The Mermaid Wife

and other migratory legends of Christiansen type 4080
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2000-2011


  1. The Mermaid Wife (Shetland Islands).

  2. The Silkie Wife (Shetland and Orkney Islands).

  3. Herman Perk and the Seal (Shetland Islands).

  4. The Sealskin (Iceland).

  5. Touched by Iron (Wales).

  6. Tom Moore and the Seal (Ireland).

  7. The Lady of Gollerus (Ireland).

  8. Links to related sites.

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The Mermaid Wife

Shetland Islands

A story is told of an inhabitant of Unst, who, in walking on the sandy margin of a voe [a deep inlet], saw a number of mermen and mermaids dancing by moonlight, and several sealskins strewed beside them on the ground. At his approach they immediately fled to secure their garbs, and, taking upon themselves the form of seals, plunged immediately into the sea. But as the Shetlander perceived that one skin lay close to his feet, he snatched it up, bore it swiftly away, and placed it in concealment.

On returning to the shore he met the fairest damsel that was ever gazed upon by mortal eyes, lamenting the robbery, by which she had become an exile from her submarine friends, and a tenant of the upper world. Vainly she implored the restitution of her property. The man had drunk deeply of love, and was inexorable; but he offered her protection beneath his roof as his betrothed spouse. The merlady, perceiving that she must become an inhabitant of the earth, found that she could not do better than accept of the offer.

This strange attachment subsisted for many years, and the couple had several children. The Shetlander's love for his merwife was unbounded, but his affection was coldly returned. The lady would often steal alone to the desert strand, and, on a signal being given, a large seal would make his appearance, with whom she would hold, in an unknown tongue, an anxious conference.

Years had thus glided away, when it happened that one of the children, in the course of his play, found concealed beneath a stack of corn a seal's skin; and, delighted with the prize, he ran with it to his mother. Her eyes glistened with rapture -- she gazed upon it as her own -- as the means by which she could pass through the ocean that led to her native home. She burst forth into an ecstasy of joy, which was only moderated when she beheld her children, whom she was now about to leave; and, after hastily embracing them, she fled with all speed towards the seaside.

The husband immediately returned, learned the discovery that had taken place, ran to overtake his wife, but only arrived in time to see her transformation of shape completed -- to see her, in the form of a seal, bound from the ledge of a rock into the sea. The large animal of the same kind with whom she had held a secret converse soon appeared, and evidently congratulated her, in the most tender manner, on her escape. But before she dived to unknown depths, she cast a parting glance at the wretched Shetlander, whose despairing looks excited in her breast a few transient feelings of commiseration.

"Farewell!" said she to him "and may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I resided upon earth, but I always loved my first husband much better."

The Silkie Wife

Shetland and Orkney Islands

Those in the Shetland and Orkney Islands who know no better, are persuaded that the seals, or silkies, as they call them, can doff their coverings at times, and disport themselves as men and women.

A fisher once turning a ridge of rock, discovered a beautiful bit of green turf adjoining the shingle, sheltered by rocks on the landward side, and over this turf and shingle two beautiful women chasing each other. Just at the man's feet lay two sealskins, one of which he took up to examine it. The women, catching sight of him, screamed out, and ran to get possession of the skins. One seized the article on the ground, donned it in a thrice, and plunged into the sea; the other wrung her hands, cried, and begged the fisher to restore her property; but he wanted a wife, and would not throw away the chance. He wooed her so earnestly and lovingly, that she put on some woman's clothing which he brought her from his cottage, followed him home, and became his wife.

Some years later, when their home was enlivened by the presence of two children, the husband, awakening one night, heard voices in conversation from the kitchen. Stealing softly to the room door, he heard his wife talking in a low tone with someone outside the window. The interview was just at an end, and he had only time to ensconce himself in bed, when his wife was stealing across the room. He was greatly disturbed, but determined to do or say nothing till he should acquire further knowledge.

Next evening, as he was returning home by the strand, he spied a male and female phoca sprawling on a rock a few yards out at sea.

The rougher animal, raising himself on his tail and fins, thus addressed the astonished man in the dialect spoken in these islands, "You deprived me of her whom I was to make my companion; and it was only yesternight that I discovered her outer garment, the loss of which obliged her to be your wife. I bear no malice, as you were kind to her in your own fashion; besides, my heart is too full of joy to hold any malice. Look on your wife for the last time."

