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the seal-folk
The Seal-folk Tradition in Shetland.
In 1852 Lieut. Thomas, R.N., the indefatigable folklorist,
contributed to the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries
a ballad he obtained in Shetland from the dictation of a
venerable ' lady-udaller ' or proprietrix, who resided at
Suarra Voe, one of the most remote districts of the
Northern Isles. According to Thomas, the ballad " is
founded on the superstition of the Seals or Selkies being
able to throw off their waterproof jackets and assume the
more graceful proportions of the genus Homo." The term,
Silky, he informs us further, is commonly used in these
parts for a seal — a word that appears as though it might be
a corruption of the Norse, selch, a seal. The rocky islet of
Sule Skerry, situated some twenty-five miles to the west-
ward of Hoy Head, in Orkney, is still the resort of
thousands of seals ; and the ballad referred to is The Great
Silkie of Side Skcrric, the third verse of which runs thus :
" I am a man upo' the Ian'
An' I am a Silkie in the sea ;
An' when I'm far and far frae Ian',
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie."
Frequent references are to be found in authoritative books
on the Orkneys and Shetlands of the manner in which the
Silkies could change themselves into human beings.
Among the many folk-tales current in the Shetland Isles
about the Seal-folk is one that tells of a fisherman who,
when on his way to the fishing early one morning, passed
close to a rock on which a large bull seal lay asleep in the
sun. In stealth he approached it, and plunged his knife
deep into its flesh. The wounded animal immediately
flopped its way from the rock, and slithered into the sea,
taking with him the Shetlander's knife.
Some years later, this Shetlander, in company with
others from the Northern Isles, paid a visit to Norway
(Lochlann), in order to purchase timber for building
purposes on the treeless Shetlands. Stuck in a beam
supporting the roof of the first house he entered was the
very knife with which he had essayed to kill the seal. Fear

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