Site Map
Scottish Folktales and Legends
Section › 11   Set    Search  Previous Next

Reservations   Contents    

Grey seal

Once on a time there was a man who lived not very far from John of Groat's house in the very north of Scotland. He lived in a little cottage by the seashore, and made his living by catching seals and selling their very valuable fur.

He earned a good deal of money in this way, for these creatures used to come out of the sea in large numbers and lie on the rocks near his house basking in the sunshine, so that it was not difficult to creep up behind them and kill them.

Some of those seals were larger than others, and the country people used to call them "Roane" and whisper that they were not seals at all, but mermen and merwomen who came from a country of their own, far down under the ocean and assumed this strange disguise in order that they might pass through the water and come up to breathe the air on the surface of the earth.

But the seal catcher only laughed at them, and said that those big seals were most worth killing, for their skin were so big that he got an extra price for them.

One day it chanced that when he was out and tried to catch seals, he stabbed a seal with his knife, but the stroke did not kill the creature. With a loud cry of pain it slipped off the rock into the sea and disappeared under the water, carrying the knife along with it.

The seal catcher got much annoyed at his clumsiness, and also at the loss of his knife. He went home to dinner and felt downcast. On his way he met a horseman who was so tall and so strange-looking and who rode on such a big horse that he stopped and looked at the stranger in astonishment, wondering who he was, and what country he came from.

The stranger stopped also, and asked him his trade. On hearing that he was a seal catcher, he at once ordered a great number of sealskins. The seal catcher was delighted, for such an order meant a large sum of money to him. But his face fell when the horseman added that it was absolutely necessary that the skins should be delivered that evening.

"I cannot do it," he said in a disappointed voice, "for the seals will not come back to the rocks again until tomorrow morning."

"I can take you to a place where there are lots of seals," answered the stranger, "if you will mount behind me on my horse and come with me."

The seal catcher agreed to this, and climbed up behind the rider, who shook his bridle rein, and off the great horse galloped at such a pace that the seal catcher had much ado to keep his seat. On and on they went, hurrying like the wind till at last they came to the edge of a huge precipice that went sheer down to the sea. Here the mysterious horseman pulled up his steed with a jerk. "Get off now," he said shortly.

The seal catcher did as he was bid, and when he found himself safe on the ground, he peeped cautiously over the edge of the cliff, to see if there were any seals lying on the rocks below.

To his astonishment he saw no rocks, only the blue sea, which came right up to the foot of the cliff.

"Where are the seals that you spoke of?" he asked anxiously, wishing that he had never set out on such a rash adventure.

You will soon see," answered the stranger, who was attending to his horse's bridle.

The seal catcher was now thoroughly frightened, for he felt sure that some evil was about to befall him, and in such a lonely place he knew that it would be useless to cry out for help.

The next moment the stranger laid his hand on his shoulder, and he was hurled over the cliff, and fell with a splash into the sea. He thought that his last hour had come, but instead of being choked by the water, he could breathe quite easily as long as the other held on to him. He and his companion, who was still close at his side, seemed to be sinking as quickly down through the sea as they had flown through the air.

Down and down they went, till at last they came to a huge arched door. It seemed to be made of pink coral, studded over with cockleshells. It opened of its own accord, and when they entered, they found themselves in a huge hall. Its walls were formed of mother-of-pearl, and the floor was of sea-sand, smooth, firm, and yellow.

The hall was crowded with occupants, but they were seals, not men, and when the seal catcher turned to his companion to ask him what it all meant, he was struck by terror to find that he, too, had taken on the form of a seal. He was still more terror-struck when he caught sight of himself in a large mirror that hung on the wall, and saw that he also no longer looked like a man, but a nice, hairy, brown seal.

"Woe to me," he said to himself, "for no fault of own this artful stranger has laid some baneful charm on me, and I will remain like this for the rest of my life."

At first none of the huge creatures spoke to him. For some reason or other they seemed to be very sad, and moved gently about the hall, talking quietly and mournfully to one another, or lay sadly on the sandy floor, wiping big tears from their eyes with their soft furry fins.

But after a while they began to notice him and to whisper to one another. His guide moved away from him and disappeared through a door at the end of the hall. When he returned, he held a huge knife in his hand.

