The mermaid, or, as she is called in Gaelic, Maid-of-the-Wave, has great beauty and is sweet-voiced. Half her body is of fish shape, and glitters like a salmon in sunshine, and she has long copper-coloured hair which she loves to comb as she sits on a rock on a lonely shore, gazing in a mirror of silver, and singing a song in praise of her own great beauty. Sometimes, on moonlight nights, she takes off her skin covering and puts on sea-blue garments, and then she seems fairer than any lady in the land.
Once a young crofter was wandering below the cliffs on a beautiful summer night when the wind was still and the silver moon shone through the clear depths of ocean, casting a flood of light through Land-under-Waves. He heard sounds of song and laughter. He crept softly towards a shadowy rock, and, climbing it, looked down on a bank of white sand. There he beheld a company of mermaids dancing in a ring round a maid who was fairest of the fair. They had taken off their
skin coverings, and were gowned in pale blue, and, as they wheeled round about, their copper tresses streamed out behind their backs, glistening in the moonlight. He was delighted by their singing and amazed at their beauty.
At length he crept stealthily down the rock, and ran towards the skin coverings lying on the sand. He seized one and ran off with it. When the mermaids saw him they screamed and scattered in confusion, and snatching up their skin coverings, leapt into the sea and vanished from sight. One maid remained behind. This was the fair one round whom the others had been dancing. Her skin covering was gone, and so she could not return to her sea home.
Meanwhile the crofter ran to his house and hid the skin covering in a box, which he locked, placing the key in his pocket. He wondered what would happen next, and he had not long to wait. Someone came to his door and knocked softly. He stood listening in silence. Then he heard the knocking again, and opened the door. A Maid-of-the-Wave, clad in pale sea-blue garments, stood before him, the moonlight glistening on her wet copper hair. Tears stood in her soft blue eyes as she spoke sweetly saying: "O man, have pity and give me back my skin covering so that I may return to my sea home."
She was so gentle and so beautiful that the
crofter did not wish her to go away, so he answered: "What I have got I keep. Do not sorrow, O fair one. Remain here and be my bride."
The mermaid turned away and wandered along the shore, but the crofter did not leave his house. In the morning she returned again, and the crofter said to her: "Be my bride."
The mermaid consented saying: "I cannot return to my fair sea home. I must live now among human beings, and I know no one except you alone. Be kind to me, but do not tell man or woman who I am or whence I came."
The crofter promised to keep her secret, and that day they were married. All the people of the township loved Maid-of-the-Wave, and rejoiced to have her among them. They thought she was a princess from a far country who had been carried away by the fairies.
For seven years the crofter and his wife lived happily together. They had three children, two boys and a girl, and Maid-of-the-Wave loved them dearly.
When the seventh year was drawing to a close the crofter set out on a journey to Big Town, having business to do there. His wife was lonely without him, and sat often on the shore singing songs to her baby girl and gazing over the sea.
One evening, as she wandered amidst the rocks, her eldest boy, whose name was Kenneth, came
to her and said: "I found a key which opened Father's box, and in the box I saw a skin like the skin of a salmon, but brighter and more beautiful, and very large."
His mother gasped with surprise and secret joy, and asked softly: "Will you give me the key?"
Kenneth handed the key to her, and she hid it in her bosom. Then she said: "It is getting late. The moon will not rise till near midnight. Come home, little Kenneth, and I shall make supper, and put you to bed, and sing you to sleep."
As she spoke she began to sing a joyous song, and Kenneth was glad that his mother was no longer sad because his father was from home. He grasped his mother's hand, and tripped lightly by her side as they went homeward together.
When the two boys had supper, and were slumbering in bed, the crofter's wife hushed her girl-baby to sleep, and laid her in her cradle. Then she took the key from her bosom and opened the box. There she found her long-lost skin covering. She wished to return to her fair sea home, yet she did not care to leave her children. She sat by the fire for a time, wondering if she should put on the skin covering or place it in the box again. At length, however, she heard the sound of singing coming over the waves, and the song she heard was like this:--
Maid-of-the-Wave, the dew mist is falling,
Thy sisters are calling and longing for thee;
Maid-of-the-Wave, the white stars are gleaming,
Their bright rays are streaming across the dark sea.
Maid-of-the-Wave, would thou wert near us!
Come now to cheer us--Oh, hear us! Oh, hear us!
Maid-of-the-Wave, a sea-wind is blowing,
The tide at its flowing hath borne us to thee;
Maid-of-the-Wave, the tide is now turning--
Oh! we are all yearning our sister to see.
Maid-of-the-Wave, come back and ne'er leave us,
The loss of thee grieves us--believe us! believe us!
Maid-of-the-Wave, what caredst thou in childhood
For moorland or wildwood? thy home was the sea.
Maid-of-the-Wave, thine exile and sorrow
Will end ere the morrow, and thou shalt be free.
