I first heard this Orcadian ballad sung by June Tabor on her magnificent album, Ashore (though she uses a different lyric), and I fell in love with its haunting melody.
As I researched the song, the wonderful Debbie Armour (Burd Ellen www.burdellen.com) pointed me in the direction of the Orkneyjar website (www.orkneyjar.com). As with every folk song, this song has many versions and lyrics, and Mainly Norfolk has a wealth of information (mainlynorfolk.info/steeleye.span/songs/greatsilkieofsuleskerry.html). The Child Number is 113 and the Roud number 197
The EFDSS lists various different tunes for this ballad, but i have opted for what appears to be the original (as June Tabor does). This tune was almost lost to history, but was fortunately noted down in 1938 by Dr. Otto Andersson, from the singing of John Sinclair on the Isle of Flotta in the Orkney Islands. It has a sparse simplicity that I have tried to capture in the performance.
Since I am not Orcadian, nor indeed Scottish, I have sung the song in my own accent (a fairly generic English one) and adjusted the words slightly in places, mostly for ease of singing and pronunciation, however, i’ve tried to keep close to the lyrics below. I’ve tried to give the song a sense of place, trying to evoke the atmosphere of the characters living in a lonely place close the sea, isolated and wistful. As a tribute to June’s version I’ve used piano rather than the guitar as the main accompanying instrument. Please do go seek out her version, it’s sublime.
I hope you enjoy this version of a song that doesn’t seem to be performed very often.
I will be donating a portion of the proceeds to Trees for Life treesforlife.org.uk/groves/the-living-mountain/
I heard a mother lull her bairn,
and aye she rocked, and aye she sang.
She took so hard upon the verse
that the heart within her body rang.
“O, cradle row, and cradle go,
and aye sleep well, my bairn within;
I ken not who thy father is,
nor yet the land that he dwells in.”
And up then spake a grey selchie
as aye he woke her from her sleep,
“I’ll tell where thy bairn’s father is:
he’s sittin’ close by thy bed feet.
“I am a man upon the land;
I am a selchie on the sea,
and when I’m far frae ev’ry strand,
my dwelling is in Sule Skerry.
“And foster well my wee young son,
aye for a twal’month and a day,
and when that twal’month’s fairly done,
I’ll come and pay the nourice fee.”
And when that weary twal’month gaed,
he’s come tae pay the nourice fee;
he had ae coffer fu’ o’ gowd,
and anither fu’ o’the white money.
“Upon the skerry is thy son;
upon the skerry lieth he.
Sin thou would see thine ain young son,
now is the time tae speak wi’ he.”
“But how shall I my young son know
when thou ha’ ta’en him far frae me?”
“The one who wears the chain o’ gowd,
`mang a’ the selchies shall be he.
“And thou will get a hunter good,
and a richt fine hunter I’m sure he’ll be;
and the first ae shot that e’er he shoots
will kill baith my young son and me.”credits
Seal song Field Recording – Jenny Sturgeon (www.jennysturgeonmusic.com)
Used with permission
All instruments vocals and arrangement by Andi Lee
Photograph: Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa, Scotland, by Andi Lee
Lyrics & Music: Traditional, this version from www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/selkiefolk/sulesk1.htm
Many thanks to Jenny Sturgeon, Debbie Armour, Alex, Alec Bowman and Jon Wilks