I gathered these tales and sayings from the months of the folk in the summer of 1859, and to all the kind friends from whom I got this lore I offer, after many years, my warmest thanks.
Of these stories two were printed by the late Mr. J. F. Campbell in his interesting Collection of the Tales of the West Highlands; the others are added to-day for the first time to that store of old-world knowledge which the Folk-Lore Society is intended to preserve. It was difficult in 1859 to make such a collection, but it would be impossible now to gather them in Sutherland. The measured prose of some of the tales would suggest that at one time they may have been actual compositions, but what is called “reading” has now supplied a substitute for this unwritten literature, which is being further banished by bigoted religious ideas and by modern progress in all its shapes. “Other times” inevitably bring their proverbial “other manners,” and the relics of popular antiquity are fast vanishing along with the language, the associations, and the primitive life of the people, who are out of touch with their betters and given over to social and polemical hatreds.
Such as this collection is it was my own introduction to folk-lore, to the forgotten history, and to the past in which is buried in the present of the genuine Highland mind—to that primitive literature, in short, which is at once so like and so unlike the mythology of other primitive races.
During the years that the volume has been in my possession I have amused myself by annotating it with references to parallel superstitions in other lands. I leave the notes, because they would seem to illustrate, without affecting, the folk-lore of the people of Sutherland.
[Redundant portions not relating to mermaids have been excised]
A mermaid fell in love with a fisherman of Lochinver. Her lover was enamoured, but he had heard how youths ensnared by mermaids had found a watery grave.
It became necessary then to make his own terms, and to arrange matters so as to secure himself. To rule a mermaid it is necessary to possess yourself, not of her person, but of the poach and belt which mermaids wear. This carries the glass, comb, and other articles well-known to be indispensable to the lady's comfort, but also as a sort of life-preserver helps them to swim.
By fair means or foul this cautious swain got hold of the pouch, and the mermaid became in consequence his bride and his bondswoman. There was little happiness in such a union for the poor little wife. She wearied of a husband, who, to tell the truth, thought more of himself than of her. He never took her out in his boat when the sun danced on the sea, but left her at home with the cows, and on a croft which was to her a sort of prison. Her silky hair grew tangled. The dogs teased her. Her tail was really in the way. She wept incessantly while rude people mocked at her. Nor was there any prospect of escape after nine months of this wretched life. Her powers of swimming depended on her pouch, and that was lost. What was more, she now suspected the fisherman of having cozened her out of it.
One day the fisherman was absent, and the labourers were pulling down a stack of corn. The poor mermaid watched them weeping, when to her great joy she espied her precious pouch and belt, which had been built in and buried among the sheaves. She caught it, and leapt into the sea, there to enjoy a delicious freedom.—(J. MacLeod, Laxford.)