Magical legends can be found world-wide about beautiful mermaids, some even developing up until the late nineteenth century. The majority of sighting s in the British Isles occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth century perhaps this is because that these periods in British history were times of great discovery and exploration of the planet.
‘This morning, one of our companie saw a Mermaid, and calling up some
of the companie to see her, one more came up...From the navel upwards,
her back and breasts were like a woman’s...her body as big as one of us;
in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was the tayle of a Porposse,
and speckled like a Macrell.’
Henry Hudson, Explorer, 1608.
The last reported sighting of a mermaid in the UK was made in 1947 off the Isle of Muck, Scotland (UK). Sandwood, in Sutherland (UK), was once known as the ‘Land of Mermaids’ because of the number of sightings. The last reported sighting of a mermaid outside the British Isles was in Lusaka. The mermaid was described as the top half of the body resembling that of a European woman, whilst the bottom was said to resemble that of a fish. This sighting was in 1977. In 1990 a creature which has yet to be categorised was found in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland (UK) believed by some to be a mermaid.
A mermaid was said to haunt ‘Mermaid Rock’, Cornwall (UK). Whenever she was sighted it indicated that there was a shipwreck to be expected and therefore the lifeboats should be prepared. It was said that she lured the ships towards the rocks by her singing. ‘Doom Bar’, in east Cornwall, was a sand bank that used to cause many shipwrecks near the mouth to the harbour. It was believed that the sand bar caused the many disasters as the result of a mermaid that had been shot there whilst she was enjoying swimming in the harbour. The constant arrival of fog on the Isle of Man, off England (UK), was believed to be the result of a mermaid who was rejected. She was so upset that fog surrounded the island, causing problems for the local shipping.
In 1830 a reported sighting by local people was alleged to have occurred in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland (UK). The mermaid was said to have disappeared underwater after having been hit on the back by a rock. She was later buried after being found dead on the beach.
‘The upper portion of the creature was about the size of a well-fed child
of three or four years of age, with an abnormally developed breast.
The hair was long and glossy, while the skin was white, soft and tender.
The lower part was like a salmon, but without scales.’
‘The Carmina Gadelica’
‘My attention was arrested by the appearance of a figure resembling an
unclothed human female sitting on a rock extending to the sea, apparently in the
action of combing its hair. It remained on the rock three or four minutes after I
observed it, and was exercised during that period in combing its hair, which was
long and thick. I has a distinct view of the features, being at no great distance
from an eminence above the rock on which it was sitting, and the sun brightly
William Munro, Schoolmaster circa 1785. ‘The Times’ newspaper.
Also known as ‘Sea Sirens’, the personality and appearance is most commonly known to be that of a seductive temptress. Her beauty has been said to reflect the wondrous treasures and power of the sea itself. Half-woman and half-dolphin or fish depiction’s today are more common than the early sixteenth century part woman, dolphin and lion. The fish tail was thought to be shed when needed to make the mermaid more attractive to men. Engravings have shown the mermaid to carry a small hand-mirror, with long hair and usually in song. The sound of the mermaid singing was once thought to be a reason for sailors meeting disaster, as the haunting lilting voice was said to be heard coming from the waves forecasting bad weather. Mixed omens surround the stories of their sudden appearance being feared but also known to have saved the lives of sailors who had fallen overboard. Women saw them as enemies, as they were often thought to seek out men as partners, getting married, turning their partners into ‘mermen’. Rejecting the approach of a mermaid was thought to bring severe misfortune to the man, and if she was injured a period of misfortune would meet a crew or coastline. Yet despite all this, the mermaid is currently viewed as a gentle creature kind in nature (there is one theory that mermaids were actually mis-identified sea-cows or porpoises).
In the twelfth century it was reported that a merman was caught by fishermen off the east coast near Suffolk, England (UK). He seemed unable to speak when released from the nets. The merman was taken to a church, and even tortured but still nothing. Described as ‘the appearance of a man in all his parts’ the merman quickly escaped when taken to the water supposedly to bathe.
Descendants of ‘merfolk’ (half-human, half-mermen or half-mermaid) are believed to still live in the north-west of Scotland (UK). In fact the Clan McVeagh have even until recent memory been believed to be the results of generations of such unions. There are many thoughts on why such unions took place; some believe that men were attracted to mermaids by their beauty whilst others believed men were captured and then kept as prisoners. One way to ensure that a mermaid became helpless and unable to lure unsuspecting males to a watery domain was said to be successful if the belt or cap was removed from her. Without this it was thought that she would lose much of her powers.
Changes in temperature above the sea surface have been thought to cause distortions on sightings of porpoises or sea cows. The effect of warm air moving over cold air causes a refraction of the light rays and could explain some of the sightings, but the detail included in reports cannot be dismissed by the same effect. Geord Steller, in 1741, thought that mermaids were no more than sea-apes following the alleged discovery of such a creature in the Gulf of Alaska. Alister Hardy’s theory, that man evolved from aquatic apes rather than upright creatures, may connect with this idea yet insufficient evidence exists to substantiate this theory.