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Mermaid accounts and sightings

"And I have heard a hundred times more about mermaids from the lips of Orkney peasants than I have ever saw in books."
Walter Traill Dennison

Despite Walter Traill Dennison's statement - quoted above — documented mermaid tales in Orkney are few and far between. Far more common are the tales of the selkie-folk and the finfolk.

However, the sea was not merely home to long-necked behemoths, with a number of historical accounts of creatures that the witnesses referred to as "mermaids".

The Deerness mermaid

Probably the most famous of the mermaid sightings in Orkney took place over a few summers around 1890.

At this time there were a series of sightings of a "creature" that came to be known as "the Deerness Mermaid".

A regular visitor to Newark Bay, in Deerness, the mermaid went on to achieve considerable fame, with hundreds of eyewitnesses swearing to the validity of their encounters.

From documented reports, it appears the mermaid stayed some distance from the shore, so exact details are vague.

But one account does provide a good description of a sighting and, as you will see, it was a far cry from the archetypal storybook mermaid:

"It is about six to seven feet in length, has a little black head, with neck, a snow white body and two arms, and in swimming it just appears like a human being. At times it will appear to be siding on a sunken rock, and will wave and work its hands."

The Hoy sea woman

Another mermaid encounter was reported in 1913, and detailed multiple sightings of a "mermaid" in the deep waters off the south-eastern coast of Hoy.

"Ralph Taylor and crew, when visiting their lobster creels the other day, saw a strange creature, which looked like a mermaid, close by the foot of the Old Man.

"It rose out of the water to the height of three feet and looked like a lady with a shawl round her shoulders, and streaming down her face.

"This is the third occasion it has been seen at close range by them. The oldest people have never seen anything like it before, and wonder what it can be. Some think it must be the Deerness Mermaid on tour."

The Orcadian, Saturday, September 13, 1913

The King's Mirror

What is intriguing about the Hoy mermaid account is the similarity between it and a medieval Norse text called The King's Mirror.

In this text, the author gives a description of a merman encounter at sea:

"This monster is tall and of great size and rises straight out of the water. It has shoulders like a man's but no hands. It's body appears to grow narrower from the shoulders down, so that the lower down it has been observed the more slender it has seemed to be.

"But no-one has ever observed it closely enough to determine whether its body has scales like a fish or skin like a man. Whenever the monster has shown itself, men have always been sure that a storm would follow."

This ancient account describes perfectly the creature the Hoy fishermen encountered three times in 1913.

But what was it?

An atmospheric phenomenon?

A recent study of atmospheric conditions may hold the key.

Could it be that the "Hoy Sea Woman" sightings owe more to an optical illusion than to supernatural denizens of the sea?

The clue lies in the strange, elongated shape of the creature and the fact that storms generally followed their sightings. In the cold northern waters surrounding Orkney, the warmer air that precedes a storm mixes, in a layer, over the sea, creating a swirling mass of air.

This vortex of air, constantly changing temperature, acts as a distorting lens that exaggerates the height of an object at sea level but not its width.

Seen through this distorting wall of air, the top of a seal's head, or even a rock, can appear like the towering mermaid described in both accounts.