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1001 selkie
Added on 07th July 2020

Oral tradition Scottish folktale

UK and Ireland Animals Folk and fairy tales
1001 , Audio , Text

The story of a selkie, a seal woman, who loses her skin and can't go back to the sea.


The Selkie folk are seal people – seals who can shed their skins and take human form to dance on the shore. There are a number of versions of the Selkie story. The best known is the story of the fisherman who steals a Selkie’s skin so that the woman must stay human. The couple marry and have children - and the children find and return the skin to their mother.

Why we chose it

There are numerous stories of shape shifting animals – with or without enchantments. This is one of the best known.

Where it came from

Selkie stories are usually associated with Orkney, Shetland and the west coast of Scotland but stories of the shape-shifting seal people are also found in Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland and Cornwall. They are not half human, half sea creature, like mermaids or sirens but change from seal to human when they remove their skin on the shore. Without their skins they are forced to stay human and cannot return to the sea.

There are stories in Orkney of children born with webbed fingers and toes showing their part-selkie parentage.

There is a theory that the story comes from the kayaks made of whale bone and seal skin that Inuit hunters used to cross the sea. They would leave them on the beaches and stay for a while then would climb back into them on the shore to head home across the sea.

Where it went next

The Selkie story has been retold in many folk story collections including Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Sea Woman found in the The Outsiders and Between Worlds. Scottish storyteller Duncan Williamson’s Tales of the Seal People: Scottish Folktales is a collection of selkie stories gathered from around Scotland.

Associated stories

The Selkie story inspired the novels Child of the Sea by Berlie Doherty and The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie Fry which itself inspired the film The Secret of Roan Inish. Jackie Morris’s beautifully illustrated The Seal Children sets the story in a remote village in Wales.

For young adult readers, The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanaman is a dark and beautiful story.

Added on 07th July 2020

Oral tradition Scottish folktale

UK and Ireland Animals Folk and fairy tales
1001 , Audio , Text

Story Resources

  • The Selkie story text PDF (36.413 KB)