The other seal glanced at him with all the shyness and sorrow she could force into her now uncouth features; but when the bereaved husband rushed toward the rock to secure his lost treasure, she and her companion were in the water on the other side of it in a moment, and the poor fisherman was obliged to return sadly to his motherless children and desolate home.

Herman Perk and the Seal

Shetland Islands

It was believed at one time that the Finns [Sami] frequently came over to Shetland taking the form of seals. In this connection a remarkable tale was told in Papa Stoor ["Big Priest" Island].

The islanders were often in the habit of visiting the outlying Vee Skerries for the purpose of hunting seals. On one occasion a man named Herman Perk, accompanied by others, left for the skerries in a small boat. When they arrived there Herman was landed on the rocks, but his companions remained in the boat to prevent it getting damaged. It happened, however, that a severe storm burst without warning, and the men found after several daring attempts, that it was quite impossible to get Herman off again. The storm was increasing in severity, and latterly they were compelled, for their own safety, to attempt getting back to Papa. After a terrible passage they succeeded in reaching the island, and their first act was to proceed to the home of their ill-fated companion to tell his folk what had befallen him. Imagine their surprise, however, on finding him comfortably seated at his fireside.

Herman had a strange story to tell them. Shortly after the boat left the skerries, he observed a large seal coming up, and as he watched its progress, it suddenly raised itself in the angry sea, and he became aware that it was speaking to him.

"Herman Perk," it said, "you have destroyed many of our folks in your time, yet nevertheless if you will undertake to do me a service, I will carry you in safety to Papa tonight. Some time ago my wife Maryara was made captive in Papa. Her skin is now hanging in the skio (hut for drying fish) at Nortoos, and without it she cannot return with me to Finmark [in northern Norway]. It is the third skin from the door, and I wish you to bring it to me."

Herman had readily agreed to this proposition, whereupon he was told to cut two slits in the seal's back as supports for his feet, and then place his arms firmly round the animal's neck. The latter immediately took to the water, and in a remarkably short time Herman had the gratification of landing safely in Papa.

True to his promise, he went to the skio indicated, where he found the skin without any difficulty, and carried it down to the beach. The seal was waiting his coming, and at its side was the most beautiful woman he had ever beheld. The seal gave the skin to its lovely companion, and then apparently left its own body behind, and the happy pair immediately took their departure over the sea.

The following morning Herman went again to Nortoos. There, sure enough, lay the skin of a large seal, and it had two cuts behind the flippers. He placed it where he had taken the other from.

After that Herman was a prosperous man, but he was never known to visit the Vee Skerries again.

The Sealskin


Early one morning before people had gotten up, a man from Myrdal in the east was walking past some cliffs when he came to the entrance to a cave. He could hear that there was merrymaking and dancing going on inside the hill, and outside he saw a large number of sealskins. He picked up one of them, took it home, and locked it in his trunk. Some time later, in the course of the day, he went back to the cave's entrance. A beautiful young girl was sitting there. She was entirely naked and crying bitterly. She was the seal to whom the skin belonged that the man had taken. The man gave the girl some clothing, comforted her, and took her home with him.

Later she came to accept him, but never got along very well with other people. She would often just sit there and look out to sea. After some time the man took her as his wife. They lived well together and had many children.

The peasant hid the skin, locking it securely in his trunk, and he carried the key with him everywhere he went.

Many years later he rowed out fishing and forgot the key at home under his pillow. However, others say that the peasant went to a Christmas service with his people, but that his wife had been sick and was unable to go with them. They say that he forgot to take the key out of the pocket of his everyday clothes when he changed. When he arrived home that evening the trunk was open, and his wife had disappeared with the skin. She had found the key, out of curiosity looked through the trunk, and found the skin.

She could not resist the temptation. She said farewell to her children, put on the skin, and threw herself into the sea.

Before the woman jumped into the sea, it is reported that she said:

This I want, and yet I want it not, --
Seven children have I at the bottom of the sea,
Seven children have I as well here above.

