Mermaid Myths of Britain – Where to Find Mermaids in the UK
Mermaid sightings in the UK are often attributed to seals and superstition, but that’s not the whole story. The folk of the sea – both feared and revered – are an entrenched part of British folklore. It’s time to talk about how mermaid mythology still exerts a tidal pull on this windswept island.
The first mermaid was an ancient Syrian goddess. In 1000 b.c., Atargatis (pictured above) dove into a lake with the desire to become a fish after accidentally killing a human shepherd she loved. Instead, she retained her human form from the waist up but her bottom half transformed into the tail of a fish.
Associated with fertility and water, Atartgatis reminded her followers to conserve fish (something we could learn from today). Her worshippers never ate the fish swimming the lake near her temple, and adorned their heads with jewels. The first mermaid was worshipped, but since then, mermaids have also been feared as creatures who will conjure storms, steal human babies and lure fisherfolk and sea travellers to their deaths.
A mermaid’s physiology is as complicated as she is. Mermaid myths run as deep as the oceans they come from. Entwined in Britain’s folklore for centuries, mermaid sightings are by no means confined to coastal shores. Following the rivers upstream, mermaids have made homes for themselves in Britain’s lakes and pools, which are named after them to this day.
Mermaids are known by countless names. In Scotland, freshwater mermaids are known as ceasg. In the Isle of Man, they go by the name ben-varrey. Mermaids who take human form on the land but become seals in the water are known as selkies, their seal fat perfectly suited to the cold waters of the Atlantic. Perhaps mermaid myths and names are so varied because merfolk are shape-shifting travellers, more drawn to humans than one might think.
Here, then, are places where mermaids have been found in the UK. Perhaps they or their descendants live there still.
Mermaid’s Pool and Black Mere Pool, Peak District
The Peak District is landlocked, yet has two mermaids to boast of. One lives in Black Mere Pool in the Staffordshire Peak District, and the other has found a home in Mermaid’s Pool in the High Peaks.
Mermaid’s Pool is particularly unusual in that it is a saltwater inland lake, not a freshwater one. The ancient Celts used to conduct water rituals there, for its water is said to have healing qualities, and the water gushing from its nearby waterfall appears to flow upwards on a windy day. Folklore has it that the mermaid still visits her pool once a year, and if you visit its dark waters at midnight on Easter, you may see her. If she looks fondly on you, she may grant you immortality. Be warned, though. She may as readily succumb to the darkness of her kelpie nature and pull you into the waters to drown.
Black Mere Pool
The mermaid tale of Black Mere Pool is a dark one, and there are two versions of it. The more romantic version is that a mermaid was captured by a local sailor and brought to this pool, but eventually fell in love with him. After his death, her grief turned to anger and she began to haunt the lake, unable to return to the sea.
It is hard to imagine a captive falling in love, and the other, even darker tale seems more likely. Legend has it that a man accused a beautiful young woman who had rejected his advances of being a witch. At his behest, the local townsfolk drowned her in Black Mere Pool. She cursed him with her dying breath, and his body was found by the pool a few days later, clawed to death by some unidentifiable beast. It is said that the wronged woman still haunts Black Mere Pool in the form of a mermaid, and her fury has not lessened with the years.
The last recorded sighting of the Black Mere Pool mermaid was in the nineteenth century. She appeared before a group of locals draining the lake and threatened to flood the nearby towns if they did not stop draining her pool’s water immediately. To this day, it is said that you’ll never see birds flying over the waters of Black Mere Pool, and you’ll never see animals drinking from it.
The Singing Mermaid of Zennor, Cornwall
Normally you’ll see carvings of saints in churches, but when you visit the church of Zennor in Cornwall you’ll notice a wooden seat carved with a long-haired mermaid holding a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other.
Photo: Tom Oates, CC2.o.
This mermaid’s tale was first recorded by folklorist William Bottrell in 1873. She came one day to the church at Zennor and everyone was taken with this beautiful stranger who sang the hymns so beautifully. The village folk had no idea that Morveren was one of the daughters of Llyr, king of the ocean. They clamoured for her attention, eager to hear her lovely voice, and put themselves forward as suitors. She took a liking to one man named Mathew Trewhella, said to have the best singing voice in Zennor. She smiled at him, bid him follow her to the cliffs, and Matthew Trewhella was never seen again.
