Three From the Sea: Scottish Folktales About the World Beneath the Waves by Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers
Kirsty Logan, writes about the rich folklore that inspired her new novel, The Gracekeepers.
Growing up in Scotland was a huge influence on me when I was writing The Gracekeepers, which brings together the Scottish traditions of the sea and of the ceilidh (a social gathering with music and wild dancing) to tell the story of a circus boat in a flooded world. Scotland has a strong and vivid tradition of folklore, and much of it is based around the sea. Perhaps not surprising, as no point in Scotland is more than 66 miles from the coast! I’ve always loved the Scottish tales of selkies, kelpies and fairies – though my favourite as a child was ‘Kate Crackernuts’, which tells of a resourceful girl who gets her prince not by being beautiful and demure, but clever and bold. As well as the traditional tales, my parents told me the classic European fairytales: ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Thumbelina’. I spent many happy hours poring over my mum’s old book of fairytales, with its white linen cover, gold embossing and beautiful illustrations. I spent my childhood immersed in folktales, and now I’m an adult I love them more than ever.
When I was 20 and studying English Literature, I discovered the work of Angela Carter and Marina Warner – and then I learned to love fairytales in a whole new way. Gone were the pretty children’s stories, to be replaced by the tales in their original, bloody, beautiful, violent glory. Some fairytales – though by no means all of them! – have happy endings, but they’re hard-won.
Fairytales and folktales (and their modern retellings) have had a huge influence on my writing. The way that contemporary writers have used the traditional structures to explore identity, feminism, gender and queer issues is constantly inspiring to me, and it’s something I seek to do in my own stories too. Folklore and fairytales are the well of inspiration I keep returning to – the darker and more beautiful, the better. And although I’m not so bothered about winning a prince, I still want to be as clever and bold as Kate Crackernuts.
In my reading I’ve discovered that almost every culture in the world has a version of the ‘woman from the sea’ story. They may be called mermaids, selkies, silkies, sirens, finfolk, nixies, or water spirits. They’re especially common in places like Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia: Northern places with a strong history of folklore and a culture very much rooted in the sea. I keep coming back to selkie stories for what it says about the modern power struggle between men and women, which – despite all the progress of women’s rights over the generations – still remains unequal. Although it’s an ancient tale, it’s as relevant to us in the modern world as ever.
The version below is adapted from the dozens of selkie variations I’ve read over the years. If you’re interested in exploring the legend further, the classic texts are David Thomson’s The People of the Sea and Duncan Williamson’s Tales of the Seal People, though almost any book of Scottish mythology will have a selkie story.
There was once a handsome young fisherman who could not find himself a wife. The island girls were pretty enough, but he felt something missing. Every day he took out his boat and set his lobster pots, and every night he sat alone in his cottage and watched the peat fire rise and fall.
One evening he heard soft laughter over the dunes. His footsteps silent on the sand, he crept closer. In the moonlight he saw a trio of women, all silvery hair and long limbs, dancing on the damp sand. One woman in particular captivated him. Her eyes were black as the night sea and her hair gleamed like starlight. He felt quite bewitched.
As he watched, the woman stepped over to the rocks, where sat a pile of greyish skins. They slid the skins up over their own pale limbs – and when the fisherman blinked, the women were gone, and three seals slid into the water.
The next night, the fisherman was waiting. When the women began their laughing dance, he crept to the rocks and snatched up one of the skins. He ran and hid it in a wooden box under his bed. When he returned, two of the women had disappeared, but the black-eyed selkie woman was still searching for her skin. She begged the fisherman to let her go home. But desire made him selfish. He promised that if she became his wife, he would love her and care for her and make her happy each day of her life. ‘You may love me,’ she replied, ‘but I can never be happy here.’
They married and had seven fine children. The fisherman loved his wife, and she grew fond of him. But every night she slid from her marriage bed to stand on the shore, gazing out at the water and mourning her lost home. The fisherman lay sleepless in the empty bed, the stolen skin beneath him.
One day their youngest son was exploring the house, and found the sealskin under the bed. He brought it to his mother and asked her, what was this strange thing, so soft and smelling of the sea? The boy knew nothing of his mother’s history; he was simply curious. The selkie kissed her children goodbye, slid on her true skin, and went home.
