Stories from the Hearth

Minisode 7 - The Merwife of Shetland

Episode Summary

In the Stories from the Hearth minisodes, Calum reads a classic story from the public domain - be it fable, fairy-tale, legend or moral; European, or International. In minisode seven, they read their very own, original version of 'The Merwife of Shetland', an ancient folktale regarding the seal-people (or selkies) of the seas surrounding Scotland.

Episode Notes

In the Stories from the Hearth minisodes, Calum reads a classic story from the public domain - be it fable, fairy-tale, legend or moral; European, or International. In minisode seven, they read their very own, original version of 'The Merwife of Shetland', an ancient folktale regarding the seal-people (or selkies) of the seas surrounding Scotland. In the tale, a merwoman is dancing upon the beaches of Unst, in north Shetland, when a local man steals her sealskin, thus binding her to the earth and forcing her to become his husband. What follows is an account of her life on land, and her attempts to escape back to the sea...

Minisodes are typically available only through the podcast's Patreon, where the reading of a new classic story will be released monthly. To gain access to every minisode, as well as a slew of other exciting perks, consider supporting the podcast by becoming a patron: https://www.patreon.com/storiesfromthehearthpodcast

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Original Artwork by Anna Ferrara

Anna's Instagram: @giallosardina
Anna's Portfolio:  https://annaferrara.carbonmade.com

Episode Transcription

Welcome to Minisode number seven of Stories from the Hearth, created exclusively for Patreon. This particular minisode I'll actually be releasing to the public, come October, as it pertains very specifically to the story episode released at the end of October. As always, however, my patrons come first, which is why I'm releasing it to you know at the end of August. You'll have plenty of time to listen, before anyone else can se their ears to it.

In each minisode, I shall be reading you a classic story from  the public domain – be it fable, fairy tale, legend or moral, European, or International. Today's story is brought to you from Shetland, or the Shetland Isles, off the north coast o Scotland (which is my home country). It is called The Merwife of Shetland, and was written by an anonymous source handed down to us, as all folklore typically is, orally: changing and bending and contorting in its version which each person, and each generation. In-keeping with that trend, I myself have rewritten this specifically for you. I really hope you like it!

This is 'The Merwife of Shetland'.

On Unst, one of the most northerly islands of Shetland, they tell the story of a lonely widower, who was out walking one night on the banks of an inlet – which in Shetland they call a voe – when he saw by the light of the moon a number of mermen and mermaids dancing on the sand. Glistening like quicksilver, the lone man spied several seal-skins strewn on the ground around the merrymakers.

Curious, or rather, quite bewitched, the Shetlander hurriedly approached the merpeople, but as he did they took fright. Immediately taking up their strange garbs, and assuming once more the forms of seals, they plunged head-first into the gentle sea. One of these merpeople, however – a woman of lustrous hair and luminescent beauty – was for a moment lost to the thrall of dance. Noticing that her seal-skin lay close to his feet, the old widower could not help himself but to snatch it and run quickly home, whereupon he stored the shimmering skin in a secret nook known only to him. 

Returning to the voe that same night, the Shetlander found this merwoman transformed once more so as to resemble a woman of the isles. No woman of Unst, though, had to the widower ever appeared so beguiling. Indeed, no man nor child had captivated his attentions more than did this fairest figure, whose skin was as rich and dark-hued as the ocean, whose eyes could not be held without a whispering melancholia clutching at one’s heart, whose touch the widower fancied might cure ailments as affecting even as the heartache which he had carried with him since the day of his wife’s passing. 

As he stood bewildered by her, the woman wept, lamenting the robbery of her garbs by which she had been exiled from her submarine friends, and because of which she was now bound as a tenant to the upper world. And no matter how hard she implored the widower to reinstate her property, it proved useless, for the old Shetlander had drunk deeply of love. Not since the night of his first betrothal had he felt such a depth of passion at the sight of bared skin, the umber curve of thighs, the sensual caress of moonlight. 

The merlady, who was wiser than any mortal being by several scores of years, recognised in the man’s infatuation the severity of her case. Perceiving that without her seal-skin she had no choice but to become an inhabitant of the earth, she dolefully accepted the man’s immediate offer of marriage. So it was, she became the merwife of Unst. 

The strange attachment between this otherworldly being and her new husband continued for many years, after that fateful night. The couple had several children together, whose countenances bore striking resemblance to that of the merwife, and yet who did not hold in their eyes the same weary dissonance as their mother. In the village in which they lived, the merwife made some women friends, whilst the men of Unst could rarely go an evening in the tavern without extolling the virtues of their comrade’s strange bride. And yet, not once in all those years did the seal-woman learn the location of her former skin. Thus, though the Shetlander’s love for his merwife was unbounded, his affections were ever coldly returned.

