Monday, December 3, 2012

Celts and selkies…

For an Australian, I’m so Scottish that if you cut me I’d bleed tartan. Or single-malt whisky.

I’m a lowland Scot on my dad’s side and Highland Scot on mum’s. Of all my sisters my parents decided to give me the most Scottish name they could think of, which is how I end up named for two Scottish icons: the heather flower and the warrior who struck a blow against the English.

From mum’s side I get pale skin that will freckle by the light of fireworks and from dad I get eyes as brown as peat. Dad had dark hair and surprisingly olive skin for the son of Scottish migrants, but throughout history there are precedents for the dark Scot, as with the Black Irish. Theories include a touch of Spanish blood from sailors shipwrecked by the Spanish Armada or the influence of the Celtic migration from Iberia in the 5th century BC.

But there’s a much more romantic story that I think explains my dark eyes: the legend of the selkie, the seal wife.

In the stories that have come down over the centuries, softened by moss and children’s wide-eyed belief, the selkie is a creature of the sea. Here she is the seal frolicking in the salt spray, tempted on to land by the sight of a handsome young fisherman. She sheds her sealskin and emerges from the water as a beautiful woman. Her eyes are as deep and dark as the depths she swims in and she turns these to the young man, drawing him to her. He knows the only way to keep her with him is to take her seal skin and hide it away where she will never find it.

She loses something of her spirit when she loses her sealskin, and though she loves her husband and their young children she spends her time at the water’s edge, longing to return. One day her youngest child, a little girl with wavy hair and eyes as dark as her own, asks, “Why does daddy keep a leather coat locked away?” Despite her love for her family, the selkie rushes to the trunk her child has found, breaking open its locks with her bare hands, and pulling out the smooth, soft pelt she thought was lost. 

She throws it over her shoulders and dives into the water, down and further down. Once again she is a seal, cavorting and slicing through the water. Her husband returns from the sea to find his children alone and the trunk that stored his secret open, empty. He knows she is gone from him forever, but each night he takes his children to the water’s edge where a lone seal swims slowly, almost as though she is waiting for them.

The legend comes from the very north of Scotland, from the Orkneys, but it’s not hard to imagine that the selkie’s children may have crossed to the mainland, bequeathing a legacy of dark eyes to the generations after them. That’s how I like to think my family came by our colouring. It makes sense, I always feel lighter and more graceful in water than on dry land and I love the feel of the sea about me.

The final confirmation though was the horror I felt when I realised I’d lost my own beloved leather jacket a few weeks ago.

I’d left it at the Parramatta hotel I’d stayed at for the Harvest Festival, and it wasn’t until I’d crossed the border from NSW to Canberra that the nagging feeling something wasn’t right coalesced into realisation. I’d hung my jacket in the wardrobe before I’d gone to the festival, not needing it in the warmth of the day. Rushing to vacate the room in the morning and meet friends for brunch (out of bed, dressed and packed in 15 minutes!) I’d made a rooky mistake and hadn’t checked the wardrobe.

I was devastated, I love that jacket. It is a bright, bright green, and so very 70s, the kind of jacket you’d imagine Shaft wearing on holiday to Ireland. I bought it in Edinburgh five years ago from Armstrongs' vintage emporium, on a Saturday afternoon when the Scottish summer was making me shake with cold.

It’s been a great travel companion, coming to Bath, New York and Rotterdam with me. Its loss made me sympathise with the selkie, as though part of my identity was gone.

Fortunately my story has a happy ending. I phoned the hotel and asked them to keep an eye out. I was fairly confident no one would have claimed it as theirs, not many people would want a jacket as green as a glass bottle.

It came back to me via the post and now is back where it belongs, hanging in my wardrobe, ready for the next adventure. When the adventure comes along I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for my seal family.  


  1. I enjoyed this post which I found doing a search about selkies for an RP character I'm developing---found the image first and thought how much more it reminded me of the myth that you relate here than the other images i tried first. It was a bit more like what I have in mind only a younger and more playful selkie gal who is more than just a selkie as she shapeshifts into a porpoise and an otter as well, as her animal forms. She also can shift to a mer and a fae, and her human gal can be youngish and shorter and chubbier and childlike or a sleek slender sllightly older Princess type. I plan on enjoying playing these various forms as it suits my mood, as I have too many images in my head to stay with just one--LOL! I've gotten the idea for her from a search for interesting names that might suggest an interesting character and found one--well two to be precise! As I said--I have trouble sticking to just one thing! ;P Her name is UlaniUmiko: Ulani from Hawaiian = lighthearted, and Umiko from Japanese = sea child. I was initially thinking of a mer /fae combination but then the selkie myth popped into my head and i had to combine that as well. But the selkie myth is too sad for me at this point in my life and with my disabiility (Parkinson's) so I added the porpoise, the otter and the childllike age to it as well. That oughta keep me from being bored, eh?! LOL! Even if I never get around to an actual RP with her, she is fun to be developing. Thanks for retelling the tale that I was trying to recall and for making me think about if she will be changing her eye color as well as her hair and shape! I had originally thought to keep them the blue-green that I was thinking of a sea child as having--but a seal would definitely have very dark eyes. I will try to come back and read more of your posts as I have enjoyed your writing, your myth telling and your humor and I see we have some similar interests. It may not be any time soon but I will return eventually! I have this page bookmarked! I haven't continued with my Livejournal blog yet as I have been dealing with the Parkinson's and with RL for some time now but am hoping to get back to it soon, as I believe I am getting more able to talk about it again, at least to myself which is what I kind of started it out to explore and figured if it might help anyone else--why not. Only then I got too wrapped up in it and RL to be able to deal with it that way. I hope I am about ready to get back to that idea soon. Thanks for your post and for making me smile and think about my character idea.
    Fayrith /also known as the Curious Packrat! :D (In other blogs that sadly either no longer exist, or as with the LJ one, I have set aside for some time. Such is life. I shake, rattle and roll with the flow--or at least I keep trying to! *grins*)

  2. omg! You are F'ing hilariouz!!!!
    "The final confirmation though was the horror I felt when I realised I’d lost my own beloved leather jacket a few weeks ago."
    I'm choking from bursting with laughter so suddenly! Yes, I am convinced of your selkie roots. :-D Too cute. smh.
    Glad you found your "coat".
    I came by your page by the way because I am reading Poldark, learned they made a show from the book, watched the whole 1st season of show starring (hot) Aidan Turner, Loved it, wanted to know when s2 starts, looked on show's FB page, saw a pic of the lead actor, titled "Aidan Turner - Irish Selkie", I remembered a character's dad being called a silkie in the book Outlander, wanted to know if all selkies were dark in some way and that's why they called dark haired-dark-eyed-olive skinned Aidan a selkie, Looked it up and that's why I'm here. Glad I found you, gave me a good laugh.