Years later, the captain of a ship put down anchor in nearby Pendower Cove, only to be greeted by a mermaid with long flowing hair who rose out of the sea and bid him to raise his anchor as it had got lodged in the doorway of her house. Until the anchor was raised, she would be unable to get back to her husband, Matthew, and her children.
This tale has a happy ending, for clearly Matthew Trewhella was alive and well and living under the sea in the court of king Llyr, but the church commissioned a carving of the mermaid to serve as a warning to villagers who might be tempted by the lovely voice and long hair of beautiful, strange young women from the sea.
The Doom Bar Mermaid of Padstow
The Doom Bar is a sandbank at the mouth of the river Camel between Padstow and Rock. The name is corrupted from ‘Dunbar’, which was in turn corrupted from ‘Dune Bar’.
Photo: Andy F, CC2.o.
As its current name suggests, it is a place of peril. Many mariners have become stranded or shipwrecked on this very spot in between tides, when the sandback is hidden from the water’s surface by just a few feet.
In the past, the deep waters of this once-busy port had been protected by a ‘merry maid’ or mermaid. She was shot by a local man, although it’s not entirely clear whether it was by accident or by intention. With her dying breath she cursed the harbour and swore it would never enjoy trade or prosperity again. Not long after, the area suffered a storm so fierce that it threw up a huge sandback that ceased all trade thereafter.
Do not piss off a mermaid. They control the weather, and if you work with the sea, the weather is your life.
The Mermaid of Lamorna
Cornwall has long been a favoured spot of mermaids, and many know of Mermaid’s Rock.
Folklore about Lamorna’s mermaid is less detailed than some legends, but everyone is unanimous in the key points. She combs her hair and sings on Mermaid’s Rock, and her favourite pastime is luring fisherfolk to their deaths. Her presence fortells a storm, and the sound of her singing foretells a shipwreck sure to occur exactly seven days after her voice is heard. Perhaps there is a benign meaning behind her appearances. It is not impossible that she comes not to gloat and wreak havoc, but to warn.
The Black-tailed Mermaid of Aberystwyth
Back in the early 19th century, twelve people stepped forward to say they had seen a beautiful woman washing herself in the sea, near the cliffs of the town of Aberystwyth. This isn’t remarkable in itself, but each witness went on to swear that she had a black tail splashing behind her.
The Mermaid of Child’s Ercall Pool in Shropshire
One version of the folklore legend has it that a resident mermaid was so distraught at being maligned by locals that she dived into the pool and stayed there, hiding from humanity evermore. This indicates that she might have been quite friendly with humans previously, and sighted on a regular basis.
Another version of the story has it that the mermaid called to two locals going to work one morning, and they fell in love with her siren tones. She challenged them to a bit of sport. “I’ve treasure in this pool,” she said. “You can have it if you come to me in the water and take it from my hands.” You’d expect this to turn into another tale of mermaids luring innocents to their deaths, but it’s not the case. The mermaid stood in the pool holding a lump of gold as big as a man’s head. The men dove in to take it, and just as one of them nearly reached it he swore in surprise at his good fortune.
Just as the man reached out to grab the gold, the mermaid dived down into the pond in terror. Whether it was because of his foul language or whether she took fright at being beaten at her own challenge, we’ll never know. The mermaid has not been seen since, but if you come to the water and speak softly and politely, she may re-appear.
The Cursing Mermaid of Colmonell
A mermaid used to love to sit and sing upon a black rock just outside Knockdolian Castle in Scotland (pictured).
One day, the castle’s mistress commanded that the black rock be destroyed. Pique or pragmatism? The legends are unclear on the matter. The mermaid took her revenge with a weighty curse ensuring the family line died out, and the mistress and her family would bear no surviving heirs.
If you see a mermaid singing on a rock, leave that rock be.
The Drowned Mermaid of Conwy
The rocks of Llys Helig are a natural formation, but some folk used to think they might be that the ruins of a mythical kingdom beneath the waves, like a UK version of Atlantis. Perhaps the mermaids seen swimming around Conwy were seen as residents of the ruins of Llys Helig.
