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Sometime at the end of 2020, the Shetland based artist Jenny Sturgeon posted a recording of seal song heard from near her home, and I immediately asked if i could use it, and I knew just where it needed to fit. I'm very grateful to Jenny for her permission to use her field recording as the background to this version of The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry.
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.
supported by 4 fans who also own “The Selkie of Sule Skerry”
Because I couldn't decide what my favourite track was. It's a beautiful album and every track could be my favourite. However, I am a soppy git so I chose stowaway. Thank you Jon and keep up the good work. amediamonkey