Site Map
Scottish Folktales and Legends
Section › 11   Set    Search  Previous Next

Reservations   Contents    

The Fisherman and the Merman

Many strange stories are told about mermen and merwomen in the Shetland Isles. These beings may look like beautiful humans, but in the sea they put on seal skins below their waists. In this shape they sometimes venture near humans and examine with much curiosity how the upper world of the humans is like. But if they lose their seal skin when on land, they are bound to remain as humans out of the waters.

Once a boat's crew landed to hunt seals lying around in the hollows of crags on a skerry. The men stunned with clubs a number of the animals and stripped them of their skins. Leaving the carcases on the rock, the crew took the skins and were about to set off for the shore of Papa Stour, when such a tremendous swell arose that every one flew quickly to the boat. All managed to enter it except one man, who lingered behind. The crew were unwilling to leave a companion to perish on the skerries, but the surge increased so fast that after many unsuccessful tries to bring the boat close in to the stack, the man was abandoned and left to his fate.

A stormy night came on, and the deserted Shetlander thought that he was going to perish from cold and hunger or to be washed into the sea by breakers that threatened to dash over the rocks. Then he noticed that many of the seals that had escaped the attack of the boatmen, were approaching the skerry. When coming up on land, they took off their seal hides and looked like splendid men and women.

The first thing they did was to assist their friends to recover - the seals who had been stunned by clubs deprived of their skins while in that state. When the flayed animals came to, they too took the shape of of mermen or merwomen, and began to lament in mournful notes while the storm was raging around, that they now were without their sea-dresses. Without them, they could not hope to enjoy again their native azure atmosphere and coral mansions deep below the surface of the ocean. They lamented the most for one Ollavitinus who, stripped of his seal's skin, would be for ever parted from his mates and doomed to the upper world.

Their song was broken off when they saw that one of their enemies was watching them with shivering limbs and looks of despair while wild waves were dashing over the stack. at that moment the mother of Ollavitinus got an idea and spoke mildly to the man, proposing to carry him safe on her back across the sea to Papa Stour, if she got the seal-skin of Ollavitinus. The man agreed gratefully, and the mother of Ollavitinus clad herself in her seal skin, and the Shetlander put his arms around her shoulders and flanks as best he could. The man then committed himself to her care as she braved the waves and landed him safely at Acres Gio in Papa Stour. From that place he at once went to a hut at Hamna Voe, where fish was dried, and where the skin was deposited. He did as he had promised, and handed over the skin to the mother seal who had carried him safely ashore. Within minutes after she swam away with the skin, her son the merman could again unite with his wives in the sea.

(Douglas 1901, 186-89. Retold)


The Fox and the Wolf

There was once a fox and a wolf who set up house together in a cave near the seashore. They got on very well for a time, for they went out hunting all day, and when they came back at night they were generally too tired to do anything but to eat their supper and go to bed.

They might have lived together always had it not been for the slyness and greediness of the fox. He tried to over-reach his companion, and this was how it came about.

It chanced, one dark December night, that there was a dreadful storm at sea, and in the morning the beach was all strewn with wreckage. As soon as it was daylight the two friends went down to the shore to see if they could find anything to eat. They had the good fortune to find a great keg of butter, which had been washed overboard from some ship on its way home from Ireland.

The wolf danced with joy when he saw it. "Marrowbones and sheep feet prepared for food! We will have a good supper tonight," he cried, licking his lips. "Let ua set to work at once and roll it up to the cave."

But the wily fox made up his mind that he would have it all to himself. So he put on his wisest look and shook his head gravely.

"You have no prudence, my friend," he said, "or you would not talk of breaking up a keg of butter at this time of year, when the stackyards [1] are full of good grain that can be had for the eating, and the farmyards are stocked with nice fat ducks and poultry. No, it behoves us to have foresight and to lay up in store for the spring, when the grain is all threshed and the stackyards are bare, and the poultry have gone to market. So we will bury the keg and dig it up when we have need of it."

The wolf was thinner and hungrier than the fox, so he agreed only reluctantly to this. But they dug a hole and buried the keg in it, and then the two animals went off hunting as usual.

About a week passed by. Then one day the fox came into the cave and flung himself down on the ground as if he were very much exhausted.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear!" he sighed. "Life is a heavy burden."

