Selkie Mythology

Selkie Mythology

Selkie mythology is a unique part of Scottish and Irish folklore that’s been part of the zeitgeist for several decades. There have been many shows that feature these shapeshifters, sometimes as tricksters and sometimes as fallen angels. But what is a selkie anyway?

A selkie is a creature that takes the form of a person or a seal. They change forms by removing or wearing a seal skin from their back. There are male and female selkies, but female selkies are more often featured in folklore.

You’ve come to the right place if you want to learn more about Selkie folk, from their etymology and origins to the fantastic stories that feature these unique creatures.

Etymology of Selkies

There are some terms that often have differing origin stories. Since Irish and Scottish words have been traded between cultures for centuries the word’s etymology can be debated to come from either culture’s language.

For example, in Scottish, the word selkie is a diminutive for ‘selch’, which means grey seal. While the term is used to describe this type of seal, it doesn’t necessarily mean the mythical selkie from folklore. Some people, like Traill Dennison, a famous folklorist, tend to disagree.

According to Dennison, the word should include the mythical creature to differentiate them from other mythical humanoid sea creatures like mermaids and mermen. In Gaelic stories in particular, however, the term selkie is rarely used at all, and they are often referred to as ‘maidens of the sea’ or mermaids.

To muddy the waters further, there are some parts of Scotland, like the Shetland Isles, that use the term selkie and finfolk interchangeably.

The Origins of Selkie Lore


Tracing the origin of where selkies come from isn’t easy – for many centuries, there have been tales of seal women and monstrous creatures that assume human form from the depths. The foundation of selkies might’ve come from the Sami people, who lived in parts of Scandinavia.

The Sami people split into two distinct groups: the mountain Sami and the Sea Sami. The Sea Sami were expert anglers and boaters with an unrivalled knowledge of the ocean surrounding Scandinavia. Sami children could capsize their rafts and righten them once more from age five, using just their hands and hips.

They would often hunt seals for their skin, which they would stitch onto their kayaks since it made them extraordinarily buoyant. The kayaks were so buoyant that the Sami people could use them even if they were saturated to the point of sinking just below the surface. If you can imagine seeing a person wearing seal skin, padding in a kayak below the surface, you wouldn’t be surprised about stories of selkies emerging soon after.

Tales of seal folk are also not uncommon in other mythologies, like sailors believing they saw mermaids while out at sea instead of the manatees they were.

Famous Scottish Folk Tales

No matter where the word ‘selkie’ originally comes from, there are several unique stories that feature female and male selkies. Selkie lore forms an essential foundation of Scottish mythology, and we’ll chat about the famous Scottish folklore you may or may have yet to hear of.

Let’s dive into it!

Stealing a Selkie’s Skin

Different names may know the most famous Selkie folk tale but follow the same beats. The story follows a man who finds a selkie on a beach and manages to steal her seal skin. Later, he finds himself on the shore, unable to return to the sea and compels her to be his wife. While they may be happy, the wife gazes wistfully to the sea and yearns to return to freedom.

In some tales, she even bears her husband several children but still leaves them once she is given or finds her seal skin again. While she never returns to her husband and her human family ever again, some versions of the story describe a seal that visits the family every year.

Are There Any Male Selkies?

Many tales feature a wife or woman, but are there any male selkie stories? 

There are! In most stories, like female selkies, male selkies are described as beautiful in their human form and have married human women several times. In one story, it’s said that a woman could make contact with her male selkie by shedding seven tears into that sea. When women were dissatisfied with their marriage, they would be described as “waiting for their fisherman husbands.”

Selkies of Shetland and Orkney

Selkies have a distinct place in Orkney and Shetland culture, where the turbulent sea spawned stories of selkies and serpents. In Shetland were stories of selkies luring islanders into the sea during midsummer, never to be seen again. While more ambiguous than typical selkie tales, it makes the legends surrounding the selkie slightly more frightening.

In one particular Shetland ballad, the selkie’s shape-shifting is highlighted:

“I am a man upo’ da land;

I am a selkie i’ da sea.

An’ when I’m far fa every strand,

My dwelling is in Shöol Skerry.”

There are many unique Scottish terms in this ballad, so if you’re struggling with a few words, please check out our guide to Scottish terms and phrases.

Plenty of Orcadian stories talk about female selkies assuming human form and becoming men’s wives when they stole their skins. The only real difference is how the wives find their skins again, with some seeing them accidentally or asking their children.

Children Born of Selkies

With how often selkies marry humans, it’s not surprising that there are stories about selkie children. If your family’s selkie ancestry doesn’t go back too far, then you may have some abilities from your selkie parent. Children and selkie folk tend to have certain characteristics of these supernatural creatures.