Maid-of-the-Wave, to-night from our sea-halls
A heart-spell on thee falls--the sea calls! the sea calls!
She kissed the two boys and wept over them. Then she knelt beside her little baby girl, who smiled in her sleep, and sang:
Sleep, oh! sleep my fair, my rare one,
Sleep, oh! sleep nor sigh nor fret thee.
Though I leave thee it doth grieve me--
Ne'er, oh! ne'er will I forget thee.
Sleep, oh! sleep, my white, my bright one,
Sleep, oh! sleep and know no sorrow.
Soft I kiss thee, I who'll miss thee
And thy sire who'll come to-morrow.
Sleep, oh! sleep my near, my dear one,
While thy brothers sleep beside thee.
They will waken all forsaken--
Fare-thee-well, and woe betide me!
When she had sung this song she heard voices from the sea calling low and calling sweet:
Maid-of-the-Wave, oh! list to our singing;
The white moon is winging its way o'er the sea.
Maid-of-the-Wave, the white moon is shining,
And we are all pining, sweet sister, for thee.
Maid-of-the-Wave, would thou wert near us!
Come now to cheer us--Oh, hear us! Oh, hear us!
The weeping mother kissed her boys and her baby-girl once again. Then she put on her skin covering and, hastening down the beach, plunged into the sea. Ere long, sounds of joy, and laughter were heard far out amongst the billows, and they grew fainter and fainter until they were heard no more. The moon rose high and fair, and shone over the wide solitary ocean, and whither the mermaids had gone no one could tell.
When the crofter returned next morning he found the children fast asleep. He wakened Kenneth, who told him about finding the key and opening the box.
"Where is the key now?" the crofter asked.
"I gave it to Mother," said the boy.
The crofter went towards the box. It was open, and the skin covering was gone. Then he knew what had happened, and sat down and sorrowed because Maid-of-the-Wave had gone.
It is told that the lost mother often returned at night-time to gaze through the cottage windows
on her children as they lay asleep. She left trout and salmon for them outside the door. When the boys found the fish they wondered greatly, and their father wept and said: "Your mother is far away, but she has not forgotten you."
"Will Mother return again?" the boys would ask.
"No, Mother will not return," their father would say. "She now dwells in the home of her people, to which you and I can never go."
When the boys grew up they became bold and daring seamen, and no harm ever came to them in storm or darkness, for their mother, Maid-of-the-Wave, followed their ship and protected it from all peril.
A mermaid has power to grant three wishes, for she is one of the fairy folk of ocean and a subject of Queen Beira's.
Once a seaman saw a Maid-of-the-Wave sitting on a rock. He crept towards her unheard and unseen, and seized her in his arms.
"Let me go!" the mermaid cried, "or I shall drag you into the sea."
"I shall not let you go," said the seaman, who was very strong, "until you have granted me three wishes."
"What are your wishes?" asked the mermaid.
"Health, wealth, and prosperity."
"Your wishes are granted," exclaimed the mermaid,
who, being then released, plunged into the sea and vanished from sight.
Sometimes a mermaid will give good advice to human beings. There was once a man in Galloway who had skill as a curer of diseases, and it was said that he received some of his knowledge from a mermaid. A beautiful girl named May was ill with consumption. The Galloway herbalist tried in vain to cure her, and as he loved her dearly and wished to marry her, his heart was very sad when he found that his herbs did not do her any good. One evening as he sat sorrowing on the shore, a mermaid raised her head above the waves and sang:
Would you let bonnie May die in your hand
And the mugwort 1 flowering in the land?
Then she vanished. The man went at once and gathered the flowers of the mugwort, and made a medicine. This he gave to May, who was soon restored to health.
A mermaid may be offended by anyone who interferes with her, and if she is offended she may do harm.
An old family once lived in a house called Knockdolion, which stood on the banks of the Water of Girvan in Ayrshire. There was a black stone at
the end of the house, and a mermaid used to come and sit on it, combing her hair and singing for hours on end. The lady of the house could not get her baby to sleep because of the loud singing of the mermaid, so she told her men-servants to break up the stone. This they did, and when the mermaid came on the night that followed she found no stone to sit upon. She at once flew into a rage, and cried to the lady of the house:--
Ye may think on your cradle--
I think on my stane;
There will ne'er be an heir
To Knockdolian again.
Not long after this the baby died. He was the only child in the house, and when his father and mother died the family became extinct.
Once a Forfarshire landowner nearly lost his life by rushing into a lake towards a mermaid. He thought she was a young lady who had got beyond her depths while bathing. As she struggled in the water she called to him: "Help! help! or I'll drown." When the landowner entered the lake his man-servant followed him and hauled him back. "That wailing woman," the servant said, "is not a human being but a mermaid. If you had touched her, she would have dragged you down and drowned you." As he spoke the sound of laughter came over the lake, and the mermaid was seen swimming away in the dusk.
168:1 Also called "southernwood". It is an aromatic plant allied to "wormwood".