The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

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"The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry"
Vernon Hill, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, 1912.png
Vernon Hill's illustration of the tale. From Richard Chope's 1912 collection Ballads Weird and Wonderful.[1]
Genre Folk song
Songwriter(s) Unknown

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry or The Grey Selkie of Suleskerry is a traditional folk song from Orkney. The song was collected by the American scholar, Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century and is listed as Child ballad number 113. There are many different versions of the song, one of which is a part of the epic ballad, The Lady Odivere.[2]


A woman, nursing a baby, laments that she does not know the child's father or where he lives. A man rises up to tell her that he is the father, and that he is a silkie — a changeling that takes the form of a man on the land and a seal in the sea, and that he lives on a remote rocky island called Sule Skerry. He gives her a purse full of gold, takes his son, and predicts that she will marry a gunner (the man who fires the harpoon on a whaling ship)[3] who will shoot both him and their son.


An earthly nourris sits and sings,
And aye she sings, "Ba lilly wean,
Little ken I my bairn's father,
Far less the land that he staps in."

Then ane arose at her bed fit,
And a grumly guest I'm sure was he,
Saying "Here am I, thy bairn's father,
Although I am not comely."

I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I'm far frae every strand,
My home it is in Sule Skerry."

“It was na weel”, the maiden cried,
“It was na weel, indeed” quo she,
“For the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie,
To hae come and aught a bairn to me!”

Then he has taken a purse of gold,
And he has laid it on her knee,
Saying, "give to me, my little young son,
And take thee up thy nouris fee.

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

And thou shalt marry a proud gunner,
And a very proud gunner I'm sure he'll be,
And the very first shot that e're he shoots,
he'll kill both my young son and me."

An interpolated 5th stanza has also been heard:

'Twas weel eno' the night we met,
When I'd be oot and on my way,
Ye held me close, ye held me tight,
 "Just ane mair time ere the break o' day!"

Meaning of scots dialect words[edit]

  • nourris = a woman who is employed to suckle a small child - a nurse.[4]
  • ba lilly wean = howl lovely child.[5][6][7]
  • ken = know[8]
  • staps = stops or stays.[9]
  • ane = one[10]
  • bed fit = bed foot i.e. foot of the bed[11]
  • grumly = troubled[12]
  • strand - beach or shore.[13]


The best known tune today is non-traditional, having been written by Jim Waters in 1954. Child was interested only in the texts of the ballads he collected, and Jim explains that the tune was "just the best I could do as a way to get a fine ballad sung".[citation needed] Over the next two years, he introduced the ballad to the Boston area at a time when "hootnannies" filled the Great Court of MIT on a weekly basis (before recorded folk songs were widely available). Jim Butler added the song to his repertoire, according to his notes, in October 1954, on a page labelled "MITOC Supp.", being the MIT Outing Club addition to his typewritten Child Ballads. Butler taught the song to several people, including Bonnie Dobson. This is the tune that Joan Baez popularized as "Silkie" in the early 1960s.

Although Jean Redpath disparaged Water's tune as "phony", preferring a longer version of Child 113 to another tune, by 1965, Jim Butler had heard Waters' tune sung by a Scottish student at the University of British Columbia, unaccompanied in the traditional style, and under the impression that he had learned it from his grandfather. "This has to be one of the most flattering things that has ever happened to me",[citation needed] added Waters, who eventually copyrighted his version and assigned it to Folk Legacy Records. Folk Legacy reassigned all copyright interest to James Waters in August, 2012.

The original tune was preserved by Dr. Otto Andersson who heard it sung by John Sinclair on the island of Flotta, Orkney. Dr Andersson said, “I had no idea at the time that I was the first person to write down the tune. The pure pentatonic form of it and the beautiful melodic line showed me that it was a very ancient melody that I had set on paper.”[14]

American folksinger Pete Seeger set the poem "I Come and Stand at Every Door" by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet to the tune of "The Great Silkie" in 1953. The American rock band The Byrds sang it on their third album, Fifth Dimension (1966). The song was later covered by This Mortal Coil. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds later recorded the song with its original lyrics as part of his Folk Den project.