"What has happened to you?" asked the wolf.

"Some friends of mine, who live over the hills there, are wanting me to go to a christening tonight. Just think of the distance that I must travel."

"But do you have to go?" asked the wolf. "Can you not send an excuse?"

"I doubt that no excuse would be accepted," answered the fox, "for they asked me to stand god-father. Therefore it behoves me to do my duty, and pay no heed to my own feelings."

So that evening the fox was absent, and the wolf was alone in the cave. But it was not to a christening that the fox went; it was to the keg of butter that was buried in the sand. About midnight he returned, looking fat and sleek, and well pleased with himself.

The wolf had been dozing, but he looked up drowsily as his companion entered. "Well, how did they name the child?" he asked.

"They gave it a strange name," answered the fox. "One of the strangest names that I ever heard."

"And what was that?" asked the wolf. Nothing less than "Let-me-taste," replied the fox, throwing himself down in his corner and laughing to himself.

Some days afterwards the same thing happened. The fox said he was asked to another christening; this time at a place some twenty-five miles along the shore. And as he had grumbled before, so he grumbled again; but he declared that it was his duty to go, and he went.

At midnight he came back, smiling to himself and with no appetite for his supper. And when the wolf asked him the name of the child, he answered that it was a more extraordinary name than the other "Midway".

The very next week the fox was asked to yet another christening. And this time the name of the child was "Scraping the staves". After that there were no more invitations.

Time went on, and the hungry spring came, and the fox and the wolf had nothing left in their storing-room, for food was scarce, and the weather was bleak and cold.

"Let us go and dig up the keg of butter," said the wolf. "I should say that now is the time we need it."

The fox agreed; he had already decided how he would act. The two set out to the place where the keg had been hidden. They scraped away the sand, and uncovered it, it was empty.

"This is your work," said the fox angrily, turning to the innocent wolf. "You have crept along here while I was at the christenings, and eaten it up by stealth."

"Not I," answered the wolf. "I have never been near the spot since the day that we buried it together."

"But I tell you it must have been you," insisted the fox, "for no other creature knew it was there except ourselves. And, besides, I can see by your sleek fur that you have fared well of late."

However, the poor wolf looked as lean and badly nourished as he could possibly be.

They both went back to the cave, arguing all the way. The fox kept declaring that the wolf must have been the thief, and the wolf said he was innocent.

"Are you ready to swear to it?" said the fox at last.

"Yes, I am," replied the wolf firmly. Standing in the middle of the cave and holding one paw up solemnly, he swore an awful oath: "If I stole the butter, may a fateful disease fall on me."

When he was finished, he put down his paw, turned to the fox, and looked at him keenly. All at once it struck him that the fox fur looked sleek and fine.

"It is your turn now," he said. "I have sworn, and you must do so also."

The fox's face fell at these words, for he had been well brought up in his youth and knew that it was a terrible thing to swear falsely. So he made one excuse after another, while the wolf got more and more suspicious every moment.

Finally, as the fox did not have courage to tell the truth, he was forced at last to swear an oath, he too: "If I stole the butter, then let some deadly punishment fall on me. Whirrum wheeckam, whirram whee!"

When the wolf heard the fox swear this terrible oath, he thought that his suspicions must be groundless, and would have let the matter rest. However, the fox could not do so, for he had got an uneasy conscience. He suggested that since it seemed clear that one of them must have eaten the keg of butter, they should both stand near the fire, and when they became hot, the butter would ooze out of the skin of the guilty one. And he took care that the wolf should stand in the hottest place.

But the fire was big and the cave was small, and while the poor lean wolf showed no sign of discomfort, he himself, being nice and fat and comfortable, soon began to get unpleasantly warm. This did not suit him at all, so he next proposed that they should go for a walk, "for," said he, "it is now quite plain that neither of us can have taken the butter. It must have been some stranger who has found out our secret."

But the wolf had seen the fox beginning to grow greasy, and now he knew who had eaten the butter. He also decided to have his revenge. He waited until they came to a smithy at the side of the road, where a horse was waiting just outside the door to be shod.

Then, keeping at a safe distance, he said to his companion, "There is a writing on that smithy door, but I cannot read it. Maybe you will try to, for perhaps it may be something that would be good for us to know."