It is said that this touched the peasant's heart. After this, when he rowed out fishing, a seal often swam around his boat, and it seemed that tears were running from its eyes. From this time on he was always successful catching fish, and luck often came to his beach.

People frequently saw this couple's children walking on the beach while a seal swam along out in the sea accompanying them. It would throw colorful fish and pretty shells to them.

But the mother never again returned to land.

Touched by Iron


The son of a farmer on Drws Coed farm was one foggy day looking after his father's sheep, when crossing a marshy meadow he beheld a little lady behind some rising ground. She had yellow hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks. He approached her, and asked permission to converse; whereupon she smiled sweetly and said to him, "Idol of my hopes, you have come at last!"

They there and then began to "keep company," and met each other daily here and there along the farm meadows. His intentions were honorable; he desired her to marry him. He was sometimes absent for days together, no one knew where, and his friends whispered about that he had been witched.

Around the Turf Lake (Llyn y Dywarchen) was a grove of trees, and under one of these one day the fairy promised to be his. The consent of her father was now necessary. One moonlight night an appointment was made to meet in this wood. The father and daughter did not appear till the moon had disappeared behind the hill. Then they both came. The fairy father immediately gave his consent to the marriage, on one condition, namely, that her future husband should never hit her with iron.

"If ever thou dost touch her flesh with iron she shall be no more thine, but she shall return to her own."

They were married -- a good-looking pair. Large sums of money were brought by her, the night before the wedding, to Drws Coed. The shepherd lad became wealthy, had several handsome children, and they were very happy.

After some years, they were one day out riding, when her horse sank in a deep mire, and by the assistance of her husband, in her hurry to remount, she was struck on her knee by the stirrup of the saddle. Immediately voices were heard singing on the brow of the hill, and she disappeared, leaving all her children behind.

She and her mother devised a plan by which she could see her beloved, but as she was not allowed to walk the earth with man, they floated a large turf on the lake, and on this turf she stood for hours at a time holding converse with her husband. This continued until his death.

Tom Moore and the Seal Woman


Apropos of the following tale, I may say: The intermarriage with and descent of men from beings not human touches upon one of the most interesting and important points in primitive belief. Totemism among savage races in our day, and descent from the gods in antiquity are the best examples of this belief; derived from it, in all probability but remotely, are family escutcheons with their animals and birds and the emblematic beasts and birds of nations, such as the Roman eagle, the British lion, the American eagle, the Russian bear. The Roman eagle and the wolf which suckled Romulus may have been totems, if not for the Romans, at least for some earlier people. The lion, eagle, and bear of England, America, and Russia are of course not totemic, though adopted in imitation of people who, if they had not totems, had as national emblems birds or beasts that at some previous period were real totems for some social body.

There is a tale in Scotland concerning people of the clan MacCodrum, who were seals in the daytime, but men and women at night. No man of the MacCodrums, it is said, would kill a seal. The MacCodrums are mentioned in Gaelic as "Clann Mhic Codruim nan rón" (Clan MacCodrum of the seals).

In the village of Kilshanig, two miles northeast of Castlegregory, there lived at one time a fine, brave young man named Tom Moore, a good dancer and singer. 'Tis often he was heard singing among the cliffs and in the fields of a night.

Tom's father and mother died, and he was alone in the house and in need of a wife. One morning early, when he was at work near the strand, he saw the finest woman ever seen in that part of the kingdom, sitting on a rock, fast asleep. The tide was gone from the rocks then, and Tom was curious to know who was she or what brought her, so he walked toward the rock.

"Wake up!" cried Tom to the woman. "If the tide comes 'twill drown you."

She raised her head and only laughed. Tom left her there, but as he was going he turned every minute to look at the woman. When he came back be caught the spade, but couldn't work; he had to look at the beautiful woman on the rock. At last the tide swept over the rock. He threw the spade down and away to the strand with him, but she slipped into the sea and he saw no more of her that time.

Tom spent the day cursing himself for not taking the woman from the rock when it was God that sent her to him. He couldn't work out the day. He went home.

Tom could not sleep a wink all that night. He was up early next morning and went to the rock. The woman was there. He called to her.

No answer. He went up to the rock. "You may as well come home with me now," said Tom. Not a word from the woman. Tom took the hood from her head and said, "I'll have this!"

