The Famous Benbecula Burial of a Mermaid August 18, 2011Posted by Beachcombing in : Modern , trackback
Beach hopes this summer and autumn to offer several obscure mermaid texts from the North Atlantic. However, he could hardly do other than include with the most famous of them all: the Benbecula sighting of c. 1830. He also hopes to shed some more light on this sighting with an obscure second source in September.
Some seventy years ago, people were cutting seaweed at Sgeir na Duchadh, Grimnis, Benbecula. Before putting on her stockings, one of the women went to the lower end of the reef to wash her feet. While doing so she heard a splash in the calm sea, and looking up she saw a creature in the form of a woman in miniature, some few feet away. Alarmed, the woman called to her friends, and all the people present rushed to the place. The creature made somersaults and turned about in various directions. Some men waded into the water to seize her, but she moved beyond their reach. Some boys threw stones at her, one of which struck her in the back. A few days afterwards, this strange creature was found dead at Cuile, Nunton, nearly two miles away.
The upper portion of the creature was about the size of a well-fed child of three or four years of age, with an abnormally developed breast. The hair was long, dark, and glossy, while the skin was white, soft, and tender. The lower part of the body was like a salmon, but without scales. Crowds of people, some from long distances, came to see this strange animal, and all were unanimous in the opinion that they had gazed on the mermaid at last. Mr Duncan Shaw, factor for Clanranald, baron-bailie and sheriff of the district, ordered a coffin and shroud to be made for the mermaid. This was done, and the body was buried in the presence of many people, a short distance above the shore where it was found. There are persons still living who saw and touched this curious creature, and who give graphic descriptions of its appearance.
Where to begin?
First, it is true that Benbecula was a long way from the London press in 1830, but it is surprising, given some of the other material that got to London from the Isles, that this never found its way into contemporary news-print
Second, though this pulls towards another conclusion, this tale is typical of some of the oral tales of the Hebrides (whether true or not) with the surprising exception of ‘Mr Duncan Shaw’: this is a concrete reference in a fairy tale marsh. Did AC’s informants truly have oral informants who remembered the name of the sheriff at the time of their grandfathers? While writing this another explanation has struck Beach, but as it is one that would not be good for the mermaid’s health, he is going to shut up until he is sure that it works.
However, on that cliffhanger – ahem! – Beach will include the rest of Carmichael’s references to mermaids in the Isles. For those cryptozoologically inclined, these are probably worth taking far more seriously than the burial at Benbecula: any other views? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
There are many mermaid stories throughout the Isles. I took down several of these, some of which may be mentioned. Colin Campbell, crofter, Ceanntangbhal, Barra, saw, as he thought, an otter on a reef in ‘Caolas Cumhan’, Barra. The otter was holding and eating a fish, with his eyes closed, after his manner. The man raised his gun to fire, when to his surprise the creature before him looked like a woman holding a child. He had a telescope that had been given him by a ship captain for brave service rendered at sea, and looking through the glass he saw that the object before him had the head, the hair, the neck, the shoulders, and the breast of a woman, and was holding a child. The man was greatly astonished, and concluded that this must be the mermaid of whom he had often heard. Inwardly thanking the loving Virgin for having withheld his hand, Campbell put up his glass. The click of the glass startled the mermaid, and in the twinkling of an eye she and her child went into the sea with a splash. Colin Campbell, an honest, intelligent, middle-aged man, firmly believed that he had seen the mermaid.
Neill Maceachain, crofter, Hough-beag, South Uist, was returning from the Clyde, where he and others had been with farm produce, before the days of steamers in the West. They were becalmed emerging from the Sound of Mull. The sun was scorching, the air was breathless, and the surface of the sea was smooth as polished glass, when all were astonished to see a creature about two yards from the side of the motionless skiff. Its head, neck, breast, and shoulders resembled those of a woman, though its hair was more coarse, and its eyes more glassy. All below the breast was in the water. The creature gazed at them for a minute or more with its large wondering eyes, and then disappeared into the sea as silently as it had come. The narrator offered no explanation of the strange phenomenon, never having seen anything like it before, though all his life accustomed to the sea. One of his companions, however, said that it was the mermaid, and declared that he had seen a creature exactly like it some years previously, while making kelp at Airdmaoilean, South Uist.
And just for the record…
Neill Maceachain was an entirely truthful man and incapable of inventing. He was one of nature’s nobles, being richly endowed mentally and physically, and with a phenomenal memory. He was a relation of Neill Maceachain, or MacDonald, father of Marshal MacDonald, Duke of Tarentum, and was remarkably like the duke in form and features as well as in temperament. He had seen and conversed with the duke when he visited his relatives in South Uist.