The historical novel THE SEA HOUSE ( published as SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE in the UK) was inspired by a real letter to the Times newspaper in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a Scots schoolmaster. There are many strange legends about sea people in the Hebrides.
The legend of the Selkie is told along the Western coast of Scotland and as far down as Ireland. Selkies are seals in the water, but once on land, they take off their skins and become human. If an ordinary mortal sees a Selkie in human form, they will inevitably fall in love. The Selkie legend has several variations but never ends happily. The husband or wife of a Selkie may hide away their seal skins, but once their hiding place is discovered the Selkie is powerless to resist the call of the sea. He slides back into his skins and departs, leaving behind any children.
It’s a sad and spine tingling legend that I first heard while on holiday in the Outer Hebrides with my children. But as I read and researched the history of the islands, I began to realise that the Selkie story was much more than just a fairy story.
In his book on the seal people, Gaelic historian John MacAulay puts forward an interesting theory, that the Selkie stories are actually a very old form of oral history. He suggests that for thousands of years, Eskimo type kayakers in sealskin canoes have been travelling down to Scotland from remote Arctic Norway. The Sea Sami, now extinct, were a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers that used Eskimo kayaks and technology to hunt and fish.
Now imagine how such a kayaker must have looked to someone who had never seen a kayaker before. A sealskin kayak becomes waterlogged after eight hours and so lies just below the surface of the water. All you would see from the shore would be the top half of a man and below the water, the shape of a long tail wavering in the refracted light. It must have looked remarkably like a creature that was half man, half seal. And imagine the islander’s shock if that creature came ashore, took off its sealskins and became entirely human.
There are several families from the Outer Hebrides who came claim direct descent from sea people. The famous poet MacOdrum was said to be one of the seal people and to get his skill in song writing from the seal’s gift of singing.
I was amazed to find that there were also many sightings of mermaids around Scotland’s shores, recorded by highly respectable people, among them, a letter to the London Times in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a schoolmaster in Sanday. There was even a record of a funeral held in 1830 for a mermaid whose body was washed up on the shore of Benbecula in the Hebrides.
It could well be that such mermaid sightings were describing sightings of the same kayakers from Norway. The Times mermaid was seen seated on a rock inaccessible to any human, combing its long hair. It’s interesting to note that a seal skin kayak has to haul out onto a rock every so often to dry out the kayak. A female kayaker would no doubt take the chance to comb out her hair. As soon as it saw it was observed, the long-tailed creature launched back into the water, as a kayak would from a rock.
The Sea Sami tribe that once lived in Norway has now disappeared. Almost none of their fragile artefacts or kayaks have survived to prove that they ever visited Scotland. Two hundred years ago, under intense pressure to assimilate into the mainstream culture, the Sea Sami way of life disappeared. The last recorded mermaid sighting was also two hundred years ago – both mermaids and Sea Sami disappeared at exactly the same time.
The Selkie stories are probably the clearest evidence we have that Sea Sami ever visited the islands of the North Scotland.
Most of the island families that claim to be descended from Selkies are now in Canada or America following the mid Victorian clearances in Scotland, when entire communities of Gaelic crofters were evicted to make way for the landlord’s sheep. In Secrets of the Sea House, Moira’s struggle with eviction in 1860 reflects that sad time. In a strange parallel, it seems that the mermaid and Selkie sightings stopped because the Sea Sami culture was banned in Norway, just as the Gaelic culture of the Outer Isles was once supressed for many years. Secrets of the Sea House is a mystery story, but it is also a way to celebrate and hold on to and celebrate some of the history of the Western seaboard of Scotland, and in particular the magical Selkie stories.