"Have you seen this before?" he asked, holding it out to the seal catcher, who, to his horror, recognised his own hunting knife that he had struck at a seal in the morning, and that had been carried off by the wounded animal.

At the sight of it he fell on his face and thought the seals around him would take revenge on him by killing him. But, instead they crowded round him, rubbing their soft noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and assured him that no harm would befall him if he would only do what they asked him.

"Tell me what it is," said the seal catcher, "and I will do it if it lies within my power."

"Follow me," answered his guide, and he led the way to the door he had disappeared through when he went to seek the knife.

The seal catcher followed him. And there, in a smaller room, he found a great brown seal lying on a bed of pale pink sea-weed, with a gaping wound in his side.

"That is my father," said his guide, "the one you wounded this morning, thinking that he was one of the common seals who live in the sea, instead of a merman who can speak and understand just as humans. I brought you here to bind up his wounds, for no other hand than yours can heal him."

"I have no skill in the art of healing," said the seal catcher, astonished at the forbearance of these strange creatures that he had so unwittingly wronged, "but I will bind up the wound to the best of my power, and I am only sorry that it was my hands that caused it."

He went over to the bed, and stooping over the wounded merman, washed and dressed the hurt as well as he could. And the touch of his hands appeared to work like magic, for no sooner had he finished than the wound disappeared, leaving only the scar, and the old seal sprang up, as well as ever.

Then there was great rejoicing throughout the whole palace of the seals. They laughed and talked, and they embraced each other in their own strange way, crowding round their comrade, and rubbing their noses against his to show him how delighted they were at his recovery.

But all this while the seal catcher stood alone in a corner, with his mind filled with dark thoughts, for although he saw now that they had no intention of killing him, he did not relish the prospect of spending the rest of his life in the guise of a seal deep under the ocean.

But to his great joy, his guide approached him, and said, "Now you are free to return home to your wife and children. I will take you to them, but only on one condition."

"And what is that?" asked the seal catcher eagerly at the thought of being restored safely to his family.

"That you will take a solemn oath never to wound a seal again."

"That will I do right gladly," he replied, for although the promise meant giving up his means of livelihood, he felt that if only he regained his proper shape he could always turn his hand to something else.

So he took the required oath, holding up his fin as he swore, and all the other seals crowded round him as witnesses. A sigh of relief went through the halls when the words were spoken, for he was the most noted seal catcher in the North.

Then he bade the strange company farewell, and accompanied by his guide, passed once more through the outer doors of coral, and up, and up, and up, through the shadowy green water, until it began to grow lighter and lighter and at last they emerged into the sunshine of earth.

Then, with one spring, they reached the top of the cliff, where the great black horse was waiting for them, quietly nibbling the green turf.

When they left the water their strange disguise dropped from them, and they were now as they had been before, a plain seal catcher and a tall, well-dressed gentleman in riding clothes.

"Get up behind me," said the latter, as he swung himself into his saddle. The seal catcher did as he was bid, taking tight hold of his companion's coat, for he remembered how nearly he had fallen off on his previous journey.

Then it all happened as it happened before. The bridle was shaken and the horse galloped off, and it was not long before the seal catcher found himself standing in safety before his own garden gate.

He held out his hand to say good-bye, but as he did so the stranger pulled out a huge bag of gold and placed it in it.

"You have done your part of the bargain, and we do ours," he said. "Men shall never say that we took away an honest man's work without making compensation for it, and here is what will sustain you for the rest of your life."

Then he vanished, and when the astonished seal catcher carried the bag into his cottage and turned the gold out on the table, he found that what the stranger had said was true, and that he would be a rich man for his remaining days.

(Retold from Grierson 1910, 58-67)


The Four Hunters and the Four Vixens

Some hundred years ago four hunters went hunting to the braes [1] of Lochaber. After the day's sport was over, they got to a summer-pasture bothy [2] to pass the night. They reached the bothy in the dark. After kindling a fire and taking supper, they sat down about the hearth and began to converse. They felt very comfortable, and three of them said in fun that they wanted nothing now but to have their sweethearts with them there to make them as happy as kings. "Goodness between me and that wish," said the fourth hunter.

