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Scottish Traditional Tales
Keeping out the Sea Man

Track 4 (CD2) KEEPING OUT THE SEA MAN James Henderson, S. Ronaldsay

James Henderson was born in Garth, near St. Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, in 1903: he started his working life on his father’s croft, which he inherited at eighteen, but when the estate was sold he could not afford to buy the land and had to go south to Edinburgh. He found work as a delivery man and later as a bus driver and conductor, and returned to Orkney, to a house in Burray just across the water from his birthplace, as soon as he retired in 1968. (For a fuller biography see Tocher 4:77). Despite the long absence he remebered a great deal that he heard as a boy, both from his father (born in 1837: James was the son of his second marriage) and from his mother, whose mother Jeannie Halcro belonged to a family rich in tradition which had returned to South Ronaldsay from the small island of Swona. She was the source of "The Grey Selkie" and other interesting ballads, and also of this tale. James tells the story in dialect as he first heard it.

Though there are partial parallels to this story in Gaelic and Scots tales which tell of a fairy or warlock suitor duped by getting hairs from a cow in place of hairs from the girl he desires, or the like (for example Tocher 1:11-13, 3:128-29), there is an even closer parallel in a Norwegian story, No. 6000 in R. Th. Christiansen’s catalogue, The Migratory Legends. Christiansen lists 35 versions, in which a girl gets rid of a fairy lover by asking him "how to free one of her cows from the advances of a fairy bull." Such close resemblances between tales from Norway and Orkney or Shetland are rather rare. The actual remedy is quite different (the Norwegian tale usually involves the use of herbs and tar) and the appearance of the fairy as a "sea man" is perhaps an adaptation to the different background: sea as well as land fairies are well-known in Norwegian tradition, but not in this story. A "sea man" in South Ronaldsay was not necessarily thought of as one who became a seal in the sea. -AJB

WELL, THIS HAPPENED in a hoose - it was supposed to be somewhere in the Sooth Parish o Sooth Ronaldsay. It was a man, a widower man and his daughter, they lived together on a wee croft. And there was one night, the man - he was awey, he was in bed before the girl. An the next mornin she tell'd him she'd haen an aafu experience. She'd barred the door an was sittin at the fire when the door opened an a man came in. An he sat aal night beside her. An she said there was somethin funny aboot him, she said, an she didna like to ask him who he wis or what he was doin - there was somethin queer aboot him.

Saa he says: 'Ye're no barred the door right,' he said. 'I'll bar the door mesel the night.' So when that night cam he barred the door an made sure it was fixed an geed awey tae his bed. In the mornin she said the sam thing happened - the door just opened an the man came in.

'Ah weel,' he says, 'I think he must be a sea man.' So he says: 'But I'll sit op the night an wait tae he comes in.' So they barred the door as usual, an sittin one at each side o the fire, an the door just opened and the man waaked in. Oh, the old fellow said, 'Oh, com in, com in,' an made him very welcome. 'Sit doon!' an start to taak awey aboot different things tae him, an he says: 'Mön,' he says, 'I'm hevin an aaful bit o bother.'

'Oh,' he says. 'What's wrong?'

'Weel,' he says, 'there a sea bull teen to comin an haantin a quey [heifer] I hev in the byre, an no matter hoo I fasten the door, or hoo I tie her, he gets in an he's in there all night, an he's just ruinin my quey. I donno what I'm gaan to do wi her.'

'Ah,' he says, 'that's aesy pitten right, mön. Aal ye need to do is cut some hair aff o her tail, an pare her hoofs, an pit the hair an the parins abov the byre door, an he'll no be able to com in.'

'Oh,' he says, 'thanks very much' - he was terribly grand, he would try that. So he geed awey to bed an left them: sam thing, he sat to mornin an awey he gaed.

So that day they clippit a lock of the girl's hair an pared her nails an pat it all together an stuck it up abov the door, barred the door as usual an sat waitin. Aboot the usual time he cam: they heard the sneck o the door liftin, an the door tried but shö wouldno open. An they hears him sayin: 'Eh my,' he says, 'there mony a man done themsels ill wi their tongue, and I'm don the sam.' An that's the last they're hard o him.

I heard my mother tellin that one. It was her mother that had told it - she belonged to the Sooth Parish . . . She would have known where the hoose was an probably who the folk was, or was supposed to be.



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