we have a deep, primeval link with the realms of water and all who dwell in her domain.
The islands have numerous legends relating to the selkie-folk. Unlike the Finn-Folk, the selkie-folk are not malicious creatures but rather gentle shapeshifters with the ability to transform from seals into beautiful, lithe humans. There is no agreement as to how often the selkie's can perform this feat - in some tales it is once a year, usually on Midsummer's Eve (referred to as Johnsmas Eve), whereas in others it was "every ninth night" or "every seventh stream". However often they transformed, folklore tells us that once in human form the selkie-folk would often dance merrily on the moonlit seashore or bask on sun drenched rocks.
It was common belief that when the selkie-folk assumed human form, they shed their seal skins. If for any reason they lost their skins, they were unable to change back and were therefore trapped in human form. Needless to say, if the selkie-folk were disturbed during their midnight dances, they would quickly snatch up their skins and run back to the safety of the sea.The Selkies are also known as the Seal-Faeries, they inhabit the seas around Orkney and Shetland.
The male members among the selkie folk were thought to have had many trysts with human females, married and unmarried. A selkie man in human form was a handsome creature with almost magical seductive powers over mortal women. These selkie-men had no qualms in shedding their skins, hiding them carefully, and heading inland, seeking illicit intercourse with an "unsatisfied woman". Selkie men sometimes beget children on mortal women, as in the folk song 'The Selkie of Sule Skerry'. After a period of seven years, the selkie returned to the woman to claim his son, but with tragic consequences.
Should any mortal woman wish to make contact with a selkie-man, it was common belief that the woman need simply shed seven tears into the sea at high tide.
If the selkie-men were attractive in the eyes of earth-born women, the selkie females were no less alluring to the eyes of the island men. A female selkie can shed her seal skin and become a beautiful woman. They say around here that once a year, on Midsummer Night's Eve, selkies who are seals the rest of the time come up out of the water and take the form of women. And they sit on the rocks, combing their hair. A common theme in the selkie folklore are the tales of young Orcadian men who either trick or steal a selkie-girl's seal skin thereby preventing her from returning to the sea. These cunning individuals would then force the beautiful maiden to marry them, very often eventually siring children. And she may even love you a little, but she never stops looking for her skin. And she always finds it. It may take her a hundred years, but she finds it, and returns to the sea. Always. The tales usually end sadly, with the selkie woman's children returning her skin to her so that she may return to her home in the sea. Very often in these tales she would take her children with her.
Children said to the result of a union between mortal and selkie were relatively common and until fairly recently some Orcadian families still claimed descent from the Selkie Folk. One allegedly true story, documented by the Orcadian folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, tells how the children of a north isles family were all born with webbed feet and fingers. The mid-wife present at the birth clipped the webs with shears, "and many a clipping Ursilla clipped, to keep the fins from growing again; and the fins, not being able to grow in their natural way, grew into a horny crust on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And this horny substance can be seen in many of Ursilla's descendants to this day". Dennison finished by stating "whatever may be thought of this tale, its last sentence is quite true."
Often in the Hebrides local people have heard strange, sorrowful music out at sea that would move them deeply. This is the 'Dan nan Ron', the song of the seals, which was greatly feared. And then there is the One Eyed Watcher, who watches and waits for those who are close to Death...
In the Hebrides it was also believed that certain families were descended from seals. One such family are the MacCodrums of North Uist that Fiona MacLeod refers to in his story 'The Dan nan Ron'. These families were known as the 'sliocha nan ron'. They were believed to be under the enchantment of the seals and to carry the seal blood within. Once such a person had taken on the form of a seal, they could no longer return to live on the dry land. They would be 'dead' to those that knew them before.
The mythological origin of the selkie folk is not clear - some said that they were fallen angels who were condemned to become seals while others said that they were once human beings who, for some grave misdemeanour were doomed to assume the seal's form and live out the rest of their days in the sea.
"When angels fell, some fell on the land, some on the sea. The former are the faeries and the latter were often said to be the seals."
"An' wha kens," said one of Dennison's old gossips, "bit thulll mibbe git lave tae come back tae thur owld state."
Note: If you have an interest in the Selkie
Folk, the book "A Stranger Came Ashore" by Mollie Hunter