The fox went close up to the door to try and read the writing. In so doing, he chanced to touch the horse's fetlock [3]. The horse at once lifted its foot and struck out, and killed the fox as dead as a door-nail.

(Cf. Grierson 1910, 245-53)

  1. stackyard: A yard or enclosure for stacks of hay or grain.
  2. fetlock: the lower leg of a horse.


The Fishermen of Shetland

There was a snug little bay in one of the Shetland Islands. At the head of the bay stood a fishing hamlet with some twenty huts. In these huts lived the fisher-folk ruled by one man - the chief who was the father of two beautiful daughters.

Among these fishermen were two brothers who courted the chiefs daughters, but the old man would not let them get married till they became rich.

Now the fishermen of this hamlet had been very lucky for some years, for a fairy queen and her fairies had settled around there, and she had given her power over to a merman who was the chief of a large family of mermaids. The fairy queen had made the merman a belt of sea-weed, which he always wore round his body. At noon every day the merman used to turn the water red, green, and white so that the fishermen knew that if they cast their nets into the coloured waters they could make good hauls.

And whenever the fishermen went off in the boats the merman was used to sit on a rock and watch them fishing.

Close by the hamlet were a few trees, where a wicked old witch and a dwarf lived. The witch wished to get the merman's belt and so gain the fairy's power. Telling her scheme to the dwarf, she said to him:

"You must trap the merman when he is sitting on the rocks watching the fishing fleet. But I must change you into a bee first: When you must suck of the juice in this magic basin, then fly off and alight on the merman's head. Then he will fall asleep."

So the dwarf agreed, and it happened as she had said: The merman fell asleep, and the dwarf stole the belt and brought it to the witch.

"Now wear the belt," said the witch to the dwarf, "and you will have the power and the fairy will lose her power."

They then took the sleeping merman to the trees and laid him before a hut there. The witch got a copper vessel, saying: "We must bury him in this."

Then she got a magic pot, and told the dwarf to take a ladleful of the fluid in the pot, and pour over the merman, which he did. At once the merman turned into smoke that settled in the copper vessel. Then they sealed the copper vessel tightly.

"Now take this vessel, and throw it into the sea fifty miles from land," said the witch, and the dwarf did as he was bid.

"Now we'll starve out those old fishermen this winter," said the witch; and it happened as she had said. The fishers could not catch anything any more.

In spring the queen fairy came to one of the young fishermen who was courting one of the chiefs daughters, and said: "You must venture something for the sake of your love and for the lives of the fishermen, or you will all starve - but I will be with you. Will you run the risk?"

"Maybe," said the fisherman. He would not his word without having a good idea of what the matter was.

"Well, the dwarf has got my belt. He stole it from the merman, and so I have lost power over the world for a year and a day. But if you get back the belt, I can settle the witch. If not, you will all catch no fish and will be left to starve."

The fisherman agreed to try.

"Now I must transform you into an otter, and you'll have to watch the witch and the dwarf and take your chance of getting the belt; and you must watch where he hides his treasure, for he is using the belt as a means to get gold, which he hides in a cave."

A young fisher was changed into an otter to watch where a dwarf hid his treasures.

And so the fisher was turned into an otter with the power of making himself invisible by sitting on his haunches and rubbing his ears with his paws. He sneaked along brooklets to the cluster of trees and watched the dwarf, and saw that he hid his treasure in a cave in some crags.

One night, when it was very boisterous, the otter felt like going to see his sweetheart. So he went and knocked at the door. The girl opened the door, and shrieked when she saw the otter.

"Oh, let him in," said her old mother.

So the otter came in and asked for shelter from the storm, for he could speak. And he went and sat by the fire, and asked his sweetheart to brush the snow from his coat, which she did.

"I won't do you any harm," he said. "Let me sleep by the fire."

He came again the next night, and they gave him some gruel and played with him; for he was as playful as a dog.

In this way he came every night till the springtime, when, one morning, as he was going away, he said:

"You must not expect me anymore. Spring has come, and the snows have melted. I can't come again till the summer is over."

So he returned to the tree cluster and watched the dwarf, but he could never catch him without his belt till one day he saw him on a cliff where he was fishing for salmon without the belt. At the same time the otter's sweetheart and her sister came by picking flowers. The otter approached the dwarf on the slippery cliff. The dwarf said when he saw him attacking: "Ah! let me go. Take these two girls instead of me."

