Last Friday I happened to catch the end of one of this year’s Proms concerts which was showcasing British folksong, and the closing piece was a mass singing of the beautiful ballad ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’. I confess that I wasn’t much taken with this rendering – not as bad as those wince-making drawing-room arrangements of folksong beloved of early twentieth century British composers, but still far too orchestrated and ornamented for my taste. Give me an a cappella version, or at best a very modest instrumental accompaniment: the words of great folksongs are words of power and magic, and they should be allowed to speak for themselves.
A ‘silkie’ (or selkie) was one of the seafolk, enchanted creatures who lived in the sea as seals but could come ashore, take on human form and even take a human husband or wife.
As usual with ballads, there are several versions of the text: what I give here is a shorter version from the Shetlands (Child ballad 113), made popular in the sixties by Joan Baez; there is a much longer Orcadian version favoured by the great Scots ballad singers Jean Redpath and Archie Fisher, and sung to a tune that may be more authentic, but I rather like the more compact Shetland version and like its tune too.
The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
An earthly nourris sits and sings,
And aye, she sings ‘Ba lily wean,
Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he staps in’.
Then ane arose at her bed fit.
And a grumly guest I’m sure was he,
Saying ‘Here am I, thy bairn’s father,
Although I be not comely.’
‘I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie on the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae land,
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’
And he has ta’en a purse of gold
And he has placed it upon her knee,
Saying, ‘Give to me my little young son,
And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.
‘It shall come to pass on a summer’s day,
When the sun shines het on every stane,
That I shall fetch my little young son,
And teach him for to swim the faem.
‘And thu shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
He’ll shoot both my young son and me.’