Friday, April 18, 2014

Silkies, Moonlight, & WIllows

Grey Willow
#16 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge
S: Suil, Willow in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

When I think about willows, I immediately picture weeping willows—but they weren’t brought to Scotland from China until the 18th Century, so the tree linked to this letter is the Grey, Crack (so called because of the cracking noise its falling branches make), White, Goat  (because they were an excellent browse for goats) or any number of hybrid varieties of sallow and osier trees. Linked to water and moonlight, symbolic of rebirth and vitality, the allusions to grief and death stem from 19th Century beliefs and the weeping willows. The willows native to Scotland were fairy trees, of course, famed for their usefulness: the saplings are pliable enough for weaving into baskets and other containers; their sap makes a drink good for rheumatism; the twigs as well as the bark yield a lessening of pain (aspirin was first isolated from
Yellow (Mature) Pussy Willows
salicylic acid in them). The wood was used for the Celts’ wagon wheels, as well as for coracle/currach frameworks and today, for cricket bats. And if you’ve ever regarded pussy willows as a harbinger of Spring, they bud out on the Goat variety, turning from silver to gold as they mature, hence the name of “Sunshine fire.”

Silkie-woman Transforming
When I was very small and Granny was teaching me manners, she always reminded me that you never know who you may meet. Since so many of the folk of Faery can be shape-shifters, you’d better be courteous to everyone! As she would say, “If you dae them a favor, they will reward you, but if you mak’ them angry, they will hae their revenge sevenfold!”

I was a very polite little girl….

Silkies are one of the shapeshifting sea-folk; when they’re in the ocean, they look like seals, but when they come out on land, they can take off their pelts and look like beautiful humans as they dance in the moonlight. 

For the last 23 years at the Ligonier Highland Games, I’ve traditionally begun my set of Scottish tales with a new silkie tale, because I love them so much. My granny told me several, and I’ve collected others over the years; I have about 38 in my repertoire. Besides, it’s fun to use my harp seal puppy puppet, Saltie! People always want to pet her afterwards.

It was said that the MacCodrums had webbed fingers and toes because of their silkie blood. Two of the most famous are about the crofter who stole a seal-maid’s skin and made her wed him, and the one about the man who wounded a silkie and was brought to justice for it. One of my favorites is about a young silkie who helps a woman attain the life she wants (“Saltie the Silkie”), but I do not tell “The Silkie’s Revenge” to young audiences, although adults seem to find it a thought-provoking tale. JRR Tolkien wrote of the need we seem to have to communicate with other species, and so there are tales about help given unexpectedly by silkie or human, haunting tales of loss and grief, as well as heart-lifting ones of joy and love. 

I love silkie songs too, from the old ballads like “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry,” “The Fisherman’s Song for Attracting the Seals,” and “The Seal-Woman’s Croon,” a Hebridean lullaby that’s among my very early memories.  Absolutely, one of my favorite albums is Christina Tourin’s The Harp Seal Lullaby CD, which has several seal songs on it. 

It’s said that if you put a willow twig under your pillow, you may have magical dreams—perhaps of the silkies!


  1. Silkies sound very cool. They are benevolent creatures I take it?

  2. They are! And one of my favorite kinds of faery folk! The usual warning about the faery folk, "If you dae them a favor, they will reward you, BUT if you mak' them angry, they WILL hae their revenge sevenfold!" certainly applies to them. There's an Irish selchie tale about a little boy who finds a lost seal pup and brings it home. That night, a very angry bull seal arrives, wakening the housefhold with his loud demands for the return of his son. The boy's father, who'd already told his son he couldn't keep a wild creature later than the dawn, brings the pup out. Later, unable to go to a market in another town, due to oversleeping and missing the boat, in payment, the bull takes him invisibly on his back upriver, then changes to man-form to have a drink with him at the pub. OTOH, "The Silkie's Revenge" that I mentioned in the post is about a minister who hates seals because they damage his nets (not enough to live on, being a minister in a poor parish). One morning he finds a baby seal tangled in his net. Not one single fish nor one mesh have been damaged, but he kills the pup anyway, in the sight of its mother. With this cruel act, his luck departs. Several months later, his wife dead, he hires a stranger to be his housekeeper and take care of his little girl. In the end, the housekeeper turns out to be the pup's mother, and she has her revenge. Be polite and kind! Thanks for your comment!


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