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The Great Silkie of Sules Skerry

[ Roud 197 ; Child 113 ; Ballad Index C113 ; trad.]

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry is a shape-shifting song from Orkney. A silkie is a seal. Sule Skerry (Sula Sgeir) is a rocky islet 25 miles west of Hoy Head in Orkney.

Most modern recordings use the tune set by Dr. James Waters of Columbia University in the 1950s. The original tune for this song was nearly lost, but was noted down in 1938 by Dr. Otto Andersson, who heard it sung by John Sinclair on the island of Flotta, Orkney. He 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.”

John Sinclair of Flotta, Orkney Islands, sang The Grey Silkie in a BBC recording made by Sean Davies on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). The album's booklet lists the date of recording erroneously as June 1964, three years after the album was released. The booklet also commented:

In the west of Scotland, where seals abound, there are many tales of their response to human contact. I've been told again and again of seals that raised their heads out of grey, curling waves, to listen as long as anyone would sing to them. That this is not superstition is confirmed by a contemporary account of an American woman, who made a pet of a seal and swam with it all one summer. The seal would wait in the surf for her every day and call out to her as she came down the cliff to the beach.

In Scotland, they speak of “seal-people” who are said to belong to a clan whose forbears were seals. In the Shetlands, the folk believed in magical beings who lived in land beneath the deeps of the ocean and put on seal-skin for their ascent through the water. Once on shore, they put off their disguise and appeared as human-beings. Such a one was the Grey Silkie of Suleskerry who wooed and won a Shetland woman.

Here our ballad begins. A brief version of it appears as no. 113 in Child without a tune, but this is no match for the variant which old John Sinclair of Flotta in the Orkney Isles turned up with in January 1934. He has since been visited by Swedish folklorists [i.e. Otto Andersson] and recorded for the BBC. Bronson remarks that his tune is a variant of the air often associated with Hind Horn, another ballad of traffic between spirits and mortals. Sinclair (who learned the song from his mother), worked all his life as a seaman, and a farmer-fisherman until his retirement. He now lives in a cottage by the sea where Silkies perhaps may still appear.

Trees sang The Great Silkie in 1970 on their CBS album The Garden of Jane Delawney.

Ray Fisher sang The Silkie of Sul Skerry in 1972 on her album The Bonny Birdy.

Dave Burland sang The Great Silkie on his 1975 album Songs and Buttered Haycocks.

Alison McMorland sang Great Selkie of Sule Skerry on her 1977 Tangent album Belt wi' Colours Three. She also sang The Silkie of Sule Skerry in 2001 on her and Geordie McIntyre's Tradition Bearers CD Rowan in the Rock. They commented in their liner notes:

We owe this version to the Finnish scholar Otto Andersson who collected the tune from John Sinclair of Flotta, Orkney in 1938 and the text from Annie G. Gilchrist.

Hamish Henderson observes, “… the legend of the seal folk who inhabit a kind of half world between their native element and the littoral inhabited by their human kind is a powerful obsessive folklore motif in all areas where the Norsemen held sway…” For valuable insights into the enduring fascination with the stories and the lore of the ‘silkie’ (Atlantic grey seal) we commend People of the Sea by David Thomson, recently reprinted by Canongate, Edinburgh.

Sheena Wellington sang The Great Silkie o' Sule Skerrie in a concert at Nitten (Newtongrange) Folk Club, Scotland, that was published in 1995 on her Greentrax CD Strong Women. She commented in her liner notes:

Stories and sangs of the silkies or seal-people and their dealings with humankind are found widely in both Norse and Celtic tradition but Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads has only one short version of this ballad and, of course, no melody. This stark tune and the fuller story were recorded in the thirties from John Sinclair of Flotta in the Orkney Islands. In some versions it is the Silkie who offers marriage the second time but while collating my text from various sources I decided that it was likely that the woman would see marriage as the only way to keep her child.

The Clutha sang The Silkie o' Sule Skerry in 1996 on their CD On the Braes.

Nancy Kerr sang The Great Silkie to John Sinclair's tune in 1996 on her and her mother Sandra Kerr's Fellside CD Neat and Complete. Sandra Kerr commented in the liner notes:

As a small child Nancy was sung this at night in the hope that its undulating melody and imagery of mothers singing lullabies to seal babies might send her to sleep. Recently she confessed that the ballad terrified her and that for years she was puzzled as to why the visiting seal/man should have been “grumbly”.

Maddy Prior sang Great Silkie of Sules Skerry in 1999 on her album Ravenchild; this track was later included on the Park Records anthology Women in Folk and on the Maddy Prior anthology Collections: A Very Best of 1995 to 2005. Maddy Prior commented in the original album's notes:

This eerie ballad from the Shetland isles harks back to the land's Scandinavian roots. It is a shape-shifting story of a seal / man whose fate is told with great simplicity and grace.

Elspeth Cowie sang The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry on her 2000 CD Naked Voice.

Barbara Dickson sang Sule Skerry in 2001 on her anthology For the Record.

Hector Gilchrist and Liz Thompson sang The Selkie as the title track of their 2003 WildGoose album Selkie. This track was also included in 2007 on the WildGoose anthology Songs of Witchcraft and Magic.

Hannah James learned The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry from Mary Macmaster at the Folkworks Summer School 1999 and recorded it with Kerfuffle in 2004 for their second album, K2. She returned to it with Lady Maisery when they recorded The Grey Selkie for their 2013 album Mayday. They commented:

Many of the songs on this album deal with issues of gender and power. The Grey Selkie is an example of how folklore might have been used to justify situations which were perceived as socially unacceptable. Selkies are creatures that only make contact with one human for a brief period before they must return to the sea for seven years, which may have provided an explanation for an absent father or a child born out of wedlock. In this tragic song, the woman is largely at the mercy of others throughout, whether it is society, the selkie, the gunner or ultimately, fate. Hazel [Askew] wrote the new Lydian tune and collated the text from various versions of the ballad.