But the otter fell on the dwarf and succeeded in biting his leg and making him trip and fall into the brine to his death. At once the otter was turned into his former self, and the girls ran up and kissed him.

Then he took the two girls to the dwarf's cave, and gave each of them a bag of treasure, keeping one for himself. And taking the belt, he put it on, and they all walked back to the hamlet. There he told the fishermen that their troubles would soon be over, but that he must kill the witch first.

Then he turned the belt three times, and said: "I wish for the queen fairy."

She came, was delighted, and said: "Now you must come and slay the witch," and she handed him a bow and arrow, telling him to use it right and tight when he got to the hut.

So he went off to the wood, and found the witch in her hut, and she begged for mercy.

"Oh no, you have done too much mischief," he said, and shot her.

Then the queen fairy appeared, and sent him to gather dry wood to make a fire. When the fire was made, she sent him to fetch the witch's wand, which she cast into the flames, saying: "Mark my word, now some devils of hell will be here."

And when the wand began to burn, some devils came and tried to snatch it from the fire, but the queen raised her wand, saying:

"Through this powerful wand that I hold in my hand,

Through this bow and arrow I have caused her to be slain,

That she may leave our domain.

Now take her up high into the sky,

And let her burst asunder as a clap of thunder.

Then take her to hell and there let her dwell,


And the wand was burnt, and the devils carried the witch off in a noise like thunder.

The twelve months were up on that day, and the fairy said to the fisherman: "Take your chief and your brother, and put out to sea half-a-mile, where you'll see a red spot, bright as the sun on the water; cast in your net on the sea-side of the spot, and pull to the shore."

They did as the queen commanded, and when they pulled the net on the shore they found the copper vessel.

"Now open it," said the queen to the fisherman with the belt, "but cover your belt with your coat first."

And he did so, and when he opened the copper, a ball of smoke rose into the air, and suddenly the merman stood before them, and said:

"The first four months that I was in prison,

I swore I'd make the man as rich as a king,

The man who released me.

But there was no release, no release, no release.

The second four months that I was in prison,

I swore I'd make the water run red,

But there was no release, no release, no release.

The last four months that I was in prison,

I swore in my wrath I'd take my deliverer's life,

Whoever he might be."

Now the fisherman opened his coat and showed him the belt. The merman at once cooled down, and said: "Oh, that's how I came into this trouble."

Then he asked the fisherman with the belt what had happened, and he told him the whole story. Then the queen told the fisherman to take the girdle off and put it back on the merman, and he did so; and suddenly the merman took to the sea, and began to sing from a rock:

"As I sit on the rock,

I am like a statue block,

And I straighten my hair,

That is so long and fair.

And now my eyes look bright,

For I am in great delight,

Because I am free in glee,

To roam over the sea."

After that the hamlet was joyful again, for the fishermen began to catch plenty of fish; for the merman showed them where to cast their nets, by colouring the water as of old.

And the two brothers married the chief's two beautiful daughters, and they lived happily ever after.

(Emerson 1894, 69-76. Retold)


Marine animals are the largest mammals on the Shetland Islands. There are otters, porpoises and seals - beside the famous Shetland ponies and Shetland sheepdogs.

In the landscape of Shetland you may notice there are grazing sheep and few trees, but wild flowers, moss and lichen. Shetland trees that survive the winter storms and salty air are as a rule hardy and small. In most parts of the islands, trees are found only in gardens. There are also a few larger plantations, particularly in the sheltered valley of Weisdal.Shetlanders also plant trees, that may grow to get six or seven meters high or so. But there are no wild forests.

The original Welsh fairy tale speaks of a fisher changed into a bear in a forest, but there are no wild bears in the United Kingdom, not to speak of the Shetland Islands. The closest "brown ones" we may find in the wild in Great Britain are otters and beavers. Beavers are being reintroduced in Scotland today, whereas otters have survived to this day, and are found on the Shetland Islands too. I should say it is a good idea to let local animals serve their turns in the folklore of a region.



Scottish folktales, Orkney tales, Scotish legends, folk tales of Scotland, folk tales of the Orkney Islands, To top    Section     Set    Next

Scottish folktales, Orkney tales, Scotish legends, folk tales of Scotland, folk tales of the Orkney Islands. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 2007–2018, Tormod Kinnes [Email]