Folklore was a huge part of Shetland’s society and culture in pre-modern times. Many of the folktales have been written down and, although many have now been forgotten, they can still be found in books and literature.
The dramatic coastline and moorland expanses have given rise to a rich and deep-rooted culture of folklore, superstition and deeply-embedded traditions.
In the past, education, literature and access to news was limited, even within the isles. Travel for pleasure was almost unheard of, and a venture out into the neighbouring parish or district was a novelty. Friends and neighbours, particularly in winter, would gather together beside the fireside and share stories and tales of the past to occupy the long winter nights. This blog will look at some of the creatures associated with the sea.
Sea creatures; serpents and beasts from the deep
Sea creatures and monsters have also played a prominent role in culture and folklore; unsurprising given the islands’ historic dependence and proximity to the sea. The sea was a food source, plentiful and abundant, but it was also a dangerous expanse, shrouded in mystery with unknown sea creatures lurking below the waters. In days before modern weather forecasting, fishermen depended entirely on their senses and freak-weather was often explained by a higher power – in the case of sudden storms, or freak waves, these were usually blamed on witchcraft, and the work of someone who wished to do the boat and, or, a member of the crew an ‘ill turn’. It was a dangerous highway for the men who went to the fishing, or used it for transport and there are many stories, unsurprisingly, from folklore associated with the sea.
Teran is a spirit of the sea that rages gales in spring and autumn, what we today recognise as the equinox gales (and which are explained by meteorology). But, Teran was a dangerous force who would be fought by the Sea Mither [mother]. The Sea Mither would generally conquer Teran in spring, causing the spirit to sink back into the sea but, come autumn, Teran would usually rule throughout the winter, kicking the sea into a boiling fury until the Sea Mither was able to find the strength to defeat it again in spring.
Sea creatures usually took the form of serpents or monsters from the deep and could be catastrophic, if not deadly, to fisherman at sea, particularly those at the haaf [deep-sea] fishery, many miles from land.
A tale from 1881 is passed to us from the crew of the Bertie, a line-fishing boat who came into contact with a sea monster. While hauling lines, the crew saw the hump of an animal, believed to be a whale at first sighting. But, as it came closer to the boat, two more humps appeared in the water, and then the shoulders and head, bearing menacing dark eyes rose from the water. It was covered in trailing lines of seaweed and, despite the crew throwing ballast and bullets at the beast, it still came closer to the 45ft boat. Their efforts to ward off the beast were to no avail and, before long, it raised its great tail, raining it down on the water with a mighty clap like thunder and a great wave. Cutting the lines, the crew of the Bertie turned tail and made their way towards the shore. The great beast followed them for a time but eventually the boat outran it. They were unable to recover their fishing gear but were thankful to have escaped it with their lives and boat intact. The crew estimated that the beast was bigger than their 45ft boat and they were sure that they had experienced no ordinary creature of the sea.
Other sea monsters are recorded in the folklore including the Kraken and the Bregdi; feared by those who went to sea, the Kraken was a sea-serpent and the the Bregdi (or Sulbrigdi, a monster that would lie on the water sunning it’s great body in the sun [sul]) would often chase boats. It had long fins that would envelop the boat, carrying the crew to a watery grave.
It was even thought that a sea-serpent controlled the tides, drawing in a breath for six hours before releasing it again.
There was a widespread belief that selkies, or seals, could take the form of a human by casting off their seal-skins, which were left hidden on the beach until their return. Often seals would come ashore and dance by the moonlight on secluded beaches but, on other occasions, they would use this innate power to lure a human mate back to sea.
Often posing as, more-often-than-not, a handsome, shipwrecked sailor these selkies in the guise of a man would knock at the door of a house, usually on a dark and stormy night. They would gain entry to the house by seeking shelter and a bed for the night and, invariably, would seduce the maiden of the house. They would then disappear, with the woman, returning to sea in the form of seals once more.
Similarly, stories exist that tell of how a seal-skin is stolen, usually from a beach, and hidden away somewhere so that, usually a maiden of exceptional beauty who has shed her skin, can be kept in the human world and married. These seal-women were always described as having big, dark eyes that were tainted by sadness. They would often wander along the shore, gazing longingly out to sea, mourning their selkie lives. Often, these women would raise a family on land and, invariably, stories tell how they discover their hidden seal-skin and make the tough decision to abandon their human children to return back to their seal lover at sea. Seal mothers who have lost sons or daughters to the human world are often seen to hold vigil on the shoreline awaiting their return.
On the island of Papa Stour, there's the story of a man who is seal-hunting on the notorious Ve-Skerries when a gale of wind was whipped up. He was unable to get back to the boat and was destined to perish on the exposed rock had it not been for the intervention of a selkie, the very being he was hunting. A seal approached him and offered him a ride back to the island and safety in return that the man retrieve his wife’s sealskin, to allow her to return to the sea. The man kept his word and was returned to land, returning the skin to the seal. He never hunted another seal ever again.
Sometimes women would seek a seal-lover, and to do this, they had to shed seven tear into the sea at high tide; this would beckon the seal to the shore where, invariably, they would fall deeply in love.
This association that marks seals as almost human-like could in part come from their deep, almost all-seeing eyes. The eyes of a seal are almost human-like and their inquisitiveness and curiosity of humans is clear to anyone who has spent time on the sea or by the shoreline. Seals occupy a liminal place, with much of their lives lived between land and sea. Common seal pups are born on the tideline between low and high tide; born when the tide is low, they are forced to swim with the rising water. This association with this liminal space between land and sea has perhaps helped mark them out as almost otherworldly and given them a solid root in folklore.
Mermaid stories are rare in Shetland compared to the many other tales of mythical or otherworldly creatures that we have. There are however a few tales, we heard of the mermaid who lured giants Herman and Saxa to their watery grave already, and there is another story of a mermaid who was not so lucky at the hands of a giant. Fluker was another giant who roamed the isles and he, allegedly, threw a rock at one mermaid, killing her stone dead.
There are several tales of mermaids who sought the love of a mortal man, and they would seek them out to marry. Mermaids were always very beautiful women when they appeared in any of the tales from folklore.
Shetland's folklore is rich and diverse and if you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy the other blogs in the series, including a look at Shetland's trows.
A little about Laurie
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