Through the centuries, there have been reported sightings of mermaids all around the world, from Northern Europe to New World and Africa (see Hayman 2018). In this blog, we will look at reported historical sightings recorded from the northern region of Scotland. These give us a glimpse into what these legendary people are like.
The Selkie of the Sea
The sea is a place of enchantment and mystery. Stories naturally flourish in places where wonder captures the human heart and imagination and the sea is one such place. There are folktales and myths that speak of mysterious and at times, monstrous creatures, large and small. Many are hybrid in nature, possessing both human and non-human features, and can change form to move between realms.
The merfolk are one example. They are liminal beings; they are commonly portrayed as spirits with fish tails that enable them to swim into the dark depths of the ocean. They also have human upper torso and facial features. The lead character of many stories is the young mermaid maiden. The maiden is a songstress; stories recite how her voice can allure men and hypnotise them, causing them to meet an untimely death.
In the scottish landscape, the maighdean-mhara, meaning the ‘maiden of the sea’ in Scottish Gaelic, is a type of water spirit that refers both to the mermaid and selkie). In the scottish imagination, the maiden has seal-like qualities. The word selkie is, in fact, a derivative of a Scots word, which means ‘grey seal.’
Sightings in the Northern Isles
Recently, I came across the book, Fabled Coast: Legends and traditions of the shores of Britain & Ireland. In this book, Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood share folktales and legends from different regions and these include sightings and the encounters of the maighdeann-mhara.
The collection includes threads of oral stories about the maighdeann-mhara from the Scottish Highlands and Northern Isles, including the Orkney and South Uist. One core thread of the mythological tradition is the story of the selkie-woman, who loses her skin when she marries a man (Kingshill and Westwood 2014, 324). This story has been reimagined by many storytellers, including Clarissa Estes Pinkola in her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves (1997).
Along with storytelling, music plays an essential role in the tradition, as Kingshill and Westwood (2014, 324–25) show in the case of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, a musicologist. Marjory explained to the authors that while collecting traditional tunes and songs in the Hebrides, she met an older woman, a singer, in South Uist, who performed the ‘seal song.’ Over a decade later, Marjory met two friends on the beach at Barra on a fine and warm day. There, ‘parallel to the beach’, the group saw seals sunning themselves on the sand. One friend encouraged Marjory to sing the ‘seal song.’ She began, with the first verse, and:
‘Instantly there was a response from the seal rocks. Like a fusillade, single note after single note came from each seal in succession from the southerly end on the reefs to the north (Kingshill and Westwood 2014, 324).’
Marjory went on to describe their voices as ‘beautiful. She was left wondering if they had ‘mistaken her’ for one of their own.
Another one of my favorite stories comes from the Sandwood Bay, located far north in the Scottish highlands. In 1948, R. Macdonald Robertson wrote about a conversation he had forty years earlier with Alexander Gunn, a landowner. Gunn told him that he had seen a mermaid. Describing her as ‘a bonnie lassie, clear in complexion as ever I saw. Her hair was reddish-yellow, and curly’ and she had a wreath of seaweed round her neck. (Kingshill and Westwood 2014, 366). Both Gunn and the sea maiden were terrified of one another.
As someone who has scottish heritage, I found these stories speak to me in a language which animates my spirit. This is particularly surprising because I have not yet travelled to Scotland and therefore, do not know the places mentioned here. These stories map out how we can connect with the selkie, the maiden of the sea. Standing on the edge of the land, near where she bathes and suns herself as a seal, we can commune with her through song and especially through singing her praises. To do this, we must first find our voice.
Finally, she reminds us of our own ability to transform; we can shed our terrestrial skin and become a child of the Mother Sea.
If you have a story about the selkie or the mermaid, please share with us below. Meanwhile, I cordially invite you to visit my store and meet our little friends of the sea, including Aleta, Marina and Gabriella, who are mermaids.
Hayman, P. (ed) 2018. The Internationalisation of the Mermaid, John Libbey Publishing. UK, https://www.awin1.com/cread.php?awinmid=10920&awinaffid=726789&clickref=Scaled+for+Success&ued=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bookdepository.com%2FScaled-for-Success-Philip-Hayward%2F9780861967322
Fox, G, n.d. “Mermaids and Other Fetishes, Images of Latin America.” Unpublished paper. Accessed at http://geoffreyfox.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Mermaids-and-Other-Fetishes-Images-of-Latin-America.pdf, 18 June 2020.
Kingshill, S. and J. Westwood 2014. Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions of the Shores of Britain & Ireland. https://www.awin1.com/cread.php?awinmid=10920&awinaffid=726789&clickref=Fabled+Coast&ued=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bookdepository.com%2FThe-Fabled-Coast%2F9780099551072 . London, Arrow Books.