Introduction History & Immigration Culture People Multimedia Resources
  Text Size: S | M | L
Culture > Folklore > Sea Creatures:
Selkies, Finfolk, and Mermaids

Culture: Folklore

Selkies, Finfolk, and Mermaids:

"A Mermaid"
"A Mermaid"

No point in Scotland is farther than 66 miles from the sea - so it's no wonder that folklore has filled the country's waters with hosts of mythical creatures. The legends of selkies and Finfolk in particular are unique to Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles, where they were first introduced by Norse settlers. The selkies and Finfolk, although complete opposites in their natures, both evolved from the same source: the Sami people of Scandinavia, a nomadic tribe that roamed the northern reach of Norway known locally as "Finnmark," and a tribe Norsemen feared and respected for their great magic.

These mighty sorcerers, known as the "Finnar" in Old Norse, were able to command the weather; they held great powers of healing and prophecy; and they could take the shape of sea creatures or bears. And they clung to their old shamanistic religion while Norwegians converted to Christianity, making it easy for their neighbours to claim that they wielded the power of the devil. Shunning the Sami people out of fear, Norwegian imagination transformed them into a semi-mythical race shrouded in mystery and darkness.

As the Norwegians began to colonize the islands of northern and western Scotland, they brought their tales of the Finnar with them. Even into the twentieth century, there were Orcadians who, supposedly in possession of otherworldly powers, claimed descendancy from the Finnar. Over time, however, the lore became corrupted, and this mighty race of magicians transformed into the mythical, aquatic Finfolk. The shape-shifting element of the Finfolk detached and further evolved into a separate race of skin-shedding selkie-folk.

Selkie is simply the Orcadian term for seal. Scotland's seas are full of seal populations, so it is quite common for people on the shore to look out over the water and see seal heads bobbing above the waves, their gaze returned by inquisitive, eerily human eyes. New Age lore has recast selkies as benign sea spirits, creatures at odds with the sense of terror they once inspired in the sea-faring populations. Originally associated with the feared Finnar and Finfolk, the selkies took on their distinct form as they merged with another element of Sami culture: kayaking.

As fishing became a major Norwegian industry in the Middle Ages, the Sami took to the productive northern seas. They constructed their lightweight kayaks from deer sinews or seal skins, markedly different from the wooden vessels used by the Vikings who were colonizing Scotland at the time. Being made from animal skins, these kayaks, although enormously swift, would also lose buoyancy as they became water-logged. Sodden kayaks would have to be pulled onto shore regularly to dry out.

The selkie-folk are seals that become human after coming onto land and removing their skins. Without this skin, the shape-shifters cannot return to their homes in the sea. Documented sightings of naked Finfolk with their skins sitting nearby undoubtedly peppered the existing lore, especially since the Sami continued to travel in animal-skin boats into the eighteenth century. Orcadians and Shetlanders watched from afar as foreigners dragged their upside-down seal-skin kayaks onto the shore and emerged from underneath to rest. The sea-faring creatures became human, and became legend.

While Finfolk retained their malevolence throughout the centuries, the selkie-folk transformed into gentle creatures, beautiful and lithe in their human forms. Once ashore, the selkie-folk would cast off their magical sealskins to become human, and bask in the sun on lonely stretches of sand. If the sealskin was lost, or stolen, however, the creature was doomed to remain in human form until the skin could be recovered, for it was the only way for the selkie to return to its original form, and hence to its home in the sea. Because the skin was so precious, selkies would hastily snatch them up and rush back into the safety of the water if someone disturbed them while they were on land.

Capture of a Selkie-woman
Capture of a Selkie-woman

Selkie-men became famous for their handsomeness and irresistible powers of seduction over mortal women. They had no qualms about stashing their sealskins somewhere safe while they ventured inland to seek out lovers, single or married. If a woman wished to meet a selkie-man, according to legend she needed to shed seven tears into the sea at high tide. The selkie-man would then come ashore to take her as a lover. Women who went missing while at sea or on the ebb were said to have gone back to the watery homes of selkie-men.