The conversation then ceased, and the three hunters withdrew to a corner of the bothy, but the fourth stayed where he was.

Shortly after that, four women entered the bothy. They looked and behaved like the sweethearts of the hunters. Three of them went over and sat beside the three hunters in the corner; but the fourth stood before the hunter who was seated at the fire.

When the hunter sitting at the fire noticed this, he drew his dirk [3] from the scabbard, and laid it across his knees. Then he took two trumps [4] out of his pocket, and began to play on them. The woman standing before him noticed this and said:

"Good is the music of the trump,
Saving the one note in its train.
Its owner likes it in his mouth
In preference to any maid."

The hunter pretended not to hear her, but went on playing on the trumps as before.

Then she began to come nearer, and tried to lay hold of him with her hand, but he kept her off as well as he could with his dirk.

When she failed in getting hold of him in this way, she tried another. "Give me a pinch of snuff,"said she.

The hunter prepared the snuff and reached it to her on the point of his dirk. When she saw this, she turned the point of her elbow towards him and said, "Put it here."

The hunter suspected that she tried to get a chance to seize the hand that held the dirk, and so he was on his guard. As soon as he noticed she was about to stretch out her arm while he was reaching her the snuff, he kept the point of his dirk towards her, and gave her one or two prods with it. That was enough. She went back to the other side of the fire, and stood there, irritating him.

At length he heard the crowing of a cock as if on a hilltop. "Over there," said the woman on the other side of the fire, "is the black cock of March [5]; it is time to depart."

She said no more, but made for the door, and her three companions sprang out after her.

As soon as daylight appeared, the fourth hunter went over to the corner, and there he found his three comrades cold and dead with their throats cut and every drop of blood sucked out of their veins. Now he had no doubt that the women were vixens [6], and the fourth would have done the same thing to him had it not been for the words and other means he had used.

Some words
  1. Brae: hillside, slope.
  2. Bothy: A basic shelter, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge.
  3. Dirk: a short dagger (and little sword) in Scottish. Weapons of steel, such as a drawn sword were used as a special protection from the fairies. And a piece of cold iron or steel put into the bed of a lady "uneasy in her circumstances," would protect mother and offspring from being ''fayed," people thought in the old days.
  4. Trump: Here: trumpet.
  5. "The black cock of March." A black cock hatched in March from a cock and hen hatched in March, and it "crows at the very moment when night turns to day." - in folklore.
  6. Vixen: She-fox, female fox; a malicious woman. The original tale talks of the glastig (glaistig), however. The glastig in folklore is a kind of beautiful female fairy in a long, flowing green dress. In some stories she lures men by song or dance, in the end to drink their blood. In other tales she is peaceful, but swift to punish those who offend her. Campbell writes in a note to the tale: "Glaistig occupied a middle position between the fairies and mankind. She was not a fairy woman, but one of human race who had a fairy nature given her." I decided to render glastig into vixen. - T. K.


The Deer-Hunter of Jura

Yellow Murdoch of the Deer was a Jura [1] man, and a famous hunter. Of all the mountains on the island, Ben-an-Or [2] was his favourite hunting ground, and he continued to go there till he was a very old grey-headed man.

People told the deer belonged to the fairies, and Yellow Murdoch was so destructive to the stags. One day as he was ranging the mountain he saw a fine stag and stalked it till he was near enough to shoot him with an arrow. But when he had shut one eye to take aim with the other, the stag changed into a man, and said, "There you are, Yellow Murdoch, grown grey sitting on the side of Ben-an-Or."

At once it was so. However, Murdoch replied, "If I have grown grey while sitting on the side of Ben-an-Or, it is an easy thing for God to make me young again."

After he said this, the strength of youth returned to him again, and he lived for many years after.

(MacDougall 1910)

  1. Jura. An island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The island is now a National Scenic Area.
  2. Ben-an-Or. Beinn an Òir (Gaelic: mountain of gold) is the highest peak on Jura, 785 m high.



Scottish folktales, Orkney tales, Scotish legends, folk tales of Scotland, folk tales of the Orkney Islands, To top    Section     Set    Next

Scottish folktales, Orkney tales, Scotish legends, folk tales of Scotland, folk tales of the Orkney Islands. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 2010–2018, Tormod Kinnes [Email]