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  • Caithness Mermaid Mystery 5: the Mystery Solved? July 30, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    humphry davy

    Here is a comment recorded from Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), an eminent late eighteenth century scientist. It relates clearly neatly to the 1809 mermaid sightings.

    Many of these stories [about mermaids] have been founded upon the long-haired seal seen at a distance; others on the appearance of the common seal under particular circumstances of light and shade; and some on still more singular circumstances. A worthy baronet, remarkable for his benevolent views and active spirit, has propagated a story of this kind; and he seems to claim for his native country the honour of possessing this extraordinary animal; but the mermaid of Caithness was certainly a gentleman who happened to be travelling on that wild shore, and who was seen bathing by some young ladies at so great a distance, that not only genus, but gender was mistaken. I am acquainted with him, and have had the story from his own mouth.

    This seems to be a reference to Miss Mackay and her friend. Note that this story was afterwards understood as having happened to HD himself, e.g. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (11 Oct 1907), 12. David did become a Baronet.

    He is a young man, fond of geological pursuits; and one day, in the middle of August, having fatigued and heated himself by climbing a rock to examine a particular appearance of granite, he gave his clothes to his Highland guide, who was taking care of his pony, and descended to the sea. The sun was just setting, and he amused himself for some time by swimming from rock to rock, and having unclipped hair and no cap, he sometimes threw aside his locks and wrung the water from them on the rocks. He happened the year after to be at Harrowgate, and was sitting at table with two young ladies from Caithness, who were relating to a wondering audience the story of the mermaid they had seen, which had already been published in the newspapers: they described her, as she usually is described by poets, as a beautiful animal, with remarkably fair skin and long green hair. The young gentleman took the liberty, as most of the rest of the company did, to put a few questions to the elder of the two ladies – such as, on what day, and precisely where, this singular phenomenon had appeared. She had noted down not merely the day, but the hour and minute, and produced a map of the place. Our bather referred to his journal, and showed that a human animal was swimming in the very spot at that very time, who had some of the characters ascribed to the mermaid, but who laid no claim to others, particularly the green hair and fish’s tail; but being rather sallow in the face, was glad to have such testimony to the colour of his body beneath his garments.

    This is excerpted from  William Hamilton Maxwell, Wild Sports of the West: With Legendary Tales, and Local Sketches (London 1838), 356-7 in the name of Humphry Davy. It had first appeared in The life of Sir Humphry Davy, bart., LL.D. (London 1831), 470-1.

    Does this finish the Caithness mermaid sighting… drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    31 Jul 2016: Leif makes an important point, 31 July, Sir Humphry Davy’s incident took place in the ‘middle of August’ as ‘the sun was just setting’, and the weather was so warm that he heated himself by climbing a rock and removed his clothing. In her letter of 25 May 1809, Miss Mackay notes the day and time: 12 January around noon. She also notes that the sea at the time ran very high. Clearly, the particulars of HD’s account don’t square with the Miss Mackay’s. It’s unlikely that a youth, however rash, would strip himself and bathe in very high seas during a Caithness winter. Presumably she writes four months after the fact and is unlikely to confuse winter with summer. On the other hand, HD’s account is hearsay, and first appears posthumously more than 20 years after the fact. Perhaps the young man’s memory was faulty, perhaps it was the wine talking, or perhaps he referred to an entirely different story. Either way, the mystery continues.