Scotlands Songs

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The Silkie Of Sule Skerry

-6:41

This great Orkney ballad tells of a silkie, someone who is a seal when in the sea and a person when on the land. This sealman lives on the farthest out of the small rocky islands called skerries. A human girl has a baby by him.


In Norway land there lived a maid

“Hush, baloo lillie” this maid began

“I know not where my bairn’s father is

By land or sea does he traivel in”


It happened on a certain day

When this fair maid lay fast asleep

That in came a guid grey silkie

And sat him doon at her bed feet


Saying “Awak, awak ma fair pretty maid

For oh how sound as thou dost sleep

I’ll tell thee whaur yer bairn’s faither is

He’s lyin close at your bed feet”


“I pray ye tell tae me your name

An tell me whaur your dwelling is?”

“My name it is guid Hein Mailer

I earn ma livin oot ower the sea”


“I am a man upon the land

I am a silkie in the sea

And when I’m far from every strand

My dwellin ‘tis on Sule Skerry”


“Alas, alas this weary fate

This weary fate that’s been laid on me,

That a man should come frae the West o Hoy

Tae the Noraway lands tae hae a bairn by me”


He said “Ye’ll nurse ma little wee son

For seiven lang years upon yer knee

And at the end o seiven lang years

I’ll come back again wi white money


And she has nursed his little wee son

For seiven lang years upon her knee

And at the end o seiven lang years

He’s cam back again wi the nourrice fee


He said “ I’ll pit a chain roon his neck

An a gey gowd chain oh it will be

And if ever he comes tae the Noraway lands

Ye’ll hae a guid guess on who is he”


An he said “Ye’ll wed a gunner guid

An a gey guid gunner it will be

And he’ll gae oot on a May morning

He’ll shoot your son and the grey silkie”


And she has wed a gunner guid

An a gey guid gunner it was he

And he went oot on a May morning

He shot the son and the grey silkie


“Alas, alas this woeful fate

This weary fate that’s been laid on me”

She sobbed and sighed and bitter cried

Her tender hert did brak in three


Hear this ballad performed by Alison McMorland, vocal and banjo, and Derek Hoy, fiddle.


There are two well-known tunes for this ballad. Alison McMorland sings the tune that was found in Orkney in 1938 by Professor Otto Andersson of Finland. It was sung to him by John Sinclair of Flotta.

The other tune was made up by an American called Professor James Waters.


For more stories about seal people see the book The People of the Sea by David Thomson (Canongate, 1996), or Tales of the Seal People by Duncan Williamson (Birlinn, 1992)