Stories from the Hearth

The Merwife of Shetland (Bonus Minisode #7)

Episode Summary

In the Stories from the Hearth minisode series - normally exclusive to Patreon - Calum reads a classic story from the public domain; be it fable, fairy-tale, or moral; European, or International. Sometimes they perform them as they were first told, sometimes they rewrite them in their own style, and sometimes they perform bits and pieces from their own body of work. 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 minisode series - normally exclusive to Patreon - Calum reads a classic story from the public domain; be it fable, fairy-tale, or moral; European, or International. Sometimes they perform them as they were first told, sometimes they rewrite them in their own style, and sometimes they perform bits and pieces from their own body of work. 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.

Stories from the Hearth minisodes are exclusive to Patreon, where the reading of a new bonus 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:

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Episode Transcription

Welcome to Stories From The Hearth, the podcast for tall tales and fantastical fiction, short stories the likes of which you might once have heard a wandering bard tell, to a group of villagers, gathered around the fire. This is a special episode, as it is actually one of the Stories from the Hearth  Minisodes. The Stories from the Hearth minisode series is exclusive to Patreon, available only to those who support the podcast there. This episode, however, is being released to the general public since it ties in nicely with the spooky Halloween special out at the end of this month. 

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. Sometimes I’ll perform them as they were first told, sometimes I’ll rewrite them in my own style, and occasionally I’ll perform mini-tales and poetry from my own body of work. If you like this particular minisode, head to, or hit the link down below, to make sure you never miss another one. 

Today's story is brought to you from Shetland, or the Shetland Isles, off the north coast of 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 with each person, and each generation. In-keeping with that trend, I have rewritten this folktale in my own style, specially for you. I really hope you like it!

This is Minisode Seven: 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 for listening to this Stories from the Hearth 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.  What's more, I've made a selkie king the central figure in my Halloween special, out on Halloween 2021, so I thought this story might serve as a refreshing palette cleanser, preparing you for a mouthful of terror and gore!

Minisodes are an exclusive monthly feature on Patreon, for the podcast's patrons to enjoy. So, if you'd like to hear more of these, or you simply wish to support the podcast and earn other exclusive perks, such as early access, behind-the-scenes blog posts, shout-outs, physical copies of the episodes, access to the Discord server and more, please consider checking out our Patreon by hitting the link down below, or heading to Similarly, you can check out the podcast’s Instagram, Twitter, and website via the links below. Story episodes are released on the last Sunday of every month. Additional episodes in The Wandering Bard historical mini-series will pop up from time to time. Until next we meet around the fire, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to Stories From The Hearth