“The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry”


A lady mourns that she knows not her son's father. He appears at her bedside, revealing that he is a silkie. He prophesies that she shall marry a "gunner," who will shoot both him and her son.


The tune to which this ballad is most often sung nowadays was composed by James Waters in the late 1950s. It was also used by Pete Seeger as the melody for his setting of Nazim Hikmet's poem about Hiroshima, "I Come and Stand at Every Door." -PJS

The fullest collection of texts and tunes for this piece is probably that of Alan Bruford, who in "The Grey Silkie" (originally published in _Scottish Studies_ 18, 1974; also available in E. B. Lyle, ed., _Ballad Studies_) prints, in tolerably incomprehensible form, eight texts or fragments and two tunes.

Bruford also discusses the relationship of the song to "The Play o de Lathie Odivere" (best known now perhaps in Gordon Bok's adaption "The Play of the Lady Odivere"), having much to say, and little of it good, about this piece first published by Walter Traill Dennison in _The Scottish Antiquary_ in 1894. Bruford doesn't quite say so, but it appears that he believes Dennison's piece to be a forgery built upon a small core of traditional material. - RBW


  • Art Thieme, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (on Thieme06)


  1. Child 113, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 text)
  2. Bronson 113, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 version, though only the fifth stanza is proper to the tune)
  3. Leach, pp. 321-323, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (2 texts)
  4. OBB 31, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 text)
  5. Friedman, p. 27, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's (#1)}
  6. PBB 74, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry"; 75, "Sealchie Song" (1 text)
  7. Hodgart, p. 69, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (1 text)
  8. Silber-FSWB, p. 219, "The Great Silkie" (1 text)
  9. DT 113, SILKIE1* SILKIE2*
  10. Roud #197
  11. BI, C113


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1852
Keywords: selkie seduction
Found in: Britain(Scotland(Hebr))