Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, September 13, 2002

Seals have loving
tradition in Scotland

Scotland's most famous legendary creature may be Nessie the Loch Ness monster, but she's not much fun on a cold winter night. The northern folk of Scotland tell of much friendlier animals in the sea, called "selkies." If you get lucky, or unlucky as the case may be, a selkie will make love to you.

In the dialect of Scotland's Orkney Islands, selkie is the word for seal. Seals are familiar sights along Scotland's coastlines. The most numerous species there is the common seal, also called the harbor seal.

Like most seals, common seals spend much of their time basking on rocks and beaches. In 1905 a Shetland Island birder wrote of these naps, "Such great yawns, such stretchings, heavings and throwings back of the head ... How intensely he enjoys his intertidal sleep."

When the snoozing seals get hungry, they slip into the ocean and catch a few cod or salmon. Fishermen don't take kindly to this competition, and even though seals are protected by law, humans remain the common seal's greatest enemy.

Traditionally, the Scots liked their seals. An ancient story says that when angels fall from heaven, some land on the ground and some in the sea. The former are fairies, and latter are seals, both equally endowed with gentle magic.

Another myth says that seals are the souls of drowned people given another chance at life as shape-shifters.

It's easy to see how people might see themselves (or a good-looking neighbor) in harbor seals. These seals are adorable. When a Zodiac I rode in drifted silently past a resting seal, it lifted its puppylike head and stared intently with large, expressive eyes.

When selkies take on human form, they have long dark hair, big brown eyes and glowing white bodies. Usually, a sighting comes to a lonely fisherman as he unloads his boat.

He hears singing and laughter, peeks around a rock and sees several naked women dancing in a ring. Nearby is a pile of seal skins. Knowing that these gorgeous females are selkies and that selkie women make obedient wives, the man steals one of the skins, thus preventing the selkie from returning to her seal form.

Although incessantly sad because she yearns for her home in the sea, the selkie stays with the man, bearing and raising his children. One of these kids eventually finds the hidden sealskin and shows the mother. That night she leaves, but a selkie mom doesn't abandon her children entirely. She keeps watch from the ocean to save them from drowning should the need arise.

Selkie women sometimes seduce human men, but it's the male selkies who really love flings with mortal women, married or unmarried. These magically seductive men have no qualms about throwing off their sealskins, heading for the village and taking care of an unsatisfied woman or two.

If, on the other hand, a mortal woman seeks a selkie man, she goes to the shore and sheds exactly seven tears into the sea. The selkie then emerges from the ocean, sheds his skin and gives the woman what she wanted.

One explanation of the selkie myths' origin is that ancient Viking invaders wore seal skins for warmth. When they took them off, apparently some people liked what was inside.

It's illegal to approach seals in Hawaii (or anywhere), but it's also wise. Getting close to one might get you more than you expected.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at

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