A Selkie Story from Orkney

The Goodman of Wastness

North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any exploration of selkie lore needs to begin in Scotland: in Orkney, to be precise. The word “selkie” means “grey seal” in the Orcadian dialect, and “selkie folk” means the mystical seal people of the legends. Furthermore, there are nicknames for the residents of each island: people from Stronsay were “limpets,” those from Sanday were “gruelly belkies” (possibly

One of the most famous selkie stories is the Goodman of Wastness, which was originally recorded by Walter Traill Dennison. And as it happens, the story is set on the island of North Ronaldsay, home of the selkies. This version was published in 1893. Here is how Dennison told it.[i]

The man who told me this tale was a native of North Ronaldshay,[ii] was well read in English literature, and so familiar with Shakespeare that any six lines of that author you quoted he would tell you from what play your quotation was taken. Though above superstitious belief, he possessed an inexhaustible store of old-world tales. He often assisted me in clearing up some difficulty in Orkney folk-lore.

The goodman of Wastness was well-to-do, had his farm well stocked, and was a good-looking and well-favoured man. And though many braw lasses in the island had set their caps at him, he was not to be caught. So the young lasses began to treat him with contempt, regarding him as an old young man who was deliberately committing the unpardonable sin of celibacy.

He did not trouble his head much about the lasses, and when urged by his friends to take a wife, he said, ‘Women were like many another thing in this weary world, only sent for a trial to man; and I have trials enough without being tried by a wife. If that ould fool Adam had not been bewitched by his wife, he might have been a happy man in the yard of Edin to this day.’

The old wife of Longer, who heard him make this speech, said to him, ‘Take doo heed de sell, doo’11 may be de sell bewitched some day.’ [Take heed, because you yourself may become bewitched some day.]

‘Ay,’ quoth he, ‘that will be when doo walks dry shod frae the Alters o’ Seenie to dae Boar of Papa. [That will be when you walk through water without getting your shoes wet.]

Well, it happened one day that the goodman of Wastness was down on the ebb (that portion of the shore left dry at low water), when he saw at a little distance a number of selkie folk on a flat rock. Some were lying sunning themselves, while others jumped and played about in great glee. They were all naked, and had skins as white as his own. The rock on which they sported had deep water on its seaward side, and on its shore side a shallow pool. The goodman of Wastness crept unseen till he got to the edge of the shallow pool; he then rose and dashed through the pool to the rock on its other side.

The alarmed selkie folk seized their seal skins, and, in mad haste, jumped into the sea. Quick as they were, the goodman was also quick, and he seized one of the skins belonging to an unfortunate damsel, who in terror of flight neglected to clutch it as she sprang into the water.

The selkie folk swam out a little distance, then turning, set up their heads and gazed at the goodman. He noticed that one of them had not the appearance of seals like the rest. He then took the captured skin under his arm, and made for home, but before he got out of the ebb, he heard a most doleful sound of weeping and lamentation behind him. He turned to see a fair woman following him. It was that one of the selkie folk whose seal skin he had taken.

She was a pitiful sight; sobbing in bitter grief, holding out both hands in eager supplication, while the big tears followed each other down her fair face. And ever and anon she cried out, ‘ O bonnie man! if there’s onie [any] mercy i’ thee human breast, gae back me skin! I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ live i’ the sea without it. I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ bide among me ain [own] folk without my ain seal skin. Oh, pity a peur distressed, forlorn lass, gin doo wad ever hope for mercy thee sel’! [if you would ever hope for mercy yourself]’

The goodman was not too soft-hearted, yet he could not help pitying her in her doleful plight And with his pity came the softer passion of love. His heart that never loved women before was conquered by the sea-nymph’s beauty. So, after a great deal of higgling and plenty of love-making, he wrung from the sea-lass a reluctant consent to live with him as his wife. She chose this as the least of two evils. Without the skin she could not live in the sea, and he absolutely refused to give up the skin.

So the sea-lass went with the goodman and stayed with him for many days, being a thrifty, frugal, and kindly goodwife.

She bore her goodman seven children, four boys and three lasses, and there were not bonnier lasses or statelier boys in all the isle. And though the goodwife of Wastness appeared happy, and was sometimes merry, yet there seemed at times to be a weight on her heart; and many a long longing look did she fix on the sea. She taught her bairns many a strange song, that nobody on earth ever heard before. Albeit she was a thing of the sea, yet the goodman led a happy life with her.

Now it chanced, one fine day, that the goodman of Wastness and his three eldest sons were off in his boat to the fishing. Then the goodwife sent three of the other children to the ebb to gather limpits and wilks. The youngest lass had to stay at home, for she had a beelan (suppurating) foot.

The goodwife then began, under the pretence of house-cleaning, a determined search for her long-lost skin. She searched up, and she search down; she searched but, and she searched ben [from one end to the other], she searched out, and she searched in, but never a skin could she find, while the sun wore to the west.

The youngest lass sat in a stool with her sore foot on a cringlo (a low straw stool). Says she to her mother, ‘Mam, what are doo leukan for?’

‘O bairn, deu no tell,’ said her mother, ‘but I ‘m leukan for a bonnie skin, tae mak a rivlin (shoe or sandal) that wad ceur thee sare fit.’

Says the lass, ‘May be I ken whar hid is [maybe I know where it is]. Ae day, whin ye war a’ oot, an’ ded tought I war sleepan i’ the bed, he teuk a bonnie skin doon; he gloured at it a peerie minute, dan folded hid and led hid up under dae aisins abeun dae bed.’ (Under the aisins—space left by slope of roof over wall-head when not beam-filled.)

When her mother heard this she rushed to the place, and pulled out her long-concealed skin. ‘Fareweel, peerie buddo!’ (a term of endearment), said she to the child, and ran out.

She rushed to the shore, flung on her skin, and plunged into the sea with a wild cry of joy. A male of the selkie folk there met and greeted her with every token of delight.

The goodman was rowing home, and saw them both from his boat. His lost wife uncovered her face, and thus she cried to him:  ‘Goodman o’ Wastness, fareweel tae thee ! I liked dee weel, doo war geud tae me; bit I lo’e better me man o’ the sea!’

And that was the last he ever saw or heard of his bonnie wife. Often did he wander on the sea-shore, hoping to meet his lost love, but never more saw he her fair face.


[i] W. Traill Dennison. “The Selkie Folk.” The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries, Vol. 7, No. 28 (1893), pp.171-177. Published by Edinburgh University Press.

[ii] Now spelled Ronaldsay. The proper pronunciation is “Ronal-shee” or “Ronald-see.” “Shee” meant “island” in old Norwegian and many place names date from the Viking settlement of Orkney.

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