Water World as Another Home for the English Nation

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Sexual unions between humans and both sea people and seals are the subject of many stories, and various families claim strange sea borne ancestry: for example the Mc Veagh clan of Sutherland traces its descent from the alliance between a fisherman and a mermaid; on the Western island of North Uist the McCodums have an ancestor who married a seal maiden; and the familiar Welsh name of Morgan is sometimes held to mean born of the sea, again pointing to the family tree which includes a mermaid or a merman. Human wives dwelling at sea with mermen were allowed occasional visits to the land, but they had to take care not to overstay and if they chanced to hear the benediction said in church they were never able to rejoin their husbands.

Matthew Arnolds poem The Forsaken Merman relates how one human wife decides to desert her sea husband and children. There is also a Shetland tale, this time concerning a sea wife married to a land husband:

On the island of Unst a man walking by the shore sees mermaids and mermen dancing naked in the moonlight, the seal skins which they have discarded lying on the sand. When they see the man, the dancers snatch up the skins, become sea creatures again, and all plunge into the waves except one, for the man has taken hold of the skin. Its owner is a mermaid of outstanding beauty. And she has to stay on the shore. The man asks her to become his wife, and she accepts. He keeps the skin and carefully hides it.

The marriage is successful, and the couple has several children. Yet the woman is often drawn in the night to the seashore, where she is heard conversing with a large seal in an unknown tongue. Years pass. During the course of a game one of the children finds a seal skin hidden in the cornstack. He mentions it to his mother, and she takes it and returns to the sea. Her husband hears the news and runs after her, arriving by the shore to be told by his wife: Farewell, and may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I lived on earth, but I always loved my first husband more.

As we know from David Thomsons fine book The People of the Sea (1984), such stories are still widely told in parts of Ireland and in Scotland and may explain why sailors were reluctant to kill seals. There was also a belief that seals embodied the souls of drowned mariners.

The friendly dolphin invariably brings good luck to seafarers, and has even been known to guide them to the right direction. As recently as January 1989 the newspapers reported that an Australian swimmer who had been attacked and wounded by a shark was saved from death only by the intervention of a group of dolphins which drove off the predator.

Also worthy of mention here is another benevolent helper of seamen lost in open boats: a kindly ghost known as the pilot of the Pinta. When all seems lost he will appear in the bows of the boat and insistently point the way to safety.

Other denizens of the deep inspired fear and terror. The water horse of Wales and the Isle of Man the kelpie of Scotland grazes by the side of the sea or loch. If anyone is rash enough to get on him, he rushes into the water and drowns the rider; furthermore his back can conveniently lengthen to accommodate any number of people. There are several tales believed of the water horse, for example, if he is harnessed to a plough he drags it into the sea. If he falls in love with a woman he may take the form of a man to court her only if she recognises his true nature from the tell-tale sand in his hair will she have a chance of escaping, and then she must steal away while he sleeps. Legnd says that the water horse also takes the shape of an old woman; in this guise he is put to bed with a bevy of beautiful maidens, but kills them all by sucking their blood, save for one who manages to run away. He pursues her but she jumps a running brook which, water horse though he is, he dare not cross.

Still more terrible are the many sea monsters of which stories are told. One played havoc with the fish of the Solway Firth until the people planted a row of sharpened stakes on which it impaled itself. Another serpent like creature, the Stoor Worm, was so huge that its body curled about the earth. It took up residence off northern Scotland and made it known that a weekly delivery of seven virgins was required, otherwise the towns and villages would be devastated. Soon it was the turn of the kings daughter to be sacrificed, but her father announced that he would give her in anyone who would rid him of the worm. Assipattle, the dreamy seventh son of a farmer, took up the challenge and put to sea in a small boat with an iron pot containing a glowing peat; he sailed into the monsters mouth, then down into its inside after searching for some time he found the liver, cut a hole in it, and inserted the peat . The liver soon began to burn fiercely, and the worm retched out Assipattle and his boat. Its death throes shook the world: one of its teeth became the Orkney Islands, the other Shetland; the falling tongue scooped out the Baltic Sea, and the burning liver turned into the volcanosof Iceland. The king kept his promise, and the triumphant Assipattle married his daughter.

: 20/10/2006