  • The English folk rock band Trees included one variant, as "The Great Silkie", in The Garden of Jane Delawney, their debut album.
  • James Michener refers to the ballad in his 1971 novel The Drifters. In Chapter I, the character Gretchen Cole, a student at Radcliffe and an anti-war activist, sings the song to a group of Harvard and MIT students at a corner bar in Boston. Michener seems to imply that the song had some special meaning at the time with regard to the anti-Vietnam War movement. "Above them she announced the title of her song, 'Child 113,' and the students, knowing what this signified, applauded." When Gretchen finished the song, Michener writes, "The students did not applaud, for the ballad struck much too closely to their own experiences [. . .]" Later, in Chapter VI, Gretchen again sings the song, after which, the narrator notes, "It was as if this very old ballad had foreseen the sense of tragedy that was to overtake the young people of this generation in the United States."
  • Glasgow-born folk singer Ray Fisher (1940-2011) included the song on her album "The Bonny Birdy" (1972). Her brother Archie Fisher has a version on his "Orfeo" (1970).
  • Judy Collins included her version,"Great Selchie of Shule Skerry" on her 1962 CD Golden Apples of the Sun.[15] Her version follows the above lyrics quite closely.
  • In 1981 Angelo Branduardi recorded this tune in his album Branduardi '81, with a lyrics by Esenin. The song is titled "La cagna". In 2013 re-recorded this tune (titled: "Silkie") with original lyrics adapted in Italian language, in his album Il Rovo E La Rosa.
  • The Philadelphia folk band Broadside Electric included a version of the ballad on their 1996 album More Bad News ...
  • The Scottish band MacCumba, who mix Brazilian and Celtic traditions with pipes and samba, recorded a version on their 1996 album "Don't Hold Your Breath".
  • The Irish band Solas included one variant, titled "Grey Selchie", in their 1998 album The Words That Remain.
  • A version appears on Maddy Prior's 1999 album, Ravenchild.
  • Alasdair Roberts included his version of "The Grey Silkie of Sule Skerry" on his limited-edition CD, You Need Not Braid Your Hair For Me: I Have Not Come A-Wooing, released in 2005.
  • The Breton singer Cécile Corbel recorded it in her album Songbook Vol.2 (2008).
  • Steeleye Span recorded it as a hidden track on their 2009 album, Cogs, Wheels and Lovers.
  • In 2011 June Tabor recorded it in her album Ashore.
  • The duo Estrange Waters recorded a version of the song in their 2016 EP Songs of the Water. [16]


  1. ^ Chope, Richard (1912). Ballads Weird and Wonderful. New York: John Lane Company. p. 8. 
  2. ^ The 97-stanza version of "The Lady Odivere" at the Mudcat Café website is copied from Chapter 5 ("The Ballad Singer") of George Mackay Brown's An Orkney Tapestry (London, 1978), the source of which was Ernest W. Marwick's An Anthology of Orkney Verse.
  3. ^ Douglas, Sheila (2004). "Ballads and the Supernatural: Spells, Channs, Curses and Enchantments". Studies in Scottish Literature. 33 (1): 363. 
  4. ^ Anon. "nuris". Dictionary of Scots Language. Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  5. ^ Anon. "ba". Scottish National Dictionary (1700–). Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  6. ^ Anon. "lillie". Scottish National Dictionary (1700–). Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  7. ^ Anon. "wean". Scottish National Dictionary (1700–). Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  8. ^ Anon. "ken". A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700). Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  9. ^ "stap". A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700). Scottish Language Dictionaries. p. Definition 16. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  10. ^ Anon. "ane". The free dictionary. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  11. ^ Anon. "fit". Dictionary of Scots Language. Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  12. ^ Anon. "grumly". Meriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  13. ^ Anon. "strand". Scottish National Dictionary (1700–). Scottish Language Dictionaries. 
  14. ^ Thomson, David. The People of the Sea
  15. ^ Elektra Records Catalogue No EKS 7222
  16. ^ "Songs of the Water, by Estrange Waters". 

External links[edit]