Meet the Selkies: Scotland’s Shape-Shifting Seal Fairies


Todd Calgi Gallicano has breathed new life into ancient myth with his Sam London books, a series about a boy who discovers that creatures of folklore are living in America’s national parks. While book one, Guardians of the Gryphon’s Claw, featured a familiar enough creature,  the beast featured in book two, The Selkie of San Francisco, might have young readers running for the mythology section of their local library — and maybe some of their parents, too. Are you curious about these creatures of Celtic folklore? Read on.

Selkies, also known as roane and water kelpies, are shape-shifting fairies that travel about the ocean disguised as seals. While tales of these mysterious creatures have made their way to every corner of the globe, they are native to the Orkney and Shetland Islands of Scotland. 

Selkies are indistinguishable from the common seals with whom they share their waters, and never swim alone. Should you encounter one selkie, it is a safe bet that there are others lurking just out of sight. Selkies are quite fond of common seals, and harming one in their company is a surefire way to earn their ire: The male of the species is thought to be capable of influencing the weather, capsizing boats, and much more.

Jennifer Westwood and Sophie Kingshill recounts a tale of selkie wrath in their book The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to the Scottish Legends. The story goes that there was once a Scotsman who made a living skinning seals. One day, the man was approached by a stranger who offered to take him to a place where a seal skinner such as himself could make his fortune. When the man agreed, the stranger overpowered him and dragged him to a cave beneath the ocean where he was transformed into a seal by a group of selkies. The selkies told him that he had harmed one of their number, and made him promise to never hunt again. Having learned his lesson, the terrified man was returned to his own shores as a human being.

While selkies spend the majority of their lives at sea, they do occasionally come ashore to dance, or even to mingle among humankind. Doing so requires very little preparation: the selkie simply slips out of his or her seal skin, just like you might remove a swimsuit after a swim at the pool. Finding a place to hide the skin is the most important part. Should it go missing, the selkie will be unable to return to the water. 

Selkies, like some other fairy folk, look enough like human beings that most people don’t give them a second glance. However, those who do may notice something a bit odd about their new friend, like his or her wide palms or webbed fingers. Selkies take great care to hide these and other signs of their true nature, though, and sometimes what was intended to be a short visit to the surface world can turn into a stay of many years. 

There are stories about love affairs between human beings and selkies. Folklorist Katherine Briggs, in her book An Encyclopedia of Fairies, recorded the story of a Scottish woman who took a selkie lover. She had several children by him, all of whom were born with webbed fingers. Their descendants, the MacCoddrums, can still be found in Scotland to this day. In her book Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts, Briggs wrote of a man who stole a selkie’s skin and tricked her into marrying him. The marriage lasted for many years, only ending when the selkie recovered her skin and returned to the sea. 

Selkie stories are just good fun, and it is great to see that Gallicano has written one for modern audiences. Young readers are sure to love it — even if they don’t have webbing between their fingers.