This video shows Lady Maisery at Folk East 2012:

June Tabor sang The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry in 2011 on her Topic album Ashore. She commented

Seals were once far more common in the seas around these islands than they are today. There was a strong belief in the Northern Isles in the existence of a third race, the Selkies, who lived in a realm below the waves, passing through the ocean as seals but assuming human shape on land. Like the Swan Children of Lir with their cloaks of feathers, for Selkies the sealskin was essential to the act of transformation; its loss or withholding imprisoned them in human form. That fine storyteller the late Duncan Williamson had many tales of the frequently uneasy relationship between Selkies and the men (and women) of the Highlands and Islands. The theme continues to fascinate modern film-makers, artists and writers; for me, of particular relevance are the work of Maria Hayes, and Robin Robertson's poem At Roane Head.
This version of The Great Selkie was first collected in 1938 from John Sinclair of Flotta in the Orkneys.

Marc Block sang Sule Skerry in 2014 on his CD The Hawthorn Spring. He commented in his liner notes:

My parents used to sing a French version of this song, which is in fact from Orkney, and as a child I was fascinated by the notion of the man diving into the sea and turning into a seal. It seems most versions of The Great Silkie are merely a fragment of a much longer ballad. I found the 93 verses of Lady Odivere on Mudcat, and condensed it down to this version.

Maz O'Connor sang The Grey Selkie on her 2014 CD This Willowed Light. She performed it at Cecil Sharp House in this 2014 video:

Lyrics

Alison McMorland sings The Silkie of Sule Skerry

In Norway land there lived a maid,
“Hush, baloo lilllie,” this maid began,
“I know not whaur ma bairn's faither is
By land or sea does he travel in.”

It happened on a certain day
When this fair maid lay fast asleep
That in cam a grey silkie
And sat him doon at her bed feet.

Saying, “Awak' awak' ma fair pretty maid
For oh how sound as thou dost sleep,
I'll tell thee whaur yer bain's faither is
He's lyin' close at your bed feet.”

“I pray come tell tae me yer name
And tell me whaur yer dwelling is?”
“My name it is guid Hein Mailer
I earn ma livin' oot o the sea.

“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea.
An when I'm far fae every strand
Ma dwelling t'is in Sule Skerry.”

“Alas, alas this woeful fate
This weary fate that's been laid on me,
That a man should come frae the West o' Hoy
Tae the Noraway lands tae hae a bairn by me.”

He said, “Ye'll nurse ma little wee son
For seiven lang years upon yer knee,
An at the end o' seiven lang years
I'll come back again an pay the nouris fee.”

And she has nursed her little wee son
For seiven lang years upon her knee,
An at the end of seiven lang years
He's cam back again wi' white monie.

He said, “I'll pit a chain roon his neck
An a gey gowd chain o it will be,
An if ever he comes tae the Noraway lands
Ye'll hae a guid guess on who is he.”

And he said, “Ye'll wed a gunner guid,
And a gay guid gunner it will be,
And he'll gae oot on a May mornin
He'll shoot your son and the grey silkie.”

Oh she has wed a gunner guid
And a gay guid gunner it was he,
And he gaed oot on a May mornin
He shot the son and the grey silkie.

“Alas, alas this woeful fate
This weary fate that's been laid on me,”
She sobbed and sighed and bitter cried
Her tender heart did brak in three.

Sandra and Nancy Kerr sing The Great Silkie Maddy Prior sings Great Silkie of Sules Skerry

In Noroway there lived a maid,
“Bye-loo my baby,” she begins,
“Oh know not I my babe's father
Or if land or sea he's living in.”

An earthly nourris sits and sings
And aye she sings, “Ba lily wain
And little ken I my bairn's father
Far less the land that he dwells in.”

Then there arose at her bedfeet,
And a grummlie guest I'm sure was he,
Saying, “Here am I thy babe's father
Although I be not comely.

Then one arose at her bedfoot,
And a grumbly guest I'm sure was he,
Saying, “ Here am I, thy bairn's father
Although I be not comely.

“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
But when I'm in my own coutrie
My dwelling is in Sule Skerry.”

“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie on the sea,
And when I'm far and far frae land
My home it is in Sules Skerry.”

Then he has taken a purse of gold
And he has put it upon her knee,
Saying, “Give to me my little wee son
And take thee up thy nurse's fee.

And he has ta'en a purse of gold
And he has placed it upon her knee,
Saying, “Give to me my little young son
And take thee up thy nurse's fee.

“And it shall pass on a summer's day
When the sun shines hot on every stone,
That I shall take my little wee son
And teach him for to swim in the foam.

“And it shall come tae pass on a summer's day
When the sun shines bright on every stone,
I'll come and fetch my little young son
And teach him how to swim the foam.

“And you shall marry a gunner good,
And a proud good gunner I'm sure he'll be,
And he'll go out on a May morning
And kill both my young son and me.”

“And you, you shall marry a pround gunner,
And a proud gunner I'm sure he'll be,
But the very first shot that e'er he shoots
He'll kill both my young son and me.”

And she did marry a gunner good,
And a proud good gunner I'm sure 'twas he,
And the very first shot he ever did shoot
He killed the son and the great silkie.

In Noroway there lived a maid,
“Bye-loo my baby,” she begins,
“Oh know not I my babe's father
Or if land or sea he's living in.”

“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I'm in my own coutrie
My dwelling is in Sule Skerry.”

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: The Great Silkie.