Ursilla and the Selkie Lover

It was not just selkie maids who were desirable mates. Selkie males got their share of action with the girls on land. Here’s another tale from Orkney, collected by Walter Traill Dennison. It was first published in 1893.

Dennison admits in the story below that he changed the woman’s name to avoid embarrassing her family. David Thomson told the same story in his wonderful book, The People of the Sea. In Thomson’s version, which he heard on the island of North Ronaldsay, the woman’s name is Brita. Hmmm… could it be that her name really was Brita?

Males of the watery race frequently formed illicit connection with fair ladies on land. These gentlemen never abode for any length of time on shore. They only came on land to indulge unlawful love. And as when divested of their sea skins they were handsome in form and attractive in manners, they often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life.

Many wild tales were told of the amorous connection between fair women of earth and those amphibious gentlemen…. If a beautiful girl grew up to womanhood without the enjoyment of matrimonial bliss, she sometimes indulged in illicit amours with one of the selkie folk. Again, if a married woman found her husband unfaithful to her, she would revenge herself by secret intercourse with a marine lover.

Among many wild tales of the kind, I give one said to have happened in the last bygone century [the 1700s]. The name only of our heroine is changed, because her descendants are still among us; and if any of them should read these lines, let them not think that aught offensive is intended. If the lady was their ancestor, she was also a near relative of ancestors of mine.

Ursilla was the daughter of a laird belonging to one of the oldest families in Orkney.

Ancum Loch, North Ronaldsay

Ancum Loch, North Ronaldsay (Photo credit: Wikipedia) with a farm in the distance.

She was handsome and pretty, but had a sternness of manner, and that firmness of features which often presents a masculine exterior in females of Norse blood, and often hides, as with a film of ice, a loving heart within. Ursilla was not one to wait patiently till some one turned up to offer himself as her husband. Indeed, had any one presumed to approach her as a lover, she would have treated him with haughty disdain, regarding his bold presumption as sufficient ground for his rejection. She determined not to be chosen, but to choose for herself. Her choice fell on a young handsome fellow, who acted as her father’s barn-man. But she knew that any disclosure of her passion would mortally offend her old father and bitterly mortify his family pride, and might lead him to disinherit her. So she locked up her love in her own breast; kept watchful eye on the object of her love, and treated him to a full share of the scoldings she daily bestowed on the servants.

When, however, her father died, and her tocher [dowry] was safe, she disclosed her passion to the young man, and commanded him to marry her­­—a command which he was too gallant to disobey. Her marriage excited among the gentry great indignation: to think that one of their class should marry a farm-servant! Ursilla treated their contempt with indifference; she made a good housewife, managed her house well, and also, it was said, managed her husband and the farm.

So far I have given what I believe to be a true account of Ursilla, having had it from descendants of her relatives. What follows I believe to be an imaginary tale, invented by gossips, in order to account for a strange phenomenon visibly seen on her descendants: and it is only given to illustrate one of the popular beliefs.

Yes, Ursilla was married, and all went well and happy, so far as outward appearances showed; yet Ursilla was not happy. If disappointed in her husband, she was far too proud to acknowledge it, knowing that the gentry would only say in derision, ‘She shaped her own cloth, let her wear her ill-fitting dress.’ Whatever the cause might be, there was a terrible want—a want that Ursilla felt bitterly. And she was not the woman to sit down and cry over sorrow; she determined to console herself by having intercourse with one of the selkie folk.

Common Seals (Phoca vitulina) on Strom Ness, N...

Common Seals (Phoca vitulina) on Strom Ness, North Ronaldsay Just below the broch at Point of Burrian. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She went at early morning and sat on a rock at high-tide mark, and when it was high tide she shed seven tears in the sea. People said they were the only tears she ever shed. But you know this is what one must do if she wants speech with the selkie folk. Well, as the first glimpse of dawn made the waters gray, she saw a big selkie swimming for the rock. He raised his head, and says he to her, ‘What’s your will with me, fair lady?’ She likely told him what was in her mind; and he told her he would visit her at the seventh stream (spring tide), for that was the time he could come in human form. So, when the time was come, he came; and they met over and over again. And, doubtless, it was not for good that they met so often. Any way, when Ursilla’s bairns were born, every one of them had web hands and webbed feet, like the paws of a selkie. And did not that tell a tale? The midwife clipped the webs between every finger, and between every toe of each bairn. ‘She showed the shears that she used to my grandmother.’ So said the narrator. And many a clipping Ursilla clipped, to keep the fins from growing together again; and the fins not being allowed to grow in their natural way, grew into a horny crust in the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And this horny substance is seen in many of Ursilla’s descendants to this day.

Whatever may be thought of this tale, its last sentence is quite true. The horn still appears in feet and hands of some of the lady’s descendants. One, two, or three in a family may show the abnormal horny substance; while brothers and sisters are entirely free from the troublesome horn.


Dennison, Walter Traill. “Orkney Folk-Lore.” The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries, Vol. 7, No. 28 (1893),  pp.171-177.EdinburghUniversityPress.  Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25516580. Accessed: 21/07/2011.


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