Much has been written about mermaids in Scotland, but on examination many of the stories or alleged incidents are not about mermaids at all, but about other creatures in Gaelic or Norse lore who had a connection with water. They range from a naiad singing satirical songs beside water to a nymph who washed shrouds beside lochs or burns and who signified death was nigh; from storm kelpies, the Blue Men, who haunted the Minch between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast, to a malign water carlin, sea cows, water horses and many others.
Factual accounts of mermaids, half-people, half-fish, as distinct from folk-tales or stories, are relatively rare, but two of the most remarkable occurred in Kintyre and were recorded in The Scots Magazine of the time. The witnesses saw what they thought was a human being, but could not say it was definitely female. They swore affidavits before Duncan Campbell, Sheriif-Substitute of Kintyre, the Rev Dr George Robertson and the Rev Norman MacLeod, ministers in Campbeltown, and James Maxwell, Chamberlain of Mull. The witnesses spoke in Gaelic and their accounts were recorded in English by people fluent in both languages.
On Sunday afternoon, 18 October 1811, the tenant of Corphin, near modern Campbeltown, John Maclsaac, was walking by the shore. He saw from the cliff edge 'the appearance of something white' on an offshore rock. He crawled through a cornfield until he reached the shore. By dodging from rock to rock he got within 45ft of the creature and 'upon looking at the object with attention, he was impressed with great surprise and astonishment at its uncommon appearance'. It was lying flat on the rock, on its belly, with its head towards the sea.
He described the upper half as white and of a human body shape and the lower half resembling a tail of a brindled or reddish-grey colour, apparently covered with scales and with a greenish-red extremity. The head of the creature was covered with long hair and when the wind blew the hair the creature would stroke it back with its hand. It also spread its tail, which appeared to be about 12 to 14in broad. The creature was 4 or 5ft long with light brown hair and short arms. Maclsaac watched it for almost two hours, hoping the ebbing tide would leave it stranded, but the creature drew itself to the edge of the rock and tumbled into the sea. Maclsaac rose to his feet and when the creature surfaced he saw it had a 'human face'. It then disappeared.
The same day, and with no contact or collusion, an eight year old girl, Catherine Loynachan, of now ruined Ballinatunie farm, near Corphin, was herding cattle with her brother when she saw a creature slide off a rock and into the sea. Catherine's account supports that of John Maclsaac. She thought the face was like that of a child and as white, and it rubbed or washed its breast with one hand. She watched it for a time and then it disappeared. She hurried home to tell her parents because she thought she had seen a boy who had fallen overboard from a ship or boat. Mother, father and child went back to the shore but discovered no one.
The fact that the interviewing panel were educated, professional men, well accustomed to conducting interviews and judging witnesses, and that both witnesses were local people and accustomed to seeing natural things on shore or in the sea; seals, floating seaweed, cattle, dolphins, otters and driftwood - makes this case both intriguing and indeed puzzling. The two witnesses had nothing to gain but ridicule in making their statements before the panel, and Kintyre has no tradition of other mermaid sightings attributed to its folklore.
Although tales abound of all sorts of supernatural water creatures in Scotland, very few of them concern the mermaid; half human, half fish, and there is no folk tradition of mermaids being seen on the coasts of Kintyre. This makes two independent sightings, one day in 1811, of a half-human creature by the shore near present-day Campbeltown particularly intriguing. The creature had light brown hair and short arms; its upper body was white, while the lower part was of a reddish colour with a greenish tail.
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