The moment be did that she cried, "Give back my hood, Tom Moore!"

"Indeed I will not, for 'twas God sent you to me, and now that you have speech I'm well satisfied!" And taking her by the arm he led her to the house. The woman cooked breakfast, and they sat down together to eat it.

"Now," said Tom, "in the name of God you and I'll go to the priest and get married, for the neighbors around here are very watchful; they'd be talking." So after breakfast they went to the priest, and Tom asked him to marry them.

"Where did you get the wife?" asked the priest.

Tom told the whole story. When the priest saw Tom was so anxious to marry be charged £5, and Tom paid the money. He took the wife home with him, and she was as good a woman as ever went into a man's house. She lived with Tom seven years, and had three sons and two daughters.

One day Tom was plowing, and some part of the plow rigging broke. He thought there were bolts on the loft at home, so he climbed up to get them. He threw down bags and ropes while he was looking for the bolts, and what should he throw down but the hood which he took from the wife seven years before. She saw it the moment it fell, picked it up, and hid it. At that time people heard a great seal roaring out in the sea.

"Ah," said Tom's wife, "that's my brother looking for me."

Some men who were hunting killed three seals that day. All the women of the village ran down to the strand to look at the seals, and Tom's wife with the others. She began to moan, and going up to the dead seals she spoke some words to each and then cried out, "Oh, the murder!"

When they saw her crying the men said, "We'll have nothing more to do with these seals."

So they dug a great hole, and the three seals were put into it and covered. But some thought in the night, "'Tis a great shame to bury those seals, after all the trouble in taking them." Those men went with shovels and dug up the earth, but found no trace of the seals.

All this time the big seal in the sea was roaring. Next day when Tom was at work his wife swept the house, put everything in order, washed the children and combed their hair; then, taking them one by one, she kissed each. She went next to the rock, and, putting the hood on her head, gave a plunge. That moment the big seal rose and roared so that people ten miles away could hear him. Tom's wife went away with the seal swimming in the sea. All the five children that she left had webs between their fingers and toes, halfway to the tips.

The descendants of Tom Moore and the seal woman are living near Castlegregory to this day, and the webs are not gone yet from between their fingers and toes, though decreasing with each generation.

The Lady of Gollerus


On the shore of Smerwick harbor, one fine summer's morning, just at daybreak, stood Dick Fitzgerald "shoghing the dudeen," which may be translated, smoking his pipe. The sun was gradually rising behind the lofty Brandon, the dark sea was getting green in the light, and the mists clearing away out of the valleys went rolling and curling like the smoke from the corner of Dick's mouth.

"'Tis just the pattern of a pretty morning," said Dick, taking the pipe from between his lips, and looking towards the distant ocean, which lay as still and tranquil as a tomb of polished marble. "Well, to be sure," continued he, after a pause, "'tis mighty lonesome to be talking to one's self by way of company, and not to have another soul to answer one -- nothing but the child of one's own voice, the echo! I know this, that if I had the luck, or maybe the misfortune," said Dick, with a melancholy smile, "to have the woman, it would not be this way with me! And what in the wide world is a man without a wife? He's no more, surely, than a bottle without a drop of drink in it, or dancing without music, or the left leg of a scissors, or a fishing line without a hook, or any other matter that is no ways complete. Is it not so?" said Dick Fitzgerald, casting his eyes towards a rock upon the strand, which, though it could not speak, stood up as firm and looked as bold as ever Kerry witness did.

But what was his astonishment at beholding, just at the foot of that rock, a beautiful young creature combing her hair, which was of a sea-green color; and now the salt water shining on it, appeared, in the morning light, like melted butter upon cabbage.

Dick guessed at once that she was a merrow, although he had never seen one before, for he spied the cohuleen druith, or little enchanted cap, which the sea people use for diving down into the ocean, lying upon the strand near her; and he had heard that if once he could possess himself of the cap, she would lose the power of going away into the water; so he seized it with all speed, and she, hearing the noise, turned her head about as natural as any Christian.

