I am happy to pass you over to one of my finest reviewers and equally a stupendous author, KM Lockwood. I knew her mermaid knowledge would be great than mine, so sit back and enjoy her fabulous post about mermaids.
When Viv said I could do a piece on mermaids and she didn’t mind how much so long as there were pictures, well, I got all over-excited. Without digging through the salty strata of my reference books, I knew of a good half-dozen without even considering sirens or mermen. Happy days.
Dear Reader, you will be glad to know I have limited myself to the geographical British Isles and to historical sightings. Otherwise you’d need to fetch a very big cup of tea before starting.
Mermaids North of the Border
, Outer Hebrides 1830. Local women gathering seaweed saw a tiny mermaid frolicking in the sea. She could not be caught in a net but a boy threw stones at her and hurt her. A few days later her body came to shore. She had a “top half like that of a child and lower half like a salmon but without scales.” The Bailiff and Sheriff arranged a shroud, a coffin and a burial above the high-water mark for her – but no religious service.
The Dropping Cave, Cromarty. Around about 1740 ship-owner John Reid wanted so much to marry one Helen Stuart, but she would have none of him. Early one morning he walked sadly along the shore, and heard singing. He pinned the singer, a silver-tailed mermaid against the cliff and made her give him three wishes in return for her freedom. The first was that neither he nor any of his friends would drown, the second was that Helen would be his bride and the last was a secret. The first two came true – but no-one knows about the third.
The Mermaid of the North sculpture, ( CC)
1947 an 80 year old fisherman from The Isle of Muck said he saw a mermaid combing her hair but she swam away when she saw him. Several times in the early 20thcentury one appeared at in Sutherland - so-called ‘land of mermaids’.
Port Glasgow – a medical mermaid. The funeral procession of a young lassie who had died of consumption (tuberculosis) passed along the shore. A mermaid appeared and sang this song:
‘If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat muggins in May
Sae braw maidens
gang to clay’
(If they had nettle tea in March, and ate (Artemisia) in May, so many fine girls would not be buried.)
Mermaids and songs
© Copyright Sarah Smith and licensed
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
This carved medieval bench end in Zennor church shows a mermaid with long hair, a comb and a mirror. Locals say the squire’s son and chorister, Matthew , had such a beautiful voice that a mermaid came out of the sea to listen. He fell in love and went to dwell with her in the bay. His voice can still be heard on still nights.
Mermaid’s Rock, near , East Cornwall had a regular fish-tailed siren whose singing foretold shipwrecks. This might have inspired a popular song: The Mermaid. It doesn’t end well for the crew.
The Black Rock Mermaid visited up and down the north Wirral coast. Sometimes she was seen on Perch Rock, and also near Castle, on stretch of sands called Wharf, or on boulders called the Mermaid Stones further down the coast
In the 18th Century. Liverpool sailor John Robinson encountered her when, following a storm that killed the rest of his crew, she came on board his ship. He spoke first and took her comb and girdle away. This gave him the power to ask one wish of her. She offered him a compass so he could reach the shore: if he promised to return the next Friday. He agreed, and she kept her word.
When he came back, she was the one who spoke first She bewitched him with her singing, took back the compass and put her ring on his finger. She said they would soon be re-united. When he returned to his home, he fell ill and died five days later.
The Mermaid's Rock - Edward Matthew Hale (1894) Public Domain
Doom Bar, Cornwall. The sandbank beyond Padstow was not just famous as a kind of ale, but for a curse. A local took a pot shot at mermaid which she took exception to! Likewise, certain fogs on the Isle of Man were sent by an irate mermaid who had been spurned by a local lad – which is why it is also known as the Isle of Mist.
Conwy Bay, Wales. A mermaid was cast ashore by a terrible storm. She begged the local fishermen to help her get back in the sea but they did not. Just as she was dying she cursed the people of Conwy for being so heartless and prophesied they would always be poor. A fish famine in the 5th century was reckoned to be the result.
, Caithness. A mermaid fell in love with a mortal man and gave him treasure. Then she found out he was using his wealth to woo human lasses. Without saying a word, she took him to a cave below Head. Here there was every treasure ever lost in the Firth. She sang him asleep. When he woke, he was chained in golden fetters and he is still there, guarded by the mermaid.
When Mere, Staffordshire was dredged in 19th century, workmen said a mermaid warned them she would destroy two nearby towns if they drained the lake. Also in Staffordshire (which is entirely landlocked) near Leek, The Black Mere at also had a mermaid who not only scared people but creatures too. Apparently animals refused to drink the water and birds would not fly over it.
Mermaid Pool, Kinder Scout via CC
On Kinder Scout, a hill in high and Derbyshire, a waterfall sometimes plunges into The Mermaid’s Pool. If you go there at midnight just as Easter Sunday dawns, you might see her in the peaty waters – but don’t get too close, she might hook you in.
At Child’s Shropshire there is a pond. Two workmen saw a strange dripping creature emerging from it and ran away, thinking it was a demon. But the mermaid called after them in a sweet and gentle voice and they looked back. She told them there was treasure in the pond that they could have so long as they took it from her hands. She dived down and they waded in. When the water was up to their necks, she returned with a huge lump of gold. One of the men swore with excitement. The mermaid screamed and sank without trace, taking the treasure with her.
These undersea people live near Orkney and spent their summers on the holy island of . The daughters of the Fin-men and Fin-wives loved to marry human lads. Such a lucky mermaid would then lose her tail – but keep her beauty for ever. Some would lure young men to their city of beneath the waves.
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Ralph of in the 13th Century wrote about The Wild Man of Orford. He was a sea-creature with a bald head and a long ragged beard caught by local fishermen in their nets. He ate only fish and kept silent, though appeared to be happy in his stay at the local castle with the governor. He was often taken to the sea for a swim and for some months, he would come back. But one day he swam away, never to be seen again.
The Blue Men of The Minch. In between the mainland of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, a turbulent channel called the Minch runs. In Gaelic it is Fear – the Stream of the Blue Men. These blue-skinned glossy creatures with grey beards would ask riddles of any seaman passing through. If he did not answer well enough, he would be dragged down into the current.
, Banff, Scotland. The fishermen of regarded their local merman as an omen of bad luck. If they caught a glimpse of his swarthy skin, his tremendously long arms or his curly grey-green hair, they would sail back home.
ancient capital with merman - CC
or . The Irish have the male ‘Son-of-the-Sea’, and the female ‘Sea-Singer’ as merfolk. The Mara ( ) of the Isle of Man is similar – the males are ugly to human eyes and rather fond of brandy and other drinks. You must never whistle at sea or it will anger them.
Finally my favourite, The Merman – from Yorkshire! In 1535 a local man called Mr Wells recorded that fishers caught a creature that looked like a man from the sea. Unsure how to deal with him, they put him in a disused house. He was given every kindness and attention and fed by the community. However, he refused all food except fish and stayed for several weeks.
He seemed to like fayre ; looking at them as if his had been touched by a spark of love.
He tried to communicate with his human captors, but could only produce a type of shriek in a voice that was not human. He was polite to his visitors who plied him with fish, and eventually he was allowed some freedom.
One day he out of and ere he could be overtaken, recovered the sea he plunged himself. He his shoulders often above the waves of acknowledgement of his good entertainment to such as beheld him from the shore. After a pretty while, he dived and appeared no more.
Merman with ceramicist Johnson