Whatever she was, wherever she came from, one mermaid in particular was treated vilely by the citizens of Conwy. She was caught in the nets of local fishermen, and taken onto shore. As they paraded her around town, she began to choke to death, unable to breathe the air on land for such a long time. She could breathe in the sea, but here on land, she was drowing. Everyone ignored her pleas to be returned to the sea so that she might live.
With her dying breath (there’s a running folklore theme here) the mermaid cursed the townsfolk both now and in generations to come that they might suffer all manner of plight, from plague to war.
Conwy Town Hall, which stood on the spot where the mermaid is said to have perished, burned down in 1966. The library built over its ruins also perished by fire. Both times, it’s said that the mermaid’s silver-toned laughter was heard coming from inside the fire.
The Spurned Mermaid of Dunnet Bay
If you unsuccessfully woo a man you love with gifts of precious gold and jewels, it may be taken as an insult. If you then discover he’s been using your gifts to woo other women, it’s an added injury. Rude. This is exactly what happened to a mermaid in Dunnet Bay.
She lured the man who had spurned her so gracelessly to an underwater cave in the area with tales of the great hoard of treasure from sunken ships she held there. Needless to say, he was never seen again.
If you spurn a mermaid, be polite about it.
Murder, Mystery and Mermaids in the Orkney Isles
The people of the Orkney Isles say that ‘the finned people’ or the finned folk live among them, a result of inter-breeding through the centuries. The majority of many mermaid sightings over the years are linked to the now-abandoned island of Eynhallow.
The finned folk of Eynhallow are described as having long fins acting as cloaks to shield their tails from view, and they have twinned their island home with Finfolkhaheen, a city beneath the waves where merfolk spend the winter. Does Eynhallow belong to humans or merkind? Tales say that Eynhallow never even used to be visible until it was won from the merfolk by magic.
There’s no doubt that the pull of the mermaid is still strong in the Orkneys. As recently as 1990, two ‘twitchers’ (bird watchers) disappeared in an organised group expedition to the then-deserted island of Eynhallow. Eighty-eight guests visited the island, but only eighty-six returned. Two of the visitors had vanished without trace. The mystery was never solved, in spite of enquiries. Older Orcadian residents were heard to say that the two missing people were finfolk returning to their original home.
The Shapeshifting Mermaids of Bantry
Ireland also has its fair share of mermaid mythology. According to folklore, if you walk the Bay cliffs of Bantry in County Cork you may espy a number of mermaids splashing in the waves.
They love to play their harps as they lounge on rocks by the sea, and will change their forms as they come onto land. They are known in the area as merrow-maidens or merrows, and W.B.Yeats described them thus:
“The Merrow…from muir, sea, and oigh, a maid, is not uncommon, they say, on the wilder coasts. The fishermen do not like to see them, for it always means coming gales. The male Merrows…have green teeth, green hair, pig’s eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful, for all their fish tails and the little duck-like scale between their fingers. Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore…”
Mermaid Myths or Mermaid Reality?
Mermaids are fantastical creatures found all over the world. They’ve been ‘displayed’ in sideshows by cunning artisans who have worked together the skin and skeletons of baby monkeys and fish. In warmer climes their sightings are attributed to manatees and in colder ones they’re attributed to seals. But who heard of seals or manatees in an inland lake? Perhaps the Loch Ness monster is a giant selkie or mermaid who swam into glacial waters and never found her way back to the sea.
When you next visit a mermaid’s location, look around you and savour what you see. Why would this location be ripe for mermaid myths, compared to other places in the area? What springs to mind as you look at the weather, the lay of the land, and consider the lives of people who have passed this way centuries before? What do you see when you look out onto the waters?
Mermaids are stories, and stories are powerful. They shape the way we think and feel. Mermaids may only live in stories, but stories are real.
On a final note, consider this: perhaps the real mermaid isn’t the one the folklore tales speak of, but the one looking out at the water, looking for a sign. With all those tales of interbreeding among finfolk and humans, perhaps it’s brine that runs through your veins, though you may not know it.
They do say blood calls to blood.