Documented Finmen sightings
"Our skin-sewed Fin-boats lightly swim,
Over the sea like wind they skim.
Our ships are built without a nail;
Few ships like ours can row or sail."
The above account, from the Heimskringla, or Chronicle
of the Kings of Norway, refers to the vessels of the "Laplanders"
- boats which were constructed "with deer sinews, without nails
and with withes of willow instead of knees."
Like the vessels
of the Finfolk, these boats were so light that no ship could overtake
them in the water.
This account, written in the late 12th or early 13th century, shows that the skin-boats had made an impact
on the mind of the Vikings. This alone provides a good link to the
folklore of the finfolk, but around 400 years later there came an interesting
twist in the development of the legends.
In the 17th century,
Orkney saw a spate of sightings around Orkney of people referred to in the contemporary accounts as “Finn-men”.
These kayak-paddling visitors were seen in Orkney
and Shetland on a number of occasions and possibly resulted in new elements
being grafted onto the existing finfolk and selkie-folk mythology.
For example, one was seen off Eday in 1682, but rowed away quickly when the islanders tried to catch him. In 1684 another was sighted off Westray and a "Finn-man’s boat" was once housed in the Burray Kirk.
The paddlers were renowned for the speed of their
vessels, and accounts of fruitless chases by the islanders were
obviously the root of the traditions surrounding the finman and
his unparalleled rowing ability. The kayak also accounts for folklore's
insistence that the finman's magical boat travelled with no sail.
For examples of these sightings, click here.
The sea-going properties of the skin-covered craft
also seem to offer clear answers to a number of other elements relating
to finfolk, selkie-folk and mermaids.
The most obvious of these are the Orcadian accounts
of mermaids, which insist that the mermaid's tail was
not fishlike but was pointed.
Being made from sealskin (or other animal skin),
these kayaks would also lose buoyancy, as the skin got wetter. Sodden kayaks have to be pulled clear of the water regularly to dry out, hence the descriptions of mermaids with pointed or triangular tails sitting on skerries.
As their buoyancy decreased, the wet kayaks would also drop beneath the surface of the water -
once again neatly explaining the mermaid sightings in which the sea-creature was viewed from the waist
up travelling at speed through the water.
Seen from above, the underwater kayak's form could also
taken for a "tail" of sorts.
But perhaps the most interesting of all, is the idea of the kayakers removing their seal(skin) garments. Thus the sea-going creature becomes human.
The significance of the sealskin
But what of the selkie-folk? What do these kayakers
have to do with the folktales surrounding Orkney's seal-people?
The answer is simple. The sealskin.
Tradition dictates that the selkie-folk became
human after removing their sealskins. Without this skin, the shape-shifters
were unable to return to the sea.
Immediately we can see parallels
in the accounts of the kayaking finfolk, with their all-encompassing
skin garments. Just like the kayak, these garments would have grown
waterlogged over time and required drying.
The documented sightings
of naked "finfolk", with their "skins" lying
nearby undoubtedly lent much to the existing folklore.
The Little Ice Age
But why where these "finmen" seen around
The usual explanation for these kayakers was that they had been “dumped” from ships returning from the Canadian Arctic. More recently, however, it has been suggested the sightings may be connected to a climatic deterioration experienced at the time.
At the time of these sightings, northern Europe was suffering from the “Little Ice Age”, a period which saw the sea temperature was around 5 deg c colder than now and Arctic ice extended as far south as Iceland.
Because of this, some writers have suggested that the historical finn-men were actually Arctic Inuit, who had followed the ice floes east and south.
This theory certainly explains the Orcadian tradition that the Finfolk had the ability to make a poor catch – the drop in sea temperatures almost certainly affected the local fishing grounds.
Elements of the finfolk folklore were either added after the historical sightings, or more probably, were similar enough to existing Finman traditions to prompt the connection. This seems to be borne out by the instant assumption that the paddling kayakers were finfolk.
However the kayakers reached Orkney, their presence
is well recorded, with even a few of their "canoes" surviving
until recent years.