Two Selkie Stories from Scottland

Two Selkie Stories from Scotland, retold by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Fiona McDonald.

In this book, two beautiful traditional Scottish fairy tales, ‘The Selkie Bride’ and ‘In the Kingdom of the Seals’, are brought to enchanting and haunting new life by two creators who are themselves eerily linked to the magical world of the shape-shifting selkies.

Kate Forsyth: My grandmother’s grandmother was Scottish. Her name was Ellen Mackenzie and she grew up on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Ellen’s mother was called Margaret McPhee, and as everyone in Scotland knows, the McPhee clan was descended from Selkies. The name McPhee is derived from an older version of the name MacDuffie, which comes from the Gaelic term MacDubhSithe, meaning ‘son of the dark fairy’. Family legend says that the first McPhee took a Selkie as a bride!

Ellen emigrated to Australia in the 1850s and, apart from some books and clothes and a sprig of heather, she brought a head stuffed full of old tales. She told these stories to her daughter Jinny, who told them to her daughters, Clarice, Gwen and Marjory (nicknamed Joy), and they – my great-aunts and grandmother - told them to me.

I always loved the tales of selkies, who were seals in the water and humans upon the land. It seemed the best of both worlds. I loved wondering if I had Selkie blood in me, and if one day I’d find the way to transform into a seal.

Like many Scottish fairy tales, ‘The Selkie Bride’ is full of love and loss, magic and mystery. I always loved that story, and wished that I had been born with Selkie blood so that I could swim through the waves with all the sleek grace of a seal, but still dance in the moonlight whenever I wanted.

A lesser known tale is ‘The Seal-Hunter and the Selkie’. A man who makes his living by slaughtering seals finds himself transformed into a Selkie for a night, and charged with the task of saving the life of one he has injured. He is overcome by remorse and promises to never kill a seal again. This was always one of my favourite tales, for I’ve never liked the idea of killing such beautiful creatures. It was also, I thought, more joyful and hopeful than many of the Selkie tales, which are often tragic, and so was a bright counterpoint to the melancholy feel of ‘The Selkie Bride’.

I loved retelling these two old tales, and tried to recapture some of the lilt of my grandmother and great-aunts’ voices in the story’s cadences and rhythm. They are stories I will love to tell aloud.

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