Children of the Seal

This tale is from Sutherland, on the north coast of the Scottish mainland. The story is similar to The Goodman of Wastness from Orkney, but the method of transformation from seal to human has an interesting difference: removing a hood that covers the head of the selkie. According to Alexander Mackay, “This covering was termed “Ceanna-bhreacan” (head-tartan), and if it were removed, the creature would at once return its primary form”—that is, human.

This version also adds the seal-husband who leaves gifts of fish for his wife trapped on land.  It was published in 1889.[i]

The north coast Scotland, where this story takes place, has rocky shores interspersed with magnificent sand beaches and jewell-like azure and aquamarine waters the likes of which I had only expected to see in the tropics. 

To catch a seal asleep is as rare a phenomenon as to catch a weasel asleep. In the one and the other, this no doubt arises from their sensitiveness, quickness of hearing, and rapid perception of sound. A Gaelic proverb says, “Giomach, rònach, is ròn, tri seòid a chuain.” (“Lobster, mackerel, and seal, three heroes of the ocean”).

Torrisdale Beach. A fabulous mile or more of c...

Torrisdale Beach. A fabulous mile or more of clean golden sand on the north coast of Sutherland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tradition has it that a young man of Torrisdale, parish of Tongue [on the north coast of Sutherland], when crossing the sands, had observed an object, which he correctly concluded to be a seal asleep. Creeping stealthily and noiselessly along the sands he was enabled, ere it awoke, to grasp, and take the “ceanna-bhreacan” off its head, when to his astonishment, and no less amazement, lo, and behold! A transformation scene! Unveiled to his wondering gaze was a young woman of very fine appearance and elegant form. Whether or not he was in any way prepared for the spectacle, it has not been recorded, but he was in possession of the “ceanna-bhreacan,” and he kept it. Turning with his trophy to go to his father’s house, the young woman without any ado followed him, till they both landed in the house situated close by the banks of the river Borgie.

The young stranger seemed to be of a very amiable disposition, made herself contented in her new abode, and became very handy in everything she had to do, excelling many maidens in household duties. The young man became enamoured of the sea-maiden. She returned his affection. They were married, and in a few years she became the mother of several children.

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During this period, a seal was frequently seen in front of the house when the tide was full. When the tide ebbed, a prime salmon was always found lying dead on the sand. This occurring every time the seal made his appearance, his visits were hailed with delight. They were, however, destined to have their dark side for the doting husband, for he had noticed that after every visit of the seal his partner became gloomy, moody, restless, dissatisfied, casting stolen glances, frequently loving looks after the seal, now esteemed a benefactor.

On one occasion, in the spring of the year, the young husband had to go some distance from home. During his absence, the seal made his appearance in the river, as on former occasions, which created no surprise, as it did not in any way seem unusual—in fact, his visits were looked to with pleasure, as it left behind it a fish each time.

In the end of the barn was stored up for the spring consumption the rough coarse hay of the country, and in this hay was concealed the “ceanna-bhreacan.” Whether the young wife suspect this to be the case, or whether she had gone to the barn to get hay to feed the cattle, and by chance came upon her long-lost hood, none can say; but it may be surmised, that having found it, and her natural instincts returning, she did not long hesitate to don it, and to hasten to the river, into which she plunged, and in an instant joined her old mate, the seal. The pair were seen to make off for the sea. Their joy seemed to be great. The people who observed them declared they went so fast and furious down the river, as to whiten its surface with foam all the way to its confluence with the sea.

When the young man returned home soon after his faithless partner had left, he found everything as usual, in good order, the youngest child in the cradle, and a bunch of keys suspended at its side. Seeing this state of affairs, and the absence of the mother, he began to suspect that something was out of joint. He went to the barn, no one was there. He looked if the “ceanna-bhreacan” was in its place. It was gone. The seal never again visited the river, but “Sliochd-an-Roin,” the offspring of the marriage related, were well known for generations in that part of the Reay country. They were a fat, short, dumpy race, and said to have large-sized hands. The epithet Sliochd-an-Roin was invariably applied to them, especially when differences arise, and hard words were bandied, frequently causing serious quarrels, fights, and bloodshed. It was one of these quarrels that led to the composing of a song often sung in my boyhood, one stanza of which ran thus:

 “Tha sliochd-an-roin cho bagaireach

‘S nach fuiling iad a chlaistinn,

Gu’m bè Siol nan daoine foghainteach

A ghabhadh air a maischinn.”


The children of the seal are so quarrelsome/menacing

That they can’t bear to listen

The race of the hard men

Would attack their pretty heads[ii]


[i] MacKay, Alexander. Sketches of Sutherland Characters. James Gemmel: Edinburgh. 1889. p. 326-330.

[ii] Many, many thanks to Rody Gorman (Artist in Residence) and Dr. Meg Batemen of  Sabhal Mòr Ostaig who generously translated the Gaelic passages. I took the liberty of melding their translations, so any errors are mine. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is a Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.


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