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Silkie (The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry)

  • (Trad / James Waters)

    In Norowa' land there lived a maid
    Baloo, my babe, this maid began
    I ken na wha your faither is
    Nor yet the land that he dwells in

    It happened on a certain day
    When this fair maiden fell asleep
    That in there cam' a grey silkie
    And sat him doon at her bed feet

    Sayin', Awake, awake, my bonnie maid
    For oh, hoo soond as thou dost sleep
    I'll tell thee whaur his faither is
    He's sittin' close at thy bed feet

    I pray come tell tae me your name
    And tell me whaur your dwelling be
    My name is good Heim Mailer
    And I earn my living oot tae sea

    I am a man upon the land
    I am a silkie in the sea
    And when I'm far frae every strand
    My dwelling is in Sule Skerry

    Alas, alas, this woefu' fate
    This weary fate that's been laid on me
    That a man should have come frae the wast' o' Hoy
    Tae the Norowa' lands t'hae a bairn wi' me

    My dear, I'll wed ye wi' a ring
    Wi' a ring, my dear, I'll wed wi' thee
    Thou may go wed wi' whom thou will
    I'm sure you'll never wed wi' me

    Thou will nurse my bonnie son
    For seeven lang years upon your knee
    An' at the end o' seeven lang years
    I'll come and pay thy nurse's fee

    She has nursed her little wee son
    For seeven lang years upon her knee
    An' at the end o' seeven lang years
    He's come back wi' gold and white money

    My dear, I'll wed ye wi' a ring
    Wi' a ring, my dear, I'll wed wi' thee
    Thou may go wed wi' whom thou will
    I'm sure you'll never wed wi' me

    But I'll put a gold chain roond his neck
    An' a gey good gold chain it'll be
    That if ever he comes tae the Norowa' lands
    You can hae a good guess it is he

    An' you will get a gunner good
    An' a gey good gunner it'll be
    An' he'll gae oot on a May mornin'
    An' shoot the son and the grey silkie

    And she has got a gunner good
    An' a gey good gunner I'm sure 'twas he
    An' he gaed oot on a May mornin'
    An' he shot the son and the grey silkie

    Alas, alas, this woefu' fate
    This weary fate that's been laid on me
    And aince or twice she sobbed an' sighed
    And her tender heart it brak' in three

    (as sung by Jean Redpath)


    An earthly nurse sits and sings
    And aye she sings, My little wean
    Saying, Little know I my bairn's father
    Far less the land that he dwells in

    Then one arose at her bed-foot
    And a grisly guest I'm sure was he
    Saying, Here am I, thy bairn's father
    Although I be not comelie

    I am a man upon the land
    I am a silkie in the sea
    And when I'm far and far from land
    My home it is in Sule Skerry

    And he has taken a purse of gold
    And he had laid it on her knee
    Sayin', Give to me my little young son
    Take you off your nurse's fee

    It shall come to pass on a summer's day
    When the sun shines bright on every stone
    That I will take my little young son
    And teach him how to swim the foam

    And you shall marry a gunner good
    And a right fine gunner I'm sure he'll be
    And the very first shot that e'er he fires
    Will kill both my young son and me

    (as sung by Dave Burland, to a different tune)

Susannes Folksong-Notizen

  • [1963:] "The folklore of the Hebrides and Orkneys - Sule or Shule Skerry is a Western Orkney islet - is rich in tales of the silkies or seal-folk. Enchanted creatures, they dwell in the depth of the sea, but they occasionally come upon land, after doffing their sealskins, and pass as ordinary men, like the silkie of the ballad, who has begat a child upon an 'earthly nourris', a mortal woman. Many families in the Scottish islands trace their ancestry to sealmen, and, because of a totemic taboo, will not taste seal meat. Though the denouement of this ballad may seem a contrived literary device, the Orkney islanders would consider the prophecy in keeping, because the silkies are noted for their power of foretelling the future." (Albert B. Friedman, quoted in Reprint Sing Out 5, 294)

  • [1980:] There are many traditional tales, especially in northern latitudes, about seals assuming human form. [One] version of the ballad was collected as recently as 1970-72 by Alan Bruford, who comments that it "may have been based on a tale that had been told in Norse, even on a Norse ballad, but as we have it it was launched into and carried down on a Scots stream of tradition", starting in Orkney "probably not much before the beginning of the seventeenth century". (Palmer, Ballads 56f)

  • [1987:] Stories of the seal-folk are legion - Ireland, the Outer Hebrides, Argyll, Orkney, Shetland, Caithness, Sutherland, Northeast Scotland and even Norway and Greenland share the tradition of the silkie, or selchie (prob. from Norse selch: seal). Thomas in 1852 described this as "the superstition of the seals or selkies being able to throw off their waterproof jackets and assume the more graceful proportions of the genus Homo". The ballad in this form was recovered in 1938 by Professor Otto Andersson of Finland from John Sinclair of Flotta in the Orkney Islands. Sule Skerry [Sula Sgeir] is a rocky islet 25 miles west of Hoy Head in Orkney. Professor Bertrand H. Bronson (University of California/Berkeley) has a note and further references.

    In singing the ballad, the repetition of the verse beginning "My dear, I'll wed the(e?) wi' a ring" left me a little confused as to who was speaking the second time [...] and why. I assumed that the silkie offered marriage the first time, but couldn't quite decide who proposed and who refused the second time. I resolved the dilemma to my own satisfaction, having read the epic of the "Lady Odivere" which includes a similar encounter. On the silkie's return, his reply to her proposal is:

    Doo wad no', whin I wad gudewife;
    I winno, whin doo'r willan noo,
    Dat day doo tint doo'l never faind;
    He's late, he's ower late tae rue
    (You wouldn't when I wanted to
    I won't now that you are willing
    That day you lost you'll never find
    It's late, too late for regrets
    (Notes 'Jean Redpath')

  • [1993:] I couldn't get out of my head an extraordinary melody put together by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student [...] James Waters, now a professor in Vermont [...] who had put a new tune to a mystical ballad The Great Silkie from the Shetland Islands north of Scotland. (Seeger, Flowers 105)

  • [1995:] Stories and songs of the silkies or seal-people and their dealings with humankind are found widely in both Norse and Celtic tradition but Francis James Child's 'English and Scottish Popular Ballads' has only one fairly short version of this ballad and, of course, no melody. This stark tune and the fuller story were recorded in the thirties from John Sinclair of Flotta in the Orkney Islands. In some versions it is the Silkie who offers marriage the second time but while collating my text from various sources I decided that it was likely that the woman would see marriage as the only way to keep her child. (Notes Sheena Wellington, 'Strong Women')

  • See also Edmonds, Silkie; Thompson, The People of the Sea

  • See also http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=31375

Quelle: Scotland

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