When the fisherman came back to the cottage, his children were fast asleep and stew bubbled on the fire – but his wife was gone. Fear shivered through him and he threw open the wooden box. It was empty, and with it his heart emptied too.
In time he learned to live a good life with his home and his children. But sometimes, late at night, he slid from his bed to gaze out at the water and mourn his lost love.
Women from the sea are often portrayed as sad and ultimately benevolent creatures – but not all of them! I’ve always been fascinated by mermaids – perhaps it’s the influence of the fabulous and terrifying Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which I was obsessed with as a child. In Scottish folklore, mermaids are often proud and vengeful. To me, this is much more interesting than the virtuous and self-sacrificing creature from the Hans Christian Anderson story. This version is adapted from a tale in Judy Hamilton’s Scottish Myths and Legends.
The Mermaid’s Revenge
There was a grand house, and inside it lived a wealthy couple, and outside it was a large black rock. The rock was worn to gleaming by the generations of mermaids who slid up on it to sing every night. The last mermaid was as vengeful as she was beautiful, and every night as the moon rose, she’d slide up onto the rock and sing her lonely song. Though the sound was eerie, the couple grew to enjoy it as a lullaby. But that changed when they had a child.
The baby slept fine during the day, but as soon as the mermaid began to sing, the child opened its tiny pink mouth and cried loud enough to wake the whole island. All night the mermaid sang, and all night the baby wailed. Finally, the desperate father braved the dark and walked out along the shore to the mermaid’s rock. He asked her, as politely as he could, to stop. The proud mermaid liked that not one bit. She turned her back and sang louder. Each time she was asked to stay quiet, she sang louder still.
The child’s mother grew desperate and delirious from lack of sleep. One morning she gathered a pack of men and ordered them to smash the shining rock. They worked all day with pickaxes and hammers until there was nothing left but a pile of jagged black stones.
That night, the mermaid’s fury was wild enough to sink ships. She opened her mouth – but instead of song, she shrieked a throatful of wild curses, prophesying the end of the family. Unseen in the nursery, the force of the sound began to rock the sleeping baby’s cradle to and fro, to and fro, hard enough to shake the house. When the last note of the mermaid’s terrible curse had died, the mother rushed upstairs – only to find the cradle upturned, and her child dead beneath it. Away swam the mermaid, her song made true.
When I first read the folktale of ‘The People of the Sea’, I couldn’t believe how similar it was to the basis of the world of The Gracekeepers. I’d already written the book by this point, so it couldn’t have been a direct influence, but the connection was undeniable. I put it down to some ingrained folk memory – or perhaps I heard the story as a small child, and although my conscious mind forgot it, the tiny beating heart of the tale stayed there inside me until I needed it.
This version is adapted from two variations of the legend in George W. MacPherson’s Celtic Sea Stories.
The People of the Sea
Down in the deep green sea, where all was silence and the world was lit murky, there lived the sea people. They were a strong and ancient people, who lived in elegant marble cities – but they were not happy. The changing tides were slowly destroying their homes, and their numbers were dwindling. Each time they launched an attack above the waves, trying to win some land to make a new home, they were beaten. The people of the land were too strong.
But the sea-king was wise. He gathered his people together and explained that they must try a new approach. ‘You will go ashore and join with the people of the land. You will adopt their customs and culture. But your heart will always belong to the sea.’
And so the people of the sea clambered ashore and became the people of the land. Being tall, slim and golden-haired, they married easily. They were excellent fisherfolk, strong swimmers, and sang beautiful lullabies of loss.
Not all the sea-people settled to their new way of life. They did not like the meat and bread, the sounds of the language, or the height of dizzying sky. Back they slipped into the sea.
But they had been away for too long to pick up their old lives. They could not be sea-people or land-people. So the sea-king said, ‘I will make you people of both’. Although they could live in land or sea, they could stay in neither place for too long. Every seven years, they had to change: sea to land, or land to sea. Some of their children loved the sea, and grew into great navigators or sailors; some loved the land, and became great sculptors or farmers. And what happened to the people who chose to stay under the sea? Well, perhaps they live there still.
Read more about The Gracekeepers here.