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The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry – A Poem, Ballad And Melody

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Since I am on the theme of Selkie’s for this week’s weekly dose of Irish. I thought, why not include one of the most famous poems(ballads) on Selkies? 

“The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry” is arguably the most famous poem and folk ballad concerning selkies. Its haunting melody and poignant lyrics have captivated many, making it a staple in the repertoire of traditional Scottish and Orcadian music. 

Now, if you try and read the poem at first glance, it isn’t the easiest poem to read, but essentially, the ballad narrates the story of a selkie man who predicts the fate of his son, born from his union with a human woman.

"The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry"

This tale, with its themes of loss, prophecy, and the inevitable pull of the selkie’s true nature, embodies the mystical essence and tragic beauty that often characterizes selkie folklore. And don’t worry. I have included a musical rendition underneath the poem that I am sure you will love.

Its widespread appeal and numerous renditions by folk musicians highlight its enduring place in the heart of selkie mythology.


The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

by Anonymous
An eartly nourris sits and sings,
And aye she sings, “Ba, lily wean!
Little ken I my bairnis father,
Far less the land that he staps in.”Then ane arose at her bed-fit,
An’ a grumly guest I’m sure was he:
“Here am I, thy bairnis father,
Although that I be not comelie.“I am a man upo the lan,
An’ I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae lan,
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.”

“It was na weel,” quo the maiden fair,
“It was na weel, indeed,” quo she,
“That the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie
Suld hae come and aught a bairn to me.”

Now he has taen a purse of goud,
And he has pat it upo her knee,
Sayin, “Gie to me my little young son,
An’ tak thee up thy nourris-fee.”

“An’ it sall come to pass on a simmer’s day,
When the sin shines het on evera stane,
That I will tak my little young son,
An’ teach him for to swim the faem.

“An’ thu sall marry a proud gunner,
An’ a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
An’ the very first shot that ere he shoots,

Very easy to read, right? 😅 So you’d wonder how easy it is to sing? Well, certainly not easy by any means, but listening to this rendition by Joan Baez brings the poem to life, which is why I wanted to include the poem before the ballad. This song, “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry”, featured on her 1961 album “Joan Baez, Vol. 2,” is well-regarded for its haunting vocals and emotive delivery, bringing the poignant story of the selkie to life. Listen for yourself; there are some slight differences in the lyrics, but wow, what a voice! 


Selkie mythology extends on

The enduring allure of selkie mythology, epitomized by the haunting verses of “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry,” captures the imagination with its themes of transformation, longing, and the inexorable pull between two worlds.
These tales, woven into the fabric of Celtic and Norse folklore, serve as a poignant reminder of our deep connection to the natural world and the untamed spirit that resides within us all. As selkies continue to inspire poets, musicians, and storytellers, they remind us of the power of myth to explore the depths of human emotion and the eternal mysteries of the sea.
In the whispers of the waves and the rustle of the seal skin, the legend of the selkie endures, a timeless testament to the complex dance of freedom, identity, and love.

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