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.
[Retold - A]
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."
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,
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,
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,
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.
[Retold - B]
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, Welch 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.
There once lived in Glengarry a widow with a young child who was a boy. One day she went to the well for water; and when she was returning to the house, she heard the child, whom she had left sleeping quietly in the cradle, screaming as if he were in great pain. She hastened in, and gave him a drink as quickly as she could. This quieted him for a little while, but he soon broke out again as badly as ever. She gave him another drink; and while he was at her breast she looked at him and saw that he had two teeth in his mouth, each more than an inch long, and that his face was as old and withered as any face she had ever seen.
She said to herself: "Now I am undone, but I will keep quiet till I see what will come of this." Next day she lifted the lad in her arms, put a shawl about him, and went away as though she was going to the next farm with him. A big burn ran across her path, and when she was going over the ford, the creature put his head out of the shawl and said: "Many a big fold have I seen on the banks of this stream!"
The woman did not wait to hear more of his history, but threw him into a deep pool below the ford. There he lay for a while, tumbling about and reviling her, and saying if he had known beforehand the trick she was going to play him, he would have shown her another.
She then heard a sound like that of a flock of birds flying about her, but saw nothing until she looked at her feet, and found her own own child lying near them, looking starved. She took him home with her, and he got gradually better, and was at last as healthy as any other child.
[Retold - C]
[A] Douglas, George, ed. Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. New York: A.L. Burt Co. (nd), p. 186-89.
[B] Emerson, P. H., coll and ed. Welsh Fairy-Tales and Other Stories. London: D. Nutt, 1894, p. 69-76.
[C] MacDougall, James. Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English: Collected from Oral Tradition. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1910.
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