When the merrow saw that her little diving cap was gone, the salt tears -- doubly salt, no doubt, from her -- came trickling down her cheeks, and she began a low mournful cry with just the tender voice of a newborn infant. Dick, although he knew well enough what she was crying for, determined to keep the cohuleen druith, let her cry never so much, to see what luck would come out of it. Yet he could not help pitying her; and when the dumb thing looked up in his face, and her cheeks all moist with tears, 'twas enough to make anyone feel, let alone Dick, who had ever and always, like most of his countrymen, a mighty tender heart of his own.

"Don't cry, my darling," said Dick Fitzgerald; but the merrow, like any bold child, only cried the more for that.

Dick sat himself down by her side, and took hold of her hand, by way of comforting her. 'Twas in no particular an ugly hand, only there was a small web between the fingers, as there is in a duck's foot; but 'twas as thin and as white as the skin between egg and shell.

"What's your name, my darling?" says Dick, thinking to make her conversant with him; but he got no answer; and he was certain sure now, either that she could not speak, or did not understand him. He therefore squeezed her hand in his, as the only way he had of talking to her. It's the universal language; and there's not a woman in the world, be she fish or lady, that does not understand it.

The merrow did not seem much displeased at this mode of conversation; and, making an end of her whining all at once, "Man," says she, looking up in Dick Fitzgerald's face, "Man, will you eat me?"

"By all the red petticoats and check aprons between Dingle and Tralee," cried Dick, jumping up in amazement, "I'd as soon eat myself, my jewel! Is it I eat you, my pet? Now, 'twas some ugly ill-looking thief of a fish put that notion into your own pretty head, with the nice green hair down upon it, that is so cleanly combed out this morning!"

"Man," said the merrow, "what will you do with me, if you won't eat me?"

Dick's thoughts were running on a wife. He saw, at the first glimpse, that she was handsome; but since she spoke, and spoke too like any real woman, he was fairly in love with her. 'Twas the neat way she called him "man" that settled the matter entirely.

"Fish," says Dick, trying to speak to her after her own short fashion. "Fish," says he, "here's my word, fresh and fasting, for you this blessed morning, that I'll make you Mistress Fitzgerald before all the world, and that's what I'll do."

"Never say the word twice." says she. "I'm ready and willing to be yours, Mister Fitzgerald; but stop, if you please, 'till I twist up my hair."

It was some time before she had settled it entirely to her liking, for she guessed, I suppose, that she was going among strangers, where she would be looked at. When that was done, the merrow put the comb in her pocket, and then bent down her head and whispered some words to the water that was close to the foot of the rock.

Dick saw the murmur of the words upon the top of the sea, going out towards the wide ocean, just like a breath of wind rippling along, and, says he, in the greatest wonder, "Is it speaking you are, my darling, to the saltwater?"

"It's nothing else," says she, quite carelessly, "I'm just sending word home to my father, not to be waiting breakfast for me, just to keep him from being uneasy in his mind."

"And who's your father, my duck?" says Dick.

"What!" said the merrow, "Did you never hear of my father? He's the king of the waves, to be sure!"

"And yourself, then, is a real king's daughter?" said Dick, opening his two eyes to take a full and true survey of his wife that was to be. "Oh, I'm nothing else but a made man with you, and a king your father. To be sure he has all the money that's down in the bottom of the sea!"

"Money," repeated the merrow, "what's money?"

"'Tis no bad thing to have when one wants it," replied Dick; "and maybe now the fishes have the understanding to bring up whatever you bid them?"

"Oh! yes," said the merrow, "they bring me what I want."

"To speak the truth," said Dick, "'tis a straw bed I have at home before you, and that, I'm thinking, is no ways fitting for a king's daughter; so if 'twould not be displeasing to you, just to mention, a nice featherbed, with a pair of new blankets -- but what am I talking about? Maybe you have not such things as beds down under the water?"

"By all means," said she, "Mr. Fitzgerald -- plenty of beds at your service. I've fourteen oyster beds of my own, not to mention one just planting for the rearing of young ones."

"You have," says Dick, scratching his head and looking a little puzzled. "'Tis a featherbed I was speaking of, but clearly, yours is the very cut of a decent plan, to have bed and supper so handy to each other, that a person, when they'd have the one, need never ask for the other."

