The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerrie

A poem by Frank Sidgwick

The Text was communicated to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland by Captain F. W. L. Thomas, who took it down from the dictation of an old woman of Shetland.

The Story is concerned with the Finn-myth. The Finns live in the depths of the sea. 'Their transfiguration into seals seems to be more a kind of deception they practise. For the males are described as most daring boatmen, with powerful sweep of the oar, who chase foreign vessels on the sea.... By means of a "skin" which they possess, the men and the women among them are able to change themselves into seals. But on shore, after having taken off the wrappage, they are, and behave like, real human beings.... Many a Finn woman has got into the power of a Shetlander, and borne children to him; but if the Finn woman succeeded in re-obtaining her sea-skin, or seal-skin, she escaped across the water' (Karl Blind in the Contemporary Review, September 1881, pp. 399-400). The same writer, in quoting a verse of this ballad, says, 'Shöol Skerry means Seal's Isle.' The whole article is of great interest.

'G. S. L.,' the author of Shetland Fireside Tales, or the Hermit of Trosswickness (1877), remarks: 'The belief that witches and wizards came from the coast of Norway disguised as seals was entertained by many of the Shetland peasantry even so late as the beginning of the present century.' He goes on to prove the supernatural character of seals by relating an exploit of his own, in which a gun pointed at a seal refused to go off.

Sule Skerrie is a lonely islet to the north-east of Cape Wrath, about as far therefrom as from the Shetland Isles.


An eartly nourris sits and sings,
And aye she sings, 'Ba, lily wean!
Little ken I my bairnis father,
Far less the land that he staps in.'

Then ane arose at her bed-fit.
An' a grumly guest I'm sure was he:
'Here am I, thy bairnis father,
Although that I be not comelie.

'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.'

'It was na weel,' quo' the maiden fair,
'It was na weel, indeed,' quo' she,
'That the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie
Suld hae come and aught a bairn to me.'

Now he has ta'en a purse of goud,
And he has pat it upo' her knee,
Sayin', 'Gie to me my little young son,
An' tak thee up thy nourris-fee.

'An' it sall come to pass on a simmer's day,
When the sin shines het on evera stane,
That I will tak my little young son,
An' teach him for to swim the faem.

'An' thu sall marry a proud gunner,
An' a proud gunner I'm sure he'll be,
An' the very first schot that ere he schoots,
He'll schoot baith my young son and me.'

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