Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Sea Serpents and Caithness Mermaids
By Sir Humphry Davy (17781829)
I DISBELIEVE the authenticity of these stories. I do not mean to deny the existence of large marine animals having analogies to the serpent; the conger we know is such an animal: I have seen one nearly ten feet long, and there may be longer ones; but such animals do not come to the surface. The only sea-snake that has been examined by naturalists, turned out to be a putrid species of sharkthe Squalus maximus. Yet all the newspapers gave accounts of this as a real animal, and endowed it with feet which do not belong to serpents. And the sea-snakes, seen by American and Norwegian captains, have, I think, generally been a company of porpoises, the rising and sinking of which, in lines, would give somewhat the appearance of the coils of a snake. The kraken, or island fish, is still more imaginary. I have myself seen immense numbers of enormous Urticæ marinæ or blubbers, in the north seas, and in some of the Norwegian fiords, or inland bays, and often these beautiful creatures give colour to the water; but it is exceedingly improbable that an animal of this genus should ever be of the size, even of the whale: its soft materials are little fitted for locomotion, and would be easily destroyed by every kind of fish. Hands and a finny tail are entirely contrary to the analogy of nature; and I disbelieve the mermaid, upon philosophical principles. The dugong and manatee are the only animals combining the functions of the Mammalia with some of the characters of fishes, that can be imagined, even as a link, in this part of the order of nature. Many of these stories have been founded upon the long-haired seal seen at a distance; others on the appearance of the common seal under particular circumstances of light and shade; and some on still more singular circumstances. A worthy baronet, remarkable for his benevolent views and active spirit, has propagated a story of this kind; and he seems to claim for his native country the honour of possessing this extraordinary animal; but the mermaid of Caithness was certainly a gentleman who happened to be travelling on that wild shore, and who was seen bathing by some young ladies at so great a distance, that not only genus, but gender was mistaken. I am acquainted with him, and have had the story from his own mouth. He is a young man, fond of geological pursuits; and one day, in the middle of August, having fatigued and heated himself by climbing a rock to examine a particular appearance of granite, he gave his clothes to his Highland guide, who was taking care of his pony, and descended to the sea. The sun was just setting, and he amused himself for some time by swimming from rock to rock, and having unclipped hair and no cap, he sometimes threw aside his locks and wrung the water from them on the rocks. He happened the year after to be at Harrowgate, and was sitting at table with two young ladies from Caithness, who were relating to a wondering audience the story of the mermaid they had seen, which had already been published in the newspapers: they described her, as she usually is described by poets, as a beautiful animal, with remarkably fair skin and long green hair. The young gentleman took the liberty, as most of the rest of the company did, to put a few questions to the elder of the two ladiessuch as, on what day, and precisely where, this singular phenomenon had appeared. She had noted down not merely the day, but the hour and minute, and produced a map of the place. Our bather referred to his journal, and showed that a human animal was swimming in the very spot at that very time, who had some of the characters ascribed to the mermaid, but who laid no claim to others, particularly the green hair and fishs tail; but being rather sallow in the face, was glad to have such testimony to the colour of his body beneath his garments.