However, bed or no bed, money or no money, Dick Fitzgerald determined to marry the merrow, and the merrow had given her consent. Away they went, therefore, across the strand, from Gollerus to Ballinrunnig, where Father Fitzgibbon happened to be that morning.

"There are two words to this bargain, Dick Fitzgerald," said his Reverence, looking mighty glum. "And is it a fishy woman you'd marry? The Lord preserve us! Send the scaly creature home to her own people, that's my advice to you, wherever she came from."

Dick had the cohuleen druith in his hand, and was about to give it back to the merrow, who looked covetously at it, but he thought for a moment, and then, says he, "Please your Reverence, she's a king's daughter."

"If she was the daughter of fifty kings," said Father Fitzgibbon, "I tell you, you can't marry her, she being a fish."

"Please your Reverence," said Dick again, in an undertone, "she is as mild and as beautiful as the moon."

"If she was as mild and as beautiful as the sun, moon, and stars, all put together, I tell you, Dick Fitzgerald," said the priest, stamping his right foot, "you can't marry her, she being a fish!"

"But she has all the gold that's down in the sea only for the asking, and I'm a made man if I marry her; and," said Dick, looking up slyly, "I can make it worth any one's while to do the job."

"Oh! That alters the case entirely," replied the priest. "Why there's some reason now in what you say. Why didn't you tell me this before? Marry her by all means, if she was ten times a fish. Money, you know, is not to be refused in these bad times, and I may as well have the hansel of it as another, that maybe would not take half the pains in counseling you as I have done."

So Father Fitzgibbon married Dick Fitzgerald to the merrow, and like any loving couple, they returned to Gollerus well pleased with each other. Everything prospered with Dick. He was at the sunny side of the world; the merrow made the best of wives, and they lived together in the greatest contentment.

It was wonderful to see, considering where she had been brought up, how she would busy herself about the house, and how well she nursed the children; for, at the end of three years, there were as many young Fitzgeralds -- two boys and a girl.

In short, Dick was a happy man, and so he might have continued to the end of his days, if he had only the sense to take proper care of what he had got. Many another man, however, beside Dick, has not had wit enough to do that.

One day when Dick was obliged to go to Tralee, he left the wife minding the children at home after him, and thinking she had plenty to do without disturbing his fishing tackle.

Dick was no sooner gone than Mrs. Fitzgerald set about cleaning up the house, and chancing to pull down a fishing net, what should she find behind it in a hole in the wall but her own cohuleen druith.

She took it out and looked at it, and then she thought of her father the king, and her mother the queen, and her brothers and sisters, and she felt a longing to go back to them.

She sat down on a little stool and thought over the happy days she had spent under the sea; then she looked at her children, and thought on the love and affection of poor Dick, and how it would break his heart to lose her. "But," says she, "he won't lose me entirely, for I'll come back to him again, and who can blame me for going to see my father and my mother after being so long away from them?"

She got up and went towards the door, but came back again to look once more at the child that was sleeping in the cradle. She kissed it gently, and as she kissed it a tear trembled for an instant in her eye and then fell on its rosy cheek. She wiped away the tear, and turning to the eldest little girl, told her to take good care of her brothers, and to be a good child herself until she came back.

The merrow then went down to the strand. The sea was lying calm and smooth, just heaving and glittering in the sun, and she thought she heard a faint sweet singing, inviting her to come down. All her old ideas and feelings came flooding over her mind. Dick and her children were at the instant forgotten, and placing the cohuleen druith on her head, she plunged in.

Dick came home in the evening, and missing his wife, he asked Kathelin, his little girl, what had become of her mother, but she could not tell him. He then enquired of the neighbors, and he learned that she was seen going towards the strand with a strange looking thing like a cocked hat in her hand. He returned to his cabin to search for the cohuleen druith. It was gone, and the truth now flashed upon him.

Year after year did Dick Fitzgerald wait, expecting the return of his wife, but he never saw her more. Dick never married again, always thinking that the merrow would sooner or later return to him, and nothing could ever persuade him but that her father the king kept her below by main force; "for," said Dick, "she surely would not of herself give up her husband and her children."

While she was with him, she was so good a wife in every respect, that to this day she is spoken of in the tradition of the country as the pattern for one, under the name of the Lady of Gollerus.

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Revised April 7, 2011.