The Fin Folk

My favourite sea-stories have always involved selkies: the shape-shifting, skin-shedding sealfolk of the Hebrides and the west coast of Ireland. These are stories of transformation, of lost and found skins, of yearning for one’s true element and place in the world. But there are other fine sea-tales from other islands, and if you head up to the Orkneys or Shetland islands, you’ll find a number of stories about the Fin folk. The Fin folk too are shapeshifters, but unlike selkies, whose transformations are restricted to one night a month, usually at the time of the full moon, and whose transformations are from animal to human form, the Fin folk are amphibious and can come and go as they please. In winter they live at the bottom of the sea in the realm of Finfolkaheem, and in summer move to their magical island home of Hildaland. Expert boatsmen, they come often into the mortal world where they exercise their penchant for abducting humans who then become their spouses.

The Finman is reported to be a dour, territorial creature, who stays away from humans most of the time (except, of course, when he’s carrying one of them off to be his wife). But the Finwife is different: she’s a cross between a wise woman and a mermaid. Indeed, the Finwife is said to begin life as a mermaid, tail and all. If she marries a Finman, the stories tell that she will become ugly and old before her time. And so many Finwives seek a human husband. But the married Finwives generally come ashore, spending their time among humans to earn money by spinning or knitting, and curing sickness in humans and cattle. The Finwife is known to keep a black cat; Finwife cats have the ability to transform into fish so they carry messages between their mistress and her relatives in Finfolkaheem.

One of the most common stories about the Finfolk involves the abduction of a human girl by a Finman. A young girl disappears, and years later her father and brothers are out fishing when, lost in the mist, they come across an island they’ve never seen before. On the island her father finds a beautiful house, and to his astonishment he discovers that his daughter lives there, and is richly and happily married to one of the Finmen. When the mist clears he puts to sea again and arrives home safe, but of course he never again finds the magical island of Hildaland.