Published: 21/01/2014 16:54 - Updated: 23/01/2014 09:29

Elizabeth reveals the truth behind Hebridean mermaids

THERE may be more to mermaids than myth, writer Elizabeth Gifford believes.

Holidays on the Isle of Harris where she heard legends of strange sea-creatures provided Gifford with the inspiration for her latest novel Secrets of The Sea House.

Regular visits to the islands with her Scots-born husband and their family introduced Gifford to the legends of the seal people, or selkies, told throughout the Western and Northern isles.

"Once we visited there, we were hooked," she said.

"You get all this really beautiful wilderness, then the other magical thing is that the Gaelic culture is still intact."

These include the stories of the selkies, creatures who were seals at sea and human on land, and their fellow mythic sea creatures, mermaids and merfolk such as the legendary Blue Men of the Minch.

However, a theory expounded by historian John MacAulay suggests a non-mythical origin for these tales,

Instead of supernatural creatures, MacAulay suggests that these tales actually record the arrival of Sea Sami — otherwise known as Lapps — who would drift down from Norway on their sealskin kayaks.

"The legends are actually quite an accurate form of oral history," Gifford said.

"It all makes perfect sense if you think of the visitors coming down from Norway in their Eskimo-style kayaks. Their clothes and their kayaks were all made of sealskin and, in the stories, if they lose their sealskins, they can’t go home."

A number of families in the Western Isles claim to be descended from seal people. To Gifford, this suggests that their true ancestors are some of those Sami or kayakers who drifted too far south and were stranded in Scotland.

"We know they got as far south as Aberdeen because one of them was picked up in his canoe 200 years ago and it’s still in the museum," she said.

"It’s got wood in it that can only have come from the mountains of Norway, the Eskimo ones have whalebone. When the Vikings came down the sea road from Orkney, they weren’t the only ones. You also had these Sea Sami."

Although the Sea Sami were eventually assimilated into Norwegian culture, unlike their inland cousins whose culture was based around the hunting and farming of reindeer, Gifford believes they are remembered in the legends of seal-people and mermaids in the Western Isles — as late as the 1820s there are stories of a mermaid being buried on Benbecula.

"That’s very interesting because probably what they found on the beach was a kayaker who was still wearing the inner sleeve they would wear underneath the parka," Gifford suggested.

"These are watertight and made of seal guts, so it would look a bit like a fishy skin."

Elizabeth Gifford
Elizabeth Gifford

The discovery of a "mermaid" corpse and legends of Sea People in the family provide the starting point for Gifford’s novel as characters in two different time lines try to make sense of the sealskin legends, among the a Victorian minister Alexander Ferguson, who turns to early evolutionary theory for an explanation.

Along with the mermaid myth, Gifford’s book also looks at the impact of the Clearances on the islands, a theme picked up by recent Inverness visitor Peter May in his latest novel, Entry Island.

"It’s a sort of parallel story to how the Sami were cleared culturally," Gifford, explained.

To promote the book, Gifford is appearing at a number of bookshops across Scotland, including an event in Glasgow where she will be joined by the well known Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis.

"She’s been very supportive of the book and she’s going to come along and sing a couple of songs about the seal folk," Gifford said.

Gifford will also be joined by another well known Gaelic singer in Inverness, Mod Gold Medal winner Eilidh Mackenzie of the bands Mac-talla and Mackenzie.

Home for Gifford is in the English Midlands, but she does not rule out a return to the Western Isles in a future book, although a pair of novels set in wartime Spain and Poland are next on her agenda.

"I’d love to write another book set there," she said.

"But I didn’t just want to use the islands just as a spin-off for my fantasy. It’s a mystery story, but all the facts are accurate and by the time you’ve read it, you know a lot more about crofting and the history of the place."

• Elizabeth Gifford appears at Waterstones Inverness branch in the Eastgate shopping centre at 6pm on Thursday 23rd January, where she will give a short reading and answer questions about the book. Joining her will be Lewis-born singer Eilidh Mackenzie.

Secrets of The Sea House, which is published by Corvus Books, is Waterstones’ Scottish Book of the Month for January 2014.

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