Scottish & Irish Mermaids: Merrows, Selkies, the Water Kelpie & More
Mermaids have been a part of mythology for centuries—more like thousands of years. In fact, if one digs deep enough, one may find a story of a mermaid in almost every culture and ancient society around the world…though they might call the mermaid something different depending on the region. In this article, we will take a look at the inspiring and thrilling legends of the Scottish & Irish mermaid and mythical water creatures including merrows, selkies, and water kelpies.
Merrows: The Irish Mermaid & Merman
In Ireland there are many tales of the “wee folk” (fairies), and not surprisingly, the people have their version of the mermaid/merman called merrows. Sailors and people who lived by the seashore had a whole gamut of merrow lore, and many still tell the enchanting tales today. In writer W.B. Yeats’ collection of Irish folk tales, there is an entire section dedicated to stories of merrows. According to legend, the merrow has a greenish tint to its skin with webbed fingers, the tail of a fish, and seaweed-green hair.
The Soul-Stealing Irish Mermaid
One particularly frightening story of the Irish mermaid tells the tale of male merrows who capture the drowned souls of sailors and trap them in pots. These pots are sunk at the bottom of the sea, never to release the poor sailors’ souls…unless a willing human being were to release them. The male merrows were said to be malevolent and incredibly ugly. Perhaps this is why we have stories of female merrows seducing human men. The females would seduce young men by singing to them and then drag them under the waves to the bottom of the sea. No one knows what happened to these men, were they made into merrows themselves or did they drown?
The Merrows’ Magical Red Cap
One particularly interesting aspect of these Gaelic legends is the merrows were only able to swim underwater with the aid of magic—a magical red “cap” they wore on their heads. If a person stole the merrows’ cap and never returned it, the merrows would then be unable to return to their home underwater. In one legend, an Irish man uses the red cap to visit a male merrow’s home under the sea.
Lost & Found: Merrows
Probably my favorite story of a real mermaid encounter is the story of an Irish man who found two dying merrows on the seashore. Apparently they washed up to shore from a bad storm. One was badly hurt and the other was dead. The man wanted to help the merrow and took the merrow home to nurse it back to health. He kept the merrow in a tub of water and fed it shellfish and milk. The boy merrow would not drink or eat anything else offered to him. This occurred in the 1800’s and was a big story in the local paper.
Selkies: Seal-Women of Shetland
A lesser known legend of a supernatural sea creature is that of the selkie. The selkie is a seal-person, or a being that is able to change forms between a seal and a human being, depending on if he/she is on land or sea. This legend comes from Orkney and Shetland but can be heard in tales across Ireland and Scotland, as well as in Iceland. According to legend, selkies are shapeshifters, shedding their seal-skins when they come to land.
Selkies as Wives
There are numerous stories about selkie women who are captured by sailors and taken onto land with them to be made into their loyal wives. The men were said to have hidden the selkie’s seal-skin in order to keep her bound to the land. Unfortunately for these men, most of the time the selkie woman has an insatiable longing for the ocean..and if she finds her hidden seal-skin? Well, she puts it on and runs back to her home under the waves, never to be seen again.
The seal-men or selkie males are said to be very attractive (as opposed to male merrows who were ugly), and legend has it that if a woman wants to have a selkie-lover she need only cry seven tears into the water and he will appear to her. Usually these love stories are tragic and end in more tears for the human lovers. Frequently, selkies are malevolent and will seduce humans to the water and drag them under, and still other stories tell of selkies saving drowning sailors.
Origin of Selkies
There are theories of origin for selkies. One of them says that the selkies were merely women from Northern cultures that wore skins and used animal-skins on their kayaks. They came from the sea, and so therefore the legend of the seal-woman was born. Or perhaps the legend comes from old sailor stories where indeed they had sightings of seals and imagined these seals to be beautiful women instead. Today selkies are used as characters in movies, television shows, and books all over the world.
Water Kelpies: Scottish Water Horse
Water horse spirits are prevalent in folklore worldwide.The water kelpie is a Scottish water horse spirit. The kelpie legend is so popular, there is a large statue in Falkirk that’s quite a popular tourist attraction today. The Scottish water kelpie is a spirit that inhabits bodies of water known as lochs in Scotland. The debate persists today on whether water kelpies are benevolent or malevolent creatures, as it varies by legend. The water kelpie is a large black horse shifts into human form at will (among others).
The Evil Water Kelpies
Some believe water kelpies were evil creatures, even demons, that drowned and/or ate human beings. This story was told to deter small children from going too near the water. Another legend says water kelpies shifted into good-looking young men and seduced women. Eventually dragging them into a watery grave. Even when the kelpie was in human form, it retained it’s horse hooves. Some say there’s a connection between the kelpie and the Christian’s devil because of this.
Catching & Marrying Water Kelpies
Some water kelpies were forced to stay in their human form and wed their human captors. Story goes if you keep the kelpie’s silver bridle hidden away, they’ll stay on land forever. Interestingly, the silver bridle of the water kelpie is similar to the merrow’s magical red cap and the selkie’s seal-skin. Other stories tell of capturing water kelpies using a blessed bridle. Water kelpies are sometimes thought to be dangerous, and other times helpful. If you ask me, they’re ancient water spirits that guard the sacred lakes in Scotland.
Other Mythical Underwater Creatures & Irish Mermaids
The oceans, lakes, and rivers were mysterious to our ancestors. And therefore bodies of water were feared and often the subject of fairy tales and frightening legends. The selkies and merrows weren’t the only water beings in Ireland and Scotland. Here are a few more…
Loch Ness Monster
Everyone knows and loves good ol’ Nessie. Sightings and photographs date back decades and still occur, though some claim Nessie hasn’t been seen in many years. No one knows exactly what the Loch Ness monster really is. Is Nessie a dinosaur of some kind? A sea serpent with legs? Or just in our imagination?
Morgens are water spirits in Irish lore, notorious for drowning unsuspecting men. These water beings are similar to the Greek siren and appear as beautiful women combing their long hair. Their songs are seductive and lure men to their deaths.
Finfolk are another kind of mermaid, but they are always malevolent. They don’t eat human beings, but they capture human beings and force them into marriage and slavery. Moreover, they live in a huge palace underwater and visit Orkney Island in search of human lovers.
Simply put, the Sprite is a water spirit known throughout the world that probably originated in England. They are smaller spirits and tend to frolick and play in ponds and streams and can be quite mischievous.