Myth of the mermaid remains an enduring fishy tale...

An artist's interpretation of the generally accepted perception of the mermaid.An artist's interpretation of the generally accepted perception of the mermaid.
An artist's interpretation of the generally accepted perception of the mermaid.
The mermaid with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish has appeared for centuries in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, Scotland included. ALISTAIR MUNRO recounts some of these acquatic connections with the Western Isles.

There are a number of fishy tales in the islands of Scotland, but none as more strange as those concerning mermaids.

Do they exist? Well, in the Outer Hebrides, many in the 19th century believed so.

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In 1830, crofters were busy cutting seaweed at Sgeir na Duchadh near Grimnis on the west coat of the island of Benbecula. One woman spotted a creature several yards out in the water. It looked like a woman in miniature. She called to the others working on the shore and men went into the water to try to catch the creature, but she evaded them.

A boy aimed a rock at her which struck her on the back. She cried out in pain and disappeared beneath the waves.

A few days later a creature was washed up dead on the beach at Culle Bay, near the township of Nunton.

One account at the time stated: “The upper part of the creature was about the size of a well-fed child of three or four years of age, with abnormally developed breasts.

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“The hair was long, dark, and glossy, while the skin was white, soft, and tender. The lower part of the body was like a salmon, but without scales.”

As the crowds gathered on the beach they all agreed that this was the body of a mermaid. The factor for the chief of MacDonald of Clanranald, who was also the local sheriff, was called.

On seeing the creature he called for a shroud and coffin to be brought to the beach and the creature was said to be buried in the nearby churchyard.

It was said that the funeral for this creature was one of the largest attended on the island and was carried out like any proper Christian burial.

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No grave marker related to the incident can be seen at the churchyard and others have said that the creature was buried near the dunes and not in the churchyard at all.

A survey of a large stone near the south end of the bay was carried out, suspecting that this may indeed be the resting place of the mermaid, but this was inconclusive.

So the resting place of the Hebridean mermaid remains a mystery.

However, mermaid stories like this do bring in the tourists who were beginning to find their way to the islands in the mid 19th century.

Many other tales of mermaids exist on the islands.

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A crofter from Barra called Colin Campbell spotted what looked like an otter fishing near the shore; he was about to shoot it but decided to check it though a telescope only to see what he described as a woman carrying a small baby in her arms.

The creature then spotted him on the shore and disappeared.

A field reconnaissance of the dunes fringing Culla Bay, undertaken by a correspondent at the request of the Keeper of Mollusca at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), led to the discovery of an isolated stone within a wind-eroded hollow upon the crest of the dunes.

The possibility existed that this could mark the site of the grave of a mermaid, reportedly buried thereabouts 1820-1830.

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A brief examination of the stone’s character did not support the hypothesis that it had been set-up as a grave-marker.

In 1833, Dr Robert Hamilton, a professor of natural history at Edinburgh University reported that Scottish fishermen had captured a mermaid off Yell, in the Shetland Islands, and held it for three hours while compiling a detailed description.

The creature had a monkey-like face with short hair on its scalp, a woman’s torso, and a tail ‘resembling that of a dogfish.’

They released the creature when it began making ‘plaintive little moans.’

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A ‘respectable testimony’

Whether it be legend, myth, fairytale folklore or fantasy, the mermaid, at one time, was given full credibility, as this report from the Paisley Herald & Renfrewshire Advertiser, from November 6, 1869, shows:

Writing in the Edinburgh Daily Review, Mr Henry Kingsley supplies the following gossip anent a deeply interesting subject – Mermaids were quite common on the coast of Caithness as late as 1809, the common people used to see them frequently; but besides their testimony we have that of witnesses of the highest respectability, Miss Eliza Mackay, daughter of the minister of Reay, saw one while she was walking with her friend Miss Mackenzie, on the shore, and she wrote a full and particular account of it to Mrs Innes, dowager of Landside.

While out walking these young ladies observed three people on a neighbouring rock exhibiting signs of terror, and on going to them found that they were looking at a human figure floating in the water, and rising and falling with the swell of the sea, showing its head, neck and arms.

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Its complexion was brilliant, its fingers long and slender, and its eyes grey; the hair was long, greenish coloured, and oily, and was sometimes washed over its face, at which times it threw it back with its hand; it also repeatedly waved its arm to drive away the seagulls which hovered about it.

They watched it for above an hour in bright sunshine within a few yards.

The bay of Reay appears to have been a favourite place for the toilets of these mermaids, in spite of its northern aspect, for Mr William Munro, schoolmaster of Thurso, in confirmation of the stories of these two young ladies, deponeth that while living at Reay he saw a mermaid combing her hair, which in this specimen was long and brown.

He would have taken the form to be human had it not been for the danger of the place. He watched her closely for a short time, in bright sun, close by, but she at last observing him, plunged into the water, dived and disappeared.