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The Silkie of Sule Skerry

This great Orkney ballad tells of a silkie, someone who is a seal when in the sea and a person when on the land. This seal man lives on small rocky island called a skerry - the one that is the farthest away from the shore. A human girl has a baby with him.

There are two well-known tunes for this ballad. Alison McMorland sings the tune that was found in Orkney in 1938 by Professor Otto Andersson of Finland. It was sung to him by John Sinclair of Flotta.

The other tune was made up by an American called Professor James Waters.

For more stories about seal people, see the book The People of the Sea, by David Thomson (1996), or Tales of the Seal People, by Duncan Williamson (1992).

Silkie Of Sule Skerry

In Norway land there lived a maid
'Hush, baloo lillie' this maid began
'I know not where my bairn’s father is
By land or sea does he traivel in'

It happened on a certain day
When this fair maid lay fast asleep
That in came a guid grey silkie
And sat him doon at her bed feet

Saying 'Awak, awak ma fair pretty maid
For oh how sound as thou dost sleep
I’ll tell thee whaur yer bairn’s faither is
He’s lyin close at your bed feet'

'I pray ye tell tae me your name
An tell me whaur your dwelling is?'
'My name it is guid Hein Mailer
I earn ma livin oot ower the sea'

'I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie in the sea
And when I’m far from every strand
My dwellin ‘tis on Sule Skerry'

'Alas, alas this weary fate
This weary fate that’s been laid on me,
That a man should come frae the West o Hoy
Tae the Noraway lands tae hae a bairn by me'

He said 'Ye’ll nurse ma little wee son
For seiven lang years upon yer knee
And at the end o seiven lang years
I’ll come back again wi white money'

And she has nursed his little wee son
For seiven lang years upon her knee
And at the end o seiven lang years
He’s cam back again wi the nourrice fee

He said 'I’ll pit a chain roon his neck
An a gey gowd chain oh it will be
And if ever he comes tae the Noraway lands
Ye’ll hae a guid guess on who is he'

An he said 'Ye’ll wed a gunner guid
An a gey guid gunner it will be
And he’ll gae oot on a May morning
He’ll shoot your son and the grey silkie'

And she has wed a gunner guid
A a gey guid gunner it was he
And he went oot on a May morning
He shot the son and the grey silkie

'Alas, alas this woeful fate
This weary fate that’s been laid on me'
She sobbed and sighed and bitter cried
Her tender hert did brak in three.

'The Silkie of Sule Skerry', performed by Alison McMorland, vocal and banjo, and Derek Hoy, fiddle From Rowan in the Rock (CD) - LTCD3002. Available from The Listening Post.