Every year, on the anniversary of the eve on which she had been bound to the upper world, the merwoman would steal alone to the desert strand, to stand under the same harvest moon which had once fallen upon her naked skin with a curious thrill, but which now felt to her as painfully commonplace as shackles are to a slave. And under the harvest moon, at a secret signal from the merwife a large female seal would make her appearance, and by the water’s edge the pair would hold, in an unknown tongue, an anxious conference. For years, this was to serve as the stranded merwife’s only tie to her former life.

In the blink of an eye, ten years swam past in this manner, until one day, when playing in the sea caves to the rear of their house, the eldest of the merwife’s children discovered a seal’s skin in the lee of a rock. Delighted with the way the thing contorted light, reflecting different colours as he turned and twisted it, the boy ran gleefully to his mother, and presented her his prize. The woman’s eyes glistened with rapture, for she immediately recognised the sealskin as her own; recognised it as the means by which she could pass through the ocean that led to her native home. With tears in her eyes – those eyes in which the old widower had found reprieve from grief and heartache – the merwoman burst forth from her home in an ecstasy of joy. But when she beheld the frightened, curious faces of her children, she wept openly, knowing that she could not take them with her and had for the greed of a mortal man been bound to the earth not only by will, but now also by blood. 

Hastily embracing her brood, the merwife of Shetland made the children a promise: that should they come to the sandy shores of the voe on the night of the harvest moon, and cast their eyes out to sea, they would find another pair of eyes amidst the waves – no longer dissonant, no longer weary. And should they wish it, they could call the owner of those eyes to shore for another embrace like that which she gave them now, only longer, and even fuller of love.

Having said her goodbyes, the merwife fled with all speed towards the seaside. Between she and the voe, however, lay the workshop in which her human husband made a living, and as she passed by its doors, the husband caught a flash of that fantastical sealskin, shimmering like oil in the air. Understanding immediately the meaning of this, the old Shetlander made chase. Too slow was he, though, to catch a woman galvanized by the promise of freedom, and so it was that he reached the beach in time only to see his merwife’s transformation complete; to see her, in the form of a seal, dive from the rocky shoreline into the waves. Then, the large seal with whom she had held those rare, secret appointments appeared beside her, and proceeded to congratulate her in a most tender manner, holding and embracing the merwife with unrestrained affection. 

Before the seal-woman dived down to unknown depths, she cast a parting glance at the wretched Shetlander who had been her husband, and seeing his despairing looks, she felt in her breast a surprising sense of compassion.

‘Farewell!’ she called to him, ‘and may all good attend you! You have been a kind man, for all your folly, and I loved you as much as I might have when to the earth I was bound. But you should know: never has the love for my wife, who you see here, receded. And always has my love for the ocean roared in my ears, as the waves roar against the caves in which you concealed from me my true self. Care for our children, my dear, and lament not for me, for at last I am happy, and in the sea I am free.’

Thank you so much for listening to this minisode. When I stumbled across this story,  it was one which ignited in me a real sense of childhood and nostalgia, because living in Scotland you're surrounded by folklore all the time. But in the modern age, in the digital age, I think our connection to that folklore becomes ever more fragile, and strained. I think it's less frequent that we actually engage with it. But this story of merpeople, of selkies, as we might call them; of that particular version of that story, where the merwife is essentially imprisoned and bound to the land by this human man's greed, when he steals her sealskin; that is one that I remember so vividly from childhood, so when I stumbled upon it, I knew I had to put it out there, to make it a minisode.

And with this minisode, it was actually the first time that I've fully rewritten one of these classic stories. Sometimes I can't do that, if I'm doing a Hans Christian Andersen tale, or a Grimm's Brothers tale for example, there is source material that I need to stick to. But with something like this: a piece of folklore that's been handed down through generation after generation, and changed many times - it's probably indistinguishable from how it was first told in Shetland, on  Unst - but I wanted to rewrite it, I wanted to make it my own, to deliver the highest quality content that I can to you, my patrons. Speaking of which, minisodes are typically created exclusively for my patrons on Patreon. This one, as I mentioned in the introduction, I'm releasing to the general public this October, because I really want to give people a little bit of extra content to the spooky, horrorific story that they're going to get at the end of October for Halloween special. 

To my patrons, thank you so much for your patronage. I really hope that you're enjoying these episodes, as well as early access to the story episodes, behind-the-scenes content, shout-outs, commissions, and everything else that you get with your various tiers. If you're not yet a patron, then please do consider checking out my Patreon, and all of the benefits that are available to those who join me and support this podcast. You just have to head to patreon.com/storiesfromthehearthpodcast or hit the link down below.

If you'd like to get in touch with any feedback, insights, thoughts or comments that you have, or if you'd just like to have a wee chat, please do contact me on Instagram or Twitter, or by emailing me at storiesfromthehearthpodcast@gmail.com. The podcast's Instagram handle is @storiesfromthehearth, and its Twitter handle is @Hearth_Podcast. Until next time, I've been Calum Bannerman, and this has been a Stories from the Hearth minisode.