The Selkie and the Otter King is a story set to one of the most stunning backdrops in Scotland. Eilean Donan is built on a tidal island where three sea lochs meet: Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long, making it a popular tourist spot. As a result, the castle has appeared in many films including ‘Highlander’, James Bond’s ‘The World is not Enough’, ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Elizabet, The Golden Age’.
It is said to be named after Saint Donnan of Eigg, who was martyred in A.D. 617 by a band of robbers or, depending on the story, by a Pictish Queen who was angry that the monks had established a monastery amongst the grazing lands for her sheep.
However, since this Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022, Spooky Scotland has decided to share an alternative explanation for the island’s name- one taken from mythology. It is the beautiful tale of the Selkie and the Otter King. It is set long before the castle was built on the island.
The Selkie and The Otter King
A selkie girl lived in a cave on the island. The local cottars and fishermen saw her most frequently as a young seal, hunting for fish. But sometimes she would cast her skin and shapeshift into a beautiful maiden.
Now, the local fishermen had great respect for the selkie -kind and whenever they saw her, would throw her some fish. When they saw the selkie girl’s home, they would shout “Eilean! Eilean!” which is Gaelic for ‘island’. In time the selkie became known as Eilean.
Now kindness begets kindness and the selkie girl would share the fish she received with a family of baby otters who also lived on the island.
A Mysterious Stranger
Stories of the selkie spread and so it was that one day a mysterious stranger arrived at the place where the three lochs meet. This was a sad day indeed. He wanted to capture the selkie girl, put a halter around her neck and make his fortune by parading her in public.
He tried to enlist the help of the locals, but they were appalled. It was foolish and cruel.
The fisherfolk set up guard on the tiny island. The man tried to tempt the local folk with gold coin, but they were resolute. They would defend their selkie.
A Cunning Plot
The man put on a show of leaving the area and the fishermen returned to their nets. But the man was filled with greed and avarice. He was not about to abandon such a rich prize. He sneaked back to the island and waited.
Sure enough, when the tide was low, the Selkie left her cave and slipped out of her seal skin to bathe in a pool. The man made his move. Stealthily, he crept over the rocks and grabbed the sealskin.
In tears, the selkie girl pleaded for her beloved sealskin.
The man sneered, “Only if you come along with me and allow me to put a halter round your neck.”
The selkie girl shook her head.
“But you will! Tomorrow I will return, and you will put the halter on!” He threw the sealskin over his shoulder and left the island.
A Desolate Night
Without her protective sealskin, a bitter cold chilled the selkie to the bone. She rent the night air with a heart-wrenching lament of loss and sorrow. And when she could sing no longer, she wept tears of despair. Alas, she knew she could not live without her sealskin. She would be forced to give up her freedom and her love of the sea. She would have to go with the man.
A Rescue Mission
In the darkest hours of the night, the family of otters had been wakened by the selkie’s pitiful singing and wailing. The food she had given them had saved their lives in the depths of winter and now it was time to repay the debt.
But what could a family of otters do against the might of a determined human? They knew what they could do! The Otter King was very wise, and he had seven attendants he could call on.
The pale moonlight shone white on his silver pelt as the Otter King made his way to the island. In his wake, followed his attendants, with pelts as dark as obsidian.
At first light, the man set off impatient to capture his prey and to be gone before the fisherfolk discovered his treachery. The tide had come in and the only way to the island was a line of eight big rocks. One step, two, three, four…There was definitely something strange about these rocks as black as obsidian. But his greed pushed him onwards. Five, six, seven. Now there was only one silver stone to cross.
A Confrontation with The Otter King
Suddenly, the ‘rock’ rose up and grabbed the sealskin the man was carrying. The sealskin was then thrown into the air and into the hands of the selkie girl.
Eight angry otters, seven black and one silver, gave chase to the man as he plunged into the depths of the sea. Eight sets of teeth bit into his skin. Eight tales slapped his face. Struggling to the shore, the man set off at great speed and was never seen again!
Meanwhile, the Otter King brought his tribe to live on the island.
The Island Renamed after the Otter King
When the fisherfolk learnt what had happened, they dropped even more fish into the water. As well as shouting “Eilean”, they also called “Coin-Donn,” their word for otter and in time the island became known as Eilean Donan. At his passing, the old Otter King was buried on the island.
There are still otters on the island today and if you look closely, you might even see a seal swimming and playing with the otters.
Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022
Scotland has a rich heritage of stories, myths and legends. As a result, it is a small wonder that this has been chosen as Scotland’s Year of Stories. You can learn more about this event by searching Visit Scotland’s site.
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