It was a while ago, in the days when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk.

A stranger came ashore to an island at that time – a man who gave his name as Finn Learson – and there was a mystery about him which had to do with these selkie creatures. Or so some people say, anyway; but to be exact about all this, you must first of all know that the Selkie Folk are the seals that live in the waters around the Shetland Islands. Also, the Shetlands themselves lie in the stormy seas to the north of Britain, and it was on a night of very fierce storm that it all began.

It so happened, then, that a ship named the Bergen was wrecked on one of the islands in this storm, and the shipwreck was near a place called Black Ness – which was not so much a place, really, as a scatter of houses on hilly ground overlooking the sea. Also, there was a certain Robbie Henderson living in Black Ness at that time – a lad of twelve years old, according to all accounts – and he was the person most concerned in the mystery of this stranger, Finn Learson.

There were four other members of the Henderson family, however, apart from Robbie himself – his parents, Peter and Janet Henderson, his sister Elspeth, and his grandfather, Old Da Henderson. There was also the family’s sheepdog, Tam; and as the storm grew wilder and wilder that night, this dog became very uneasy.

The whole family could hear how the storm was raging, of course, for their house stood close to the head of a long bay cutting into the rocky coast of the island – the kind of bay that Shetlanders call a “voe” – and so the thundering noise of the waves was very near. Even so, Old Da Henderson had the feeling that it was not just the storm that bothered Tam, for Old Da was pretty old and his head wad simply full of the superstitions of those days. He listened, therefore: he waited, and he watched. And at last he noticed something which seemed to him the true cause of Tam’s uneasiness.

“Look there!” said he, suddenly pointing to the fire of peats burning on the hearth.

The fire had been a good one, but now the peats at either side of it were burning down and crumbling into a fine white ash. A moment later there was only one of them left burning – the peat that stood upright at the centre of the fire – and pointing again, Old Da went on, “There! Do you see the way that peat has been left standing all by itself? That means a stranger will come here tonight!”

Peter Henderson cocked an ear to the noise of the wind howling over the thatch of the roof, and with a doubtful face on him he asked, “What stranger could come to Black Ness this night?”

Old Da also turned an ear to the sound of the storm. “Well may you wonder about that,” he said meaningly; and suddenly they all understood what he was thinking.

“A shipwreck in the voe!” Peter exclaimed, and was about to reach quickly for his jacket when there was a great thump, as if something heavy had fallen against the door of the house. The sound brought the whole family to its feet; and on that very instant the door burst wide open and a man came half-staggering, half-falling into the room.

A Stranger Came Ashore, Mollie Hunter