The Shetland Seal Wife

In this selkie story from Shetland, the seal woman has a lover or husband among the selkie-folk, and her human husband knows this before he steals her sealskin. Furthermore, she continues to visit with her seal lover while she is trapped on land. The story does not say if her seal lover ever visited in his human form, which could have very interesting implications for her human marriage and the parentage of those children!

VK Shetland Mainland.PNG (Orkney and Shetland ...

VK Shetland Mainland.PNG (Orkney and Shetland islands, UK) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story ends with one last communication between the selkie woman and her human husband. As she returns to the sea, the selkie woman warns him against killing seals, or suffer bad luck as a consequence. The story does not tell us if he follows her advice.

Shetland is a group of islands northeast of the Scottish mainland, beyond Orkney. It is actually closer to Norway than Scotland, and like Orkney, was once ruled by Norway. Shetland continues to have strong cultural ties to Norway.

This story was collected in the early 1900s from Shetlanders living in British Columbia.

Once an unmarried man went to a place where the flat rocks on the shore were a haunt for seals. As he wanted to see the seals in their human form, he hid himself and waited until evening, when he saw a number of seals come ashore, throw off their seal coverings, and play and dance in human form.

A pretty young woman disrobed near his hiding-place, and left her skin near by neatly folded up. He managed to seize the skin unobserved by any of the seal-people, and sat down on it. The woman danced with a young seal-man who, he thought, must be her lover.

At daybreak a great clamor of gulls alarmed the seals, who ran for their skins and made for the sea. They young woman, unable to find her skin and return to the sea with her friends, began to cry bitterly. A single seal, no doubt the lover with whom she had danced, remained near the shore in the sea, waiting for her after all the others had disappeared.

Soon the man came up and tried to comfort her, saying that she would be better off on the land, and in him would find a better lover than she could find in the sea. Seeing that he had possession of her skin, she begged him to give it back to her, offering to do anything for him in return. He refused, and went off carrying the skin. She followed him, and at last had to consent to remain with him as his wife.

He kept her seal-skin in his trunk, and always concealed the key or carried it on his person. When he was absent, she often looked for the skin, but could never find it. Many years she lived with him, and bore a number of children.

Often her lover, the lone seal, came to the shore, looking for her, and the woman was seen going there and talking with him. Some neighbors (or her children?) reported this to her husband.

One day the man went fishing, and forgot the key in his trunk. The woman (or one of her children?) noticed this, and opened the trunk. There she found the skin; and when the man came home, his wife was gone.

He went down to the shore, and found her in the water, with a seal at her side. She called to him, ‘Good-by!’ and told him to look well after their children.

She also asked him not to kill any seals, because by doing so he might kill her, her seal-husband, or her seal-children. If he heeded not this request, he would have bad luck.

After she had departed in seal-form with her companion, he saw her no more.


Teit, J.A. “Water-Beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as Remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia.” The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 31, No. 120 (Apr. – Jun., 1918), pp. 180-201.  JSTOR. Web. 21 July 2011.


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