Via our friends at Corvus we recently published Secrets of the Seahouse by Elisabeth Gifford, and she has written this wonderful piece for us pondering how many Australians carry the ‘mermaid’ gene brought over with the Scots emigrants.
Secrets of the Sea House takes place on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland and explores the possible truths behind the Gaelic legends of the Seal People or Selkies – men who are seals in the water and human on land; if their sealskins are stolen, they can never go home to the water.
While researching the Selkie legend on the internet, I was intrigued to find references coming up from half way around the world in Australia. Acclaimed Australian writer Margo Lanagan recently wrote a wonderful reworking of the seal people myth entitled Sea Hearts.
I was interested to also find that the Melbourne beach district, St Kilda, carried the same name as the Hebridean island I used as a template for Moira’s home in the novel. Moira is evicted from her croft during the clearances and most of the village cleared. After potato blight from Ireland struck the islands of the Hebrides in 1840, there was a large wave of evictions and emigrations from Scotland – and Australia and New Zealand were the primary destinations.
The level of famine seen in Ireland was avoided in the Highlands and Islands when Edinburgh merchants rallied round to send grain to the starving communities, and the Scots Presbyterian church began the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society, sending well-run emigrant ships out to Australia in particular; the gold rush meant that there was a shortage of workers across all trades, especially in sheep farming. The journey to Australia was a long three months, but the passage much less perilous than those endured by the first clearance refugees forced out to America and Canada where disease was rife on the overcrowded and insanitary ships crossing the Atlantic and many families saw their loved ones committed to the sea.
The Gaelic communities arriving in Melbourne and other Australian towns were organised and educated. They brought with them a belief in education for all classes, and for both men and women. It’s no coincidence that in the novel the Reverend Ferguson of Harris is an amateur evolutionist – Darwin first mooted his evolution theories while a student in Edinburgh, a town known as the Athens of the North for its enlightenment ideals and medical universities. It wasn’t long before Scots were founding schools in Australia, including schools for girls.
The Scots communities also valued kinship, fairness and self reliance, skills that had enabled them to survive the harsh farming conditions of the Highlands and Islands and which underpinned the pioneering spirit needed to thrive in the new world.
These Scots communities fought hard to hold on to their Gaelic language and customs; sadly, the language faded within a generation or two, but not the Gaelic stories told in fireside ceilidhs – including stories of Selkies and rumours of families who were descended from the sea people.
The first inkling I had that there might be something very real behind the sea people myths came from a real letter to The Times newspaper, reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster while he was walking along the coast of Scotland. There were several such sightings reported up and down the coast by perfectly respectable people. In 1830 there was a famous funeral for a mermaid whose body was washed up on the shore of Benbecula island, her half-human remains witnessed by many people. What on earth was going on?
From research by Gaelic historian, John MacAulay of Harris, I discovered that the sea people legends are very possibly a form of oral history, going back thousands of years. The mythical Selkie is a seal that steps out of his skins on land to become a man. It could well be that the Selkie legend is describing Sami kayakers who travelled down from Norway in sealskin canoes and jackets, from as far back as the end of the last ice age; once on land they would step put of their kayaks and remove their sealskin jackets. Evidently some of the Sami kayakers stayed and intermarried with Hebrideans, giving rise to the tales of families descended from Selkies.
Sometimes these Eskimo-style Sami kayakers may have been mistaken for mermaids. After several hours at sea, the sealskin kayak becomes waterlogged and sits just below the surface of the water, looking for all the world like a wavering tail. Was this what the schoolmaster was describing in his letter to The Times?
The sightings died out, just over 200 years ago, at the very same time that the community of Sea Samis disappeared under pressure to assimilate into the Norwegian culture; their customs and their Sami language banned in Norway.
In a similar way, Gaelic and its customs were put under pressure in Scotland. Following the clearances and widespread mass emigration from the Isles, there are now no families claiming to be descended from sea people left in Hebrides. The descendants of the MacOdrum family – reputedly sons of seal people – now live in Canada.
Secrets of the Sea House is a traditional novel, written as a page-turner, I hope. But within it is a great deal of research into Scots history that is also the heritage of the descendants of Scots communities in Australia. There is evidently a lot of Scots DNA there in the Australian character. The words to the unofficial Australian anthem, Waltzing Matilda, were penned to an anonymous tune played by a band at a racecourse. The tune was later identified as a Scots song, ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ [Ed: we’ve published a book on the secret history of the song].
I don’t doubt that walking around in New Zealand and Australia there will be some very special Scots, people who are the living descendants of the sea people, whose genes have travelled from the Arctic circle to the Hebrides in sealskin canoes, and then to the other side of the world in emigrant ships bound for Melbourne and other Australian towns.
Secrets of the Sea House is available now, and you can watch a trailer below, read an extract over on Elisabeth’s website, learn more about the inspiration behind the book or read reader reviews over on Goodreads or this one on Culture Street who say it is “Well researched and beautifully told”.
Let us know if you’ve got any Scottish heritage, and whether you might have some mermaid genes!