ON a fine summer's evening, an inhabitant of Unst happened to be walking along the sandy margin of a voe. [a] The moon was risen, and by her light he discerned at some distance before him a number of the sea-people, who were dancing with great vigour on the smooth sand. Near them he saw lying on the ground several seal-skins.
As the man approached the dancers, all gave over their merriment, and flew like lightning to secure their garments; then clothing themselves, plunged in the form of seals into the sea. But the Shetlander, on coming up to the spot where they had been, and casting his eyes down on the ground, saw that they had left one skin behind them, which was lying just at his feet. He snatched it up, carried it swiftly away, and placed it in security.
On returning to the shore, he met the fairest maiden that eye ever gazed upon: she was walking backwards and forwards, lamenting m most piteous tones the loss of her seal-skin robe, without which she never could hope to rejoin her family and friends below the waters, but must remain an unwilling inhabitant of the region enlightened by the sun.
The man approached and endeavoured to console her, but she would not be comforted. She implored him in the most moving accents to restore her dress; but the view of her lovely face, more beautiful in tears, had steeled his heart. He represented to her the impossibility of her return, and that her friends would soon give her up;,and finally, made an offer to her of his heart, hand, and fortune.
The sea-maiden, finding she had no alternative, at length consented to beoome his wife. They were married, and lived together for many years, during which time they had several children, who retained no vestiges of their marine origin, saving a thin web between their fingers, and a bend of their hands, resembling that of the fore paws of a seal; distinctions which characterise the descendants of the family to the present day.
The Shetlander's love for his beautiful wife was unbounded, but she made but a cold return to his affection. Often would she steal out alone and hasten down to the lonely strand, and there at a given signal, a seal of large size would make his appearance, and they would converse for hours together in an unknown language; and she would return home from this meeting pensive and melancholy.
Thus glided away years, and her hopes of leaving the upper world had nearly vanished, when it chanced one day, that one of the children, playing behind a stack of corn, found a seal-skin. Delighted with his prize, he ran with breathless eagerness to display it before his mother. Her eyes glistened with delight at the view of it; for in it she saw her own dress, the loss of which had cost her so many tears. She now regarded herself as completely emancipated from thraldom; and in idea she was already with her friends beneath the waves. One thing alone was a drawback on her raptures. She loved her children, and she was now about to leave them for ever. Yet they weighed not against the pleasures she had in prospect: so after kissing and embracing them several times, she took up the skin, went out, and proceeded down to the beach.
In a few minutes after the husband came in, and the children told him what had occurred. The truth instantly flashed across his mind, and he hurried down to the shore with all the speed that love and anxiety could give. But he only arrived in time to see his wife take the form of a seal, and from the ledge of a rock plunge into the sea.
The large seal, with whom she used to hold her conversations, immediately joined her, and congratulated her on her escape, and they quitted the shore together. But ere she went she turned round to her husband, who stood in mute despair on the, rock, and whose misery excited feelings of compassion in her breast. "Farewell," said she to him, "and may all good fortune attend you. I loved you well while I was with you, but I always loved my first husband better."
The water-spirit is in Shetland called Shoopiltee; he appears in the form of a pretty little horse, and endeavours to entice persons to ride on him, and then gallops with them into the sea.
Source: "The Fairy Mythology - Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries" by Thomas Keightley