folklore, traditions, and stories from Scotland

Am Maighdeann-Mhara: The Mermaids of Scotland

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Mermaids appear in the folklore of almost every country around the world, and Scotland is no exception. Given that no point in Scotland is further than sixty-six miles from the outlying seas, not to mention the myriad of inland lochs and rivers, it’s unsurprising that its mythology and folklore are packed with strange beings that make their homes in water. Known as the maighdeann-mhara (MY-jong VAH-reh) or maid of the wave, the belief in mermaids in Scotland was a common one, and their portrayals range from wraiths who steal children, bewitch men, and curse families, to much more benevolent creatures who offer advice, cure ailments, and grant wishes.

In the grounds of Knockdolion, an old house that stood on the water of Girvan in Ayrshire, there was a large black stone that a mermaid would come to sit on every day, combing her hair and singing for hours on end. The lady of Knockdolion disliked the mermaid because her singing kept her baby awake, so she ordered her servants to break up the black stone. When the mermaid arrived the following day she flew into a rage when she realised there was nowhere for her to sit, and she sang:

Ye may think on your cradle,
I think on my stane. 
There will ne’er be an heir
to Knockdolian again. 

Not long afterwards the baby died and, being an only child, when his mother and father died the family line died with them. 

In Forfarshire, a laird saw a young woman who appeared to be drowning in the loch. As she struggled in the water she called ‘Help me! Help me or I’ll drown!‘ The laird ran in to the water to save her but his manservant dragged him back and told him, ‘That siren is not a human being but a mermaid. If you had touched her she would have hauled you to the depths and drowned you.‘ As he spoke, the sound of laughter rang out across the loch, and the laird turned to see a mermaid swimming away. 

A healing man in Galloway was said to receive at least some of his medical knowledge from a mermaid. When a local girl, May, fell ill with consumption, the man tried his best to cure her but his herbs had no effect. Whilst he sat sorrowing on the shore, a mermaid appeared in the waves and sang to him:

Would you let bonnie May die in your hand
And leave the mugwort flowering on the land?

The man sprang up and set to gathering the flowers of the mugwort to make a tincture that he gave to May, and she was soon restored to full health.

In some areas of Scotland, the mermaid is considered to be one of the fairy folk and consequently can grant wishes, if you can manage to catch one. The story goes that a crofter on Jura once saw a maid of the wave sitting on a rock. He crept up on her and grabbed her, holding her tightly as she wriggled in his arms. The mermaid demanded that he let her go but the man was very strong and refused to loosen his grip until she had granted him three wishes.

“What are your wishes?” asked the mermaid. 

“Health, wealth, and prosperity,” the man replied.

“Your wishes are granted!” exclaimed the mermaid, and the man released her. She plunged into the sea and quickly vanished from sight. The man’s farm flourished and prospered, and he lived to a ripe old age and never suffered from any sickness.

Several sightings of mermaids from ‘honest and intelligent’ people have been recorded over the past few hundred years. Alexander Carmichael gathered several witness accounts for the second volume of his Carmina Gadelica, published in 1900. 

Colin Campbell, a crofter, saw what he thought was an otter holding and eating a fish just off the shore of Barra. Campbell was going to fire at the creature but by the time he had raised his gun and looked again, he was sure the otter was in fact a woman holding a child. He took out his telescope for a closer look and saw that it was indeed a woman, floating carefree on the waves with a very comfortable looking child. Campbell was astonished, and he watched the maid of the wave and the sea bairn for a few moments until they dived under the surface with a splash. 

Neil MacEachain, a crofter from South Uist, was sailing home on a summer’s afternoon. The sun was shining and the surface of the sea was as smooth as a millpond. As his skiff emerged from the Sound of Mull, MacEachain and his crew looked on in disbelief as a creature appeared in the water a few yards from the boat. From the waist down it was under the water, and from the head to the waist it resembled a woman, though its hair was more coarse and its eyes more glassy. The creature gazed at the men for a minute or more before disappearing into the sea. Though MacEachain had been accustomed to the sea all his life, he had never seen anything like it before. One of the crew declared that it was a mermaid, and said that he had seen a similar creature some years previously while cutting seaweed at Boisdale. Carmichael states that MacEachain ‘was an entirely truthful man and incapable of inventing. He was one of Nature’s nobles, being richly endowed mentally and physically, and with a phenomenal memory.’

In 1833, six fishermen reported that they had pulled up a mermaid in their lines off the Isle of Yell in the Shetlands. She was only about three feet long and offered no resistance, but she moaned pitifully the entire time she was on board. She had stiff bristles on top of her head that extended down to her shoulders like a crest, and there were no gills, fins, or scales on her body. The fishermen were worried about what their fate might be if they held on to her, so they threw her overboard after a few hours of gawping. The Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh heard the story from the skipper and said, “Not one of the six men dreamed of a doubt of its being a maid of the wave… it is quite impossible that six Shetland fishermen could commit such a mistake.”

The most famous mermaid in Scotland is arguably the Benbecula Mermaid. In 1830, the beach was busy with people harvesting seaweed at Sgeir na Duchadh, near Grimnis on the west coast of Benbecula, when a woman padded into the lower end of the reef to wash her feet. She heard an odd noise, and when she looked up she saw a small, human-like creature splashing in the sea a few feet away. A few of her fellow workers tried to catch the creature but it moved beyond their reach. Boys threw rocks at it, one of which struck it on the back causing it to yelp in pain before it disappeared beneath the waves. Evidently the boys’ rocks had struck a fatal blow, as the body of the creature washed up on Culla Bay, two miles away a few days later. A description of it was recorded thus: 

“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. 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.”

Crowds of people who had congregated on the shore to see the strange creature were of the unanimous opinion that this was indeed the body of a mermaid. 

Duncan Shaw, Baron-bailie of the district, was called and he ordered a shroud and coffin be made for the creature. The body was buried a short distance above the shore where it had washed up, witnessed by the crowd that had gathered on the beach that day. No grave marker has ever been found, though a large stone in Culla Bay that some speculated could be the mermaid’s resting place was surveyed in 1994. Unfortunately, the survey proved inconclusive.