Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, The [Child 113]

DESCRIPTION: A lady mourns that she knows not her son's father. He appears at her bedside, revealing that he is a silkie. He prophesies that she shall marry a "gunner," who will shoot both him and her son.
AUTHOR: unknown
KEYWORDS: selkie seduction
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Hebr))
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Child 113, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 text)
Bronson 113, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 version, though only the fifth stanza is proper to the tune)
Bronson-SingingTraditionOfChildsPopularBallads 113, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 version)
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 321-323, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (2 texts)
Leach-HeritageBookOfBallads, pp. 59-60, "The Great Selchie of Shool Skerrie" (1 text)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 31, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 text)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 27, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's (#1)}
Grigson-PenguinBookOfBallads 74, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry"; 75, "Sealchie Song" (1 text)
Hodgart-FaberBookOfBallads, p. 69, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 219, "The Great Silkie" (1 text)

Roud #197
Art Thieme, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (on Thieme06)
NOTES [456 words]: The tune to which this ballad is most often sung nowadays was composed by James Waters in the late 1950s. It was also used by Pete Seeger as the melody for his setting of Nazim Hikmet's poem about Hiroshima, "I Come and Stand at Every Door." -PJS
The fullest collection of texts and tunes for this piece is probably that of Alan Bruford, who in "The Grey Silkie" (originally published in Scottish Studies 18, 1974; also available in E. B. Lyle, ed., Ballad Studies) prints, in tolerably incomprehensible form, eight texts or fragments and two tunes.
Bruford also discusses the relationship of the song to "The Play o de Lathie Odivere" (best known now perhaps in Gordon Bok's adaption "The Play of the Lady Odivere"), having much to say, and little of it good, about this piece first published by Walter Traill Dennison in The Scottish Antiquary in 1894. Bruford doesn't quite say so, but it appears that he believes Dennison's piece to be a forgery built upon a small core of traditional material.
According to Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, a Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 2001, p. 51, "The motif of a young hero who is compelled to wear an animal skin is an ancient one and made its first literary appearance in Sanskrit in the Pancatantra, a collection if Indian didactic fables and stories, about 300 C.E. In 'The Enchanted Brahmin's Son,' a father burns the snakeskin of his son to preserve his humanity. This particular motif is found in numerous folktales. Generally speaking, however, it is a young woman or her parents who burn the animal skin to set a young man free." Zipes goes on to list many more "Beastly Born Heroes," although his list does not appear to include the seal folk.
I had one thought about this song that doesn't seem to have been covered by anyone else. This refers to the fact that the selkie is killed by a "good gunner." Seals were hunted by guns, but it wasn't common -- if a seal is hit in the water, it sinks, so there is no point in shooting it unless it's on land (and, even then, it will head for the water if it is merely wounded). Inuit seal hunters, for instance, don't seem to have taken to firearms even when available. Guns were used in the Newfoundland seal hunt, but they were phased out over time, partly to conserve the species but partly because they were so pointless.
Which leads to the observation that shooting seals was both a temporary and a local phenomenon. Norwegians and Newfoundlanders hunted seals as a commercial operation; so did Scots, especially from Dundee. There wasn't much Irish sealing. This raises the thought that, somewhere deep down, this isn't just a competition between seal and human but between peoples from two different lands. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
File: C113

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