Selkie-women were no less desirable to mortal men. Selkie-women, however, were chaster than their male counterparts, and selkie lore is full of tales of cunning young men acquiring a selkie-girl's sealskin by theft or deceit. The poor creature would be left with no choice but to marry their captors. These stories usually end with one of the selkie-wife's children returning the hidden skin to their mother after many years. Sometimes her children go to the sea with her, while others remain on land with their father.

The story of the Goodman o' Wastness is a typical tale. Read the story at Orkneyjar online
Please note this link will open in a new window or tab


Whereas the selkie-folk were gentle and often returned the kindness of mortals - as in the example of "The Selkie That Deud No Forget", Finfolk retained their dark and gloomy natures. They originated with the Finnar of Norway and became truly amphibious, as opposed to the selkie-folk, who were only able to come on land once a year at Midsummer's Eve. Finfolk came and went between the undersea world and the human realm as they pleased. Nomadic like their Sami "ancestors", they spent the long island winters in their majestic city at the bottom of the sea, Finfolkaheem and took up residence on their magical vanishing island home of Hildaland. Legend has it that the uninhabited Orcadian island of Eynhallow was once Hildaland, before a farmer from Evie reclaimed it for the human world.

Read the story of "The Selkie That Deud No Forget" at Orkneyjar online
Please note this link will open in a new window or tab

Read more about Finfolkaheem at Orkneyjar online
Please note this link will open in a new window or tab

Read more about Hildaland at Orkneyjar online
Please note this link will open in a new window or tab

Read the story of the Freeing of Eynhallow at Orkneyjar online
Please note this link will open in a new window or tab

Eynhallow Island
Eynhallow Island

Orkney's mysterious "vanishing island" remains enchanted to this day. On 14 July 1990, the Orkney Heritage Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organized a ferry trip to the uninhabited island of Eynhallow (Norse for "Holy Island") for a short visit. Eighty-eight visitors disembarked the boat. Only eighty-six returned.

The Kirkwall Police and Shetland Coastguard scoured the island and nearby islands with heat-seeking devices in search of the two missing passengers to no avail. They finally concluded that the ferry crew must have miscounted the number of passengers. Older local residents, however, murmured that the missing tourists were actually Finfolk returning to their ancient home.

Despite the modern magic of television and the Internet, there are still some parts of Scotland where ancient folk tradition still bubbles beneath the surface of daily life. The mystery was never solved.

Finmen were exceptionally territorial and eager to wreak vengeance on any human who might happen to trespass or fish in their waters. Sometimes a Finman would simply break a fisherman's line; other times he would wait until the fisherman had anchored his boat and then slip off the anchor stone, leaving the vessel to the perils of the current. More malevolent Finmen attacked hapless fishermen on the spot and set them to the mercy of the open sea. In order to protect themselves from Finmen, fishermen marked crosses on their line sinkers and on the hulls of their boats - for Finmen, pagan sorcerers that they were, abhorred the cross and would not come within half a mile of one.

In places like Orkney, Shetland, and the Hebrides - worlds in which peoples' lives are so inextricably connected to the sea - it is easy to see how these types of legends took root. Dangerous water took the lives of many daring fishermen: the friends and relatives of those lost at sea, hoping that their beloved fisherman might still be alive somewhere, often blamed his disappearance on a mermaid.

"The Fisherman and the Syren"

The mermaid, daughter of a Finman, had good reason for abducting mortal men: beautiful as a girl, with a long, glistening fish tail, dove-white skin, and sweeping golden tresses, she could discard her fish tail and become a beautiful mortal woman if she married a mortal man. If, however, she married one of her own kind, her exquisite beauty would gradually degenerate until she became a hideously revolting Finwife. For obvious reasons, the mermaid's desire for a human husband was strong. So when young men disappeared in the turbulent waters around the islands, he was said to have been ensnared by a mermaid's charms.

The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.
Copyright © 2009 Windsor Mosaic Website. All rights reserved