Documented 'Finmen sightings'
John Brand, reporting back after being sent by Church to examine “religious and moral state” of the people of Orkney wrote around in his A New Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithnes around 1700:
“There are frequently Fin-men seen here upon the Coasts, as one about a year ago on Stronsa, and another within these few months on Westra, a gentlemean with many others in the Isle looking on him nigh to the shore, but when they endeavour to apprehend them they flee away most swiftly; which is very strange, that one man sitting in his little boat should come some hundreds of leagues, from their own coasts, as they reckon Finland to be from Orkney.
It may be thought wonderful that they live all that time and are able to keep to sea so long.. His boat is made of seal-skins, or some kind of leather; he also has a coat of leather upon him, and he sitteth in the middle of his boat, with a little oar in his hand, fishing with his lines.
And when in a storm he seeth the high surge of a wave approaching, he hath a way of sinking his boat, till the wave passes over, lest thereby he should be overturned.
The Fishers here observe that these Fin-men or Finland-men, by their coming drive away the fishes from the coasts. One of these boats is kept as a rarity in the Physicians Hall at Edinburgh.
About two years and a half or three years ago, there was a boat passing with several gentlemen of the Country in it, and by way of the Voe of Quarf, through which they went, there appeared something unto them with its head above the water, which as they could discern had the face of an old Man, with a long bear hanging down; first it appeared at some distance from them, and then coming nearer to their boat, they had a clear sight of it; the sight was so strange and affrighting, that all in the Boat were very desirous to be on land, the day was fair and the sea calm; a gentleman declaring, (as a minister in the company with them, and saw this sight informed me), that he never saw the like, tho he had travelled through many seas.”
Brand describes the ensnared “mermaid”.
“About five years hence, a boat at the Fishing drew her lines, and one of them, as the Fishers thought, having some great fish upon it, was with greater difficulty than the rest raised from the Ground, but when raised it came more easily to the surface of the water upon which a creature like a woman presented itself at the side of the boat, it had the face, Arms , breasts, shoulders etc. of a woman, and long hair hanging down the back, but the nether part from below the breasts, was beneath the water, so that they could not understand the shape thereof.
The two fishers who were in the boat being surprised at this strange sight, one of them unadvisedly drew a knife, and thrust it into her breast, whereupon she cried, as they judged, Alas, and the hook giving way she fell backwards and was no more seen: The hook being big went in at her chin and out at the upper lip. The man who thrust the knife into her is now dead, and , as was observed, never prospered after this, but was still haunted by an evil spirit, in the appearance of an old man, who, as he thought, used to say to him, “Will ye do such a thing who killed the Woman”.
The other man then in the boat is yet alive in the isle of Burra.
Hence are the accounts given of those Sea Monsters, the Meerman and Meermaids, which have not only been seen but apprehended and kept for some time.”
In his A Description of the Isles of Orkney in 1693, the Rev James Wallace wrote:
“Sometime about this country are seen those Men which are called “Finmen”; In the year 1682 one was seen some time sailing, sometime rowing up and down in his little Boat at the south end of the isle of Eda, most of the people of the Isle flocked to see him, and when they adventured to put out a boat with men to see if they could apprehend him, he presently sped away most swiftly: and in the year 1684, another was seen from Westra, and for a while after they got a few or no fishees: for they have this Remark here, that these “Finmen” drive away the fishes from the place to which they come.”
Martin Martin, writing at the same time, says:
“The Finland Fishermen have been frequently seen on the Coast of this Isle, particularly in the year 1682.
The People on the Coast saw one of them in his little Boat, and endeavour’d to take him, but he could not come at him, he retired so speedily. They say the Fish retire from the Coast, when they see these Men come to it.”
“There have been several strange fish seen by the Inhabitants of the Sea, some of the Shape of Men as far as the Middle; they are both troublesome and very terrible to the Fishers, who call them Sea-Devils.”
Writing in 1882, Dr Karl Blind wrote on the subject of “sea-creatures”. He said:
“In Shetland, and elsewhere in the North, the sometimes animal-shaped creatures of this myth, but who in reality are human in a higher sense, are called Finns.
Their transfiguration into seals seems to be more a kind of deception they practise. For the males are described as most daring boatmen, with powerful sweep of the oar, who chase foreign vessels on the sea. At the same time they are held to be deeply versed in magic spells and in the healing art, as well as in soothsaying.
By means of a “skin” which they possess, the men and women among them are able to change themselves into seals. But on shore, after having taken off their wrappage, they are, and behave like, real human beings.
Anyone who gets hold of their protecting garment has the Finn in his power. Only by means of the skin can they go back to the water.
Many a Finn woman has got into the power of a Shetlander and borne children to him; but if a Finn woman succeeded in re-obtaining her sea-skin, or seal-skin, she escaped across the water.
Among the older generation in the Northern Isles persons are still sometimes heard of who boast of hailing from the Finns; and they attribute to themselves a peculiar luckiness on account of their higher descent.”