Selkie Secrets

Aug 26, 2020

Returning to ideas raised by the hares post, this entry looks to another mythical creature, the selkie. A mystical blend of seal and human, the transition from one world to another is stark here, and gives rise to the title of the album. The wrackline marks a rift between two worlds, two selves, two ways of life. Between the wrackline and the water edge is a liminal space, a pause between this choice, or that. There are so many 'wrackline moments' in our lives, where the ending of one phase shades into the beginning of another.


Painting by Jackie Morris


The word Selkie is derived from the Scots ‘Selch’ meaning grey seal. It is a widely used synonym for seal in northern quarters, but is also applied to a special kind of shapeshifting seal, appearing in Scots; Icelandic and Faroe Islands folklore. These selkies are said to house the souls of dead sailors, wrongdoers or fallen angels and perhaps unsurprisingly, killing seals is said to bring misfortune to the killer. Selkies might exhibit “Siren-like” behaviour – luring humans into the sea - but more often they peaceably live amongst us, occasionally shedding their skin to assume human form. On occasion this results in relationships with humans. Selkies can be male or female. Generally, males visit land at pre-determined intervals, whilst females are victim to their skin theft, unable to return to seal form, they are trapped on land until they can reclaim their skin and escape back to the sea.

‘The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry’ is perhaps the classic selkie song. An original tune was notated by the Finnish Musicologist Otto Andersson, from John Sinclair on the island of Flotta, Orkney 1938. Andersson said, “I had no idea at the time that I was the first person to write down the tune. The pure pentatonic form of it and the beautiful melodic line showed me that it was a very ancient melody that I had set on paper.” Here is June Tabor singing that melody. The tune most commonly sung today was written by Jim Waters in 1954, here is 'Silkie', using a version of this tune, by Joan Baez.

Another archival finding comes in the form of Number 46 in Patrick MacDonald's 'Collection of Highland Vocal Airs hitherto unpublished' (Edinburgh 1784). This short melody is entitled ‘The Fisherman’s Song for Attracting the Seals’. Here is a version played by Kate Fletcher & Corwen Broch.aeHmuYrNxd8PyGb1819rcCp5O0A2OHlthTWZSA9OhpYdYHOCl-zdDcjtz1syfLdTAwEOFUfx6OZ06Usg6HCHzi3ZSklONHaR3Ar2iPFIEyxBVkDbGAG2ggLfP9pT3MZAX-eeyNct

The theme has hit a creative spot with many contemporary songs appearing around the subject including Julie Fowlis’ ‘Selkie Boy’ for the Lost Words project, and the less overt ‘Come All You Sailors’ from The Wailin’ Jennys. Here is a new twist from poet Rachel Plummer, using the shedding to explore issues around LGBTQ identities 'the secret me is a boy...'.


We explored the story through the Modern Fairies project. It began with Lucy Farrell and Terri Windling talking about The Otter Bride. They became engrossed in the parallels of those stories to contemporary women’s experience and the discussion became contagious. Inge Thomson, Natalie Rae Reid and I joined in and we all discussed our thoughts. Terri sums up our discussion:

There are so many ways to look at symbolism of the selkies' transformation: As a metaphor for human connection to our wild selves, our animal selves, and the world of nature. As an expression of our simultaneous longing for and fear of Wonder and Mystery. As a reflection of the ways we all shape-shift throughout the course of our lives -- and of the choices we make that lead us to take up one shape and discard another. As a reminder that our most elemental self pulses deep within us, no matter how many outer changes we make, or how deft at shape-shifting we become.
While working with the Selkie Bride tale during the Modern Fairies project, I recall many conversation about how it captures the essence of the transformations that we human women, too, make in our lives: from child to adult, from independence to partnership or marriage, and then, for some, into motherhood -- and how each transformation involves the loss of the "self" that we were before. The selkie woman who marries a mortal man is giving up her life in the sea -- that wild, glorious, magical state -- for a life that has its pleasures and its rewards, but is much more circumscribed. Whether she loves her human husband or not (depending on the version of the story), she continues to long for the open sea... but her return to the waves isn't just a liberation, it is also another form of loss. She's leaving her human self, her marriage, and (in some versions) her children behind. All of us who have made the decision to walk away from a relationship -- or, conversely, to stay in a relationship despite longing for a different kind of life -- can relate to the difficulties of the selkie woman's choice.

It was quickly apparent that it wouldn’t be fruitful to decide on one narrative and work towards a single point of focus - there were so many different ways to pull, between the various versions, the people in the group, and even within ourselves. A multi-stranded set of perspectives that a listener could navigate and create their own interpretation emerged. We all created different materials along the different points of the story, including rounds for choirs, anecdotal stories from childhoods in Scotland as well as songs, short stories and illustrations. Many of these were drawn together for a radio ballad style piece Lucy created for the Modern fairies Gathering in April 2019. Terri, Lucy and I pulled several of the strands together along with Barney Morse Brown for the ‘Being Human’ festival in September 2019 in a wonderful experience called ‘The Secrets of the Selkies’, an edited film made by Tim James can be seen here. It would be wonderful to think we might pull the strands together again in a format we are able to share.


Silverware (I can't remember the name of the artist who showed these to me at Soundpost - if it was you, please let me know so I can credit you properly).


After a break of over a decade following ‘Wing Flash’ (see blog #2), my next foray into song writing came on the motorway travelling up to The Sage, Gateshead for one of the workshops with the Modern Fairies. I imagined what it would be like to fall in love with the world above water. How it would feel to leave your selkie family, traditions and life in the sea, to be lured onto land. What would it take to make that irresistible leap, to turn your back and step into a new adventure? In a lot of the stories a human steals their skin so they are forced into marriage. In this instance, I wanted to selkie to be intrigued by the human world, to want to come and enter into this new way of being. Exploring the seduction and lure of the ‘other’. This includes the male suitor, but places him to one side, focusing more on the world that opens up. The words and tune for ‘Swirling Eddies’ came together on that drive through singing over and over, round and round, like the waves going in and out. I wanted the tune to seem dizzying, as she would be in the dancing, and light-headedness of moving into a new environment, feeling airless, or rather, I suppose, waterless.

‘Call the Storm’ looks to the opposite end of this relationship. After building a family, the selkie feels the draw back to her old self and the sea. She feels out of her skin, trapped. Yet she has borne children on land, she is no longer so free to follow her heart. Her desires are more complex than they might first appear. Although she harbours a longing to return to the sea, she does not want the repercussions it would bring - to achieve her desire brings the undesired. As in ‘Swirling Eddies’, I didn’t want this to be at the power of the husband figure returning her skin, or her discovering it and running away with no regret - life is more complicated. This song took a lot of writing as the empathetic emotions were really powerful and there was so much flux in how I imagined she felt. I brainstormed, wrote poems, short stories and worked and reworked several verses to arrive at this rather short song. I moved through several sets of emotions, and different outcomes for the selkie and her family. One storyline emerges and was captured for this song at least. ‘Call the Storm’ is the second single released from Wrackline. Here is a beautiful animation repurposed from the work Natalie Rae Reid created for Modern Fairies.

You can preorder Wrackline here.

With thanks to John Nicholson for helping to piece together this research.
Header image by Natalie Rae Reid.