For example, in ‘The People of the Sea’, David Thomson writes that children born from selkies have webbed toes and fingers. It was often considered that women who gave birth to children with these features and seal faces had an affair with a selkie during their marriage.

Ernest Marwick also described selkie children as possessing green skin that is cracked in various places. They smell of seawater and often have seal features, similar to David Thomson’s descriptions.

The Sea King and Queen

Another popular tale involves what’s described as the sea king and queen, which describes selkies as not shapeshifters who can move between a human form and seal but as cursed children. The story begins with a sea king and queen living happily with their many children in an underwater paradise.

Things quickly turn south as the queen falls ill, with nothing that the sea folk can do to save her. In only a matter of weeks, the queen passes away. While the king and his children were forlorn over her passing, the king still knew it was his duty to find his kingdom a new queen. A sea witch heard of his imminent remarriage and convinced him to make her queen (perhaps some sea witch magic was involved).

The sea witch began her reign and soon found that she despised the king’s children. She grew jealous of the affection that the king showed them and cast a spell on them, turning them into seals. For the rest of their lives, the children would live under the water except for a single day when they could shed their seal skin and turn back into human shape.

This folk tale transitions into another version of a man stealing a selkie’s skin, but this first portion was likely used to describe why seals swim near the coastline. It’s said that these seals are the king’s children, waiting patiently near the shore until the day they can come on land and return to their human bodies.

Selkies in Icelandic Folk Tales and the Faroe Islands

In a folk tale published by Jón Árnason called “Selshamurinn” (“The Seal-Skin”), the selkie story is told through a uniquely Icelandic lens. It speaks about how a man from Mýrdalur forced a woman to transform from a seal to a human in order to marry him. To do so, he stole her seal skin.

The selkies look for a way out and discover a key to the chest that holds her captor’s Christmas outfits. In there, she finds her skin and is able to be reunited with her true seal partner in the sea.

Gordon Bok tells a similar story, where a fisherman marries a seal woman. Later, he sails into the ocean against his wife’s wishes and encounters a storm. He doesn’t return, and how of grief, his wife shifts into her seal form to save him, knowing that she won’t be able to return back.

Selkies in the Modern Day

Selkies are one of the most well-known Scottish legends, only dwarfed by giants like the Loch Ness Monster and faeries. Some fantastic books and movies cover the selkies of legend, often painting them in a sympathetic and tragic light.

‘The Girl from the Sea’ and ‘A Stranger Come Ashore’ are both prominent pieces of literature that have a young girl selkie as its protagonist, which were written by Molly Knox Ostertag and Scottish Author Mollie Hunter respectively.

Arguably, the most famous movie about selkies is ‘The Song of the Sea’, which tells the tale of a young boy looking for his selkie mother after she disappears. It’s a beautifully animated picture that we highly recommend you take a look at if you have a free evening to bawl your eyes out.

Selkies have made minor appearances in other shows like ‘My Hero Academia’ (in name only), ‘Disenchantment”, and ‘Curses!’

Top Locations to See Selkie Mythology in Scotland

While the stories of Selkies are abundant in literature and film/movies, sometimes you want to see a physical representation of Selkies in person. There are the top locations where you can find museums and places that celebrate the selkie story:

Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands are filled with stories of selkies. As you wander the expansive coastline, it’s easy to imagine selkies emerging from the waters. It’s not uncommon to see seals, but we bet you’ll be giving each seal you come across a second look each time you spot one!

There are a few places that lean into the mythical flavour, like the Selkie Team Room (Note: the tea room is now closed) and the Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre.

Shetland Islands

The Shetland Isles are another prominent place that features these seal maidens, although no places or attractions directly honour the selkie myth. That said, the coastline of the Shetland Isles is transcendent and instil the atmosphere that stories about selkies evoke. As you gaze out over the North Sea, the freedom of the waters here makes it obvious why all seal bride-type tales end with a selkie girl returning to the sea.

Faroe Islands

While the Faroe Islands are part of Denmark, not Scotland, they hold a special place for fans who want to indulge in Selkie lore. In the small town of Mikladalur, there’s a statue of a seal woman rendered in stunning bronze. The woman looks as if she’s stepping out from the water, with her seal skin being disrobed as she emerges from the sea.

It’s one of the most unique attractions and can be visited from the Shetland Isles via plane or ferry.

Support this Blog 💙

My Voyage Scotland is an independently owned website. If you find the information on this website helpful, please consider booking your next trip using the links below. We make a (very small) commission on anything booked via the below map, and it doesn’t cost our readers more.