Monday 20 April 2015

The Selkies of Mull & Iona

If you spend enough time gazing into a loch or the sea, sooner or later your eyes may meet a solemn sad pair of large black eyes gazing back at you, belonging to a seal, or Selkie. Tales of Selkies can be found all over the Scotland Isles and coast, as well as in Irish and Scandinavian legends. Selkies are usually said to be human in some way, some say they are the souls of the drowned or damned, and in some tales they can take human shape and walk on land, sometimes marrying and bearing children, only to escape back to the sea when they are reunited with their seal skin which has been hidden by their human spouse.

On the rocks at Bunessan many seals were once seen basking at low tide, Swire tells us in her book 'Legends of the Inner Hebrides' (1964) "It was once known that these were Pharaoh's army, overwhelmed when the Red Sea, which had parted for the Israelites, fell back upon their pursuers. Seals they became and seals they have remained. There are, however, certain difficulties over this theory of the seals' origin. allowing that seals are certainly men and women suffering under enchantment, if they were Pharaoh's army where do the women come from? " She also mentions that the Selkies of legend when in human form speak Gaelic, and it is unlikely that Egyptians would have known the language.
Bunessan Bay

Swire also gives another theory on the origin of Selkies, suggesting that St Patrick was responsible after he became angry when he preached to the heathens and some would not convert. He was offended and accused them of calling him a liar, and he turned the unbelievers into seals. St Columba was said to be more patient but some of his younger monks lacked his patience and when St Columba was occupied elsewhere "a number of new seals found their way into the sea near Iona". Another theory suggests that those who had been baptised but relapsed into Paganism turned into seals.

Seals are said to love music and occasionally they will sing a song so beautiful but terrible in it's sadness that those humans who hear it can bear their earthly life no longer and plunge into the sea to join the seals. Others say that seals sing only as a death call or warning. On Iona the seals are said to sing for joy when one of their number has extirpated their sins and attained salvation. Others sing when the salmon has drunk 3 drinks of spring water and summer is here.

Sadly we didn't spot many seals on this trip so I have included some photos of seals from previous trips to Mull. We found the seals at Loch Scridian to be particularly friendly and curious, coming closer when we spoke to them. A local lady said they are particularly fond of people singing to them!
You can explore Bunessan further by clicking and dragging on the Google Viewer below:

View Larger Map

For more folk tales of Selkies I thoroughly recommend Land of the Seal People by Duncan Williamson, and The People of the Sea by David Thomson. The movie The Secret of Roan Inish is also a beautiful take on the Selkie legends.

Sources & Further Information
Legends of the Inner Hebrides, Swire
Land of the Seal People, Williamson
The People of the Sea, Thomson
The Guide to Mysterious Iona and Staffa, Holder


Unknown said...

Reading with interest your post on Iona. I spent three years in the sixties making a geological map of Iona for my thesis at Leicester university and plan this year to start photographing Iona for a book I want to produce.
warm regards
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The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi Michael, hope you enjoyed my blog post! Iona certainly is a beautiful place, I'm sure you'll find plenty of wonderful places to photograph for your book. I hope to return there again this year too!

Storymarie3 said...

Hello, Your information has been exactly what I've been looking for. Thank you, thank you. I'm a storyteller, and I'm planning a trip to Scotland. A bucket list adventure! I'm old enough that when I tried to change the email address, I failed. But I tell myself that I've was a children's librarian for such a long time, that my card catalog skills still help me in this world.
I'm impressed and grateful for your bibliographies, pictures and writing.
All the best, Marie

Storymarie3 said...

Looks like I didn't fail, but now I hope to be able to receive any correspondence. Marie

The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi Marie, lovely to meet you! You will love Scotland so much, it's so easy to fall in love with the beautiful scenery and folklore there, you'll want to visit again and again, it's an addictive place! I bet being a children's librarian is full of fun and magic, you must discover so many wonderful new stories every day. If you're on Facebook there's a wonderful group for Scottish travel, everyone is very helpful there: