Text by Matthew Lee / Illustration by Daniel Haskett
A letter to the editor of The Times newspaper on 9 June 1809 contained a startling revelation. It was from WM Munro, a schoolmaster from Thurso in northern Scotland, who claimed he’d spotted “a figure resembling an unclothed human female” while out walking. The creature had fish-like lower parts, he wrote, and it wasn’t just a product of his fertile imagination – many other locals had seen mermaids too.
“Folk stories about sea people are still told in the Scottish Hebrides,” says author Elisabeth Gifford, whose debut novel Secrets of the Sea House features the discovery of the bones of a mermaid child and is based on the tale of Munro’s sighting. “All kids know the stories of the ‘selkies’, the magical seal women who step out of their skins to become human,” she says.
The mermaid mystery has never been solved, but research by Scottish historian and folklorist John MacAulay suggests Norwegian involvement. In his book Seal-Folk and Ocean Paddlers he argues that the fish-like people were most likely Sea Saamis, indigenous people from Norway’s northern fjords. He believes that they reached Scotland in rudimentary kayaks, using parkas made from sealskin to keep warm. Their sealskin leg covers, he concludes, would have looked very similar to mermaid tails.
When the Sea Saami were assimilated into the general population of Vesterålen, just north of Lofoten, 200 years ago, the mermaid sightings in Scotland stopped – their explorations had apparently reached an end. Links between the Saami and Scotland remain unproven, but MacAuley’s research suggests some Saami may have skipped the return leg and settled in Scotland. “There might be descendants of mermaids walking among us and living quite happily,” concludes Gifford.
Elisabeth Gifford’s Secrets of the Sea House is published by Corvus on 6 August