Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Portmuck Mermaid

On 1 October 1814, the Belfast Commercial Chronicle printed a letter that they prefaced with “…we have not had time to ascertain the authenticity of the letter … All we at present know is, that a very respectable man of the name of McClelland, lives, as stated, in Island Magee; and the persons who are mentioned as having also seen the mermaid, are not unknown in Belfast.”
This is the letter:
I beg leave to inform you, for the benefit of the curious, that I am happy that I have it in my power to set the public mind at rest, respecting the existence of this wonderful animal; having been so fortunate as to take one yesterday morning, which is now alive and in my possession.
The mode in which I took it is as follows: Yesterday morning, about six o’clock, I went to set my lines on the Turbot Bank, off this place; I had not proceeded a quarter of a mile from the shore, when I saw what I at first thought was a seal, appear above the water; but on coming near it, to my great surprise, it looked like a Christian, making motions with it hands and head. I immediately thought it to be a mermaid, having seen accounts in the papers of two or three seen in Scotland [1].
I then told the boys in the boat, if they would try and catch it, it would make all their fortunes; but James Hill, and the other two boys, were terribly frightened, and said we should make for the shore, as it might sink the boat. Finding they were cowardly, I called to a large water-dog I had in the boat, and hurled him at it; when the dog was swimming to it, I fired at it a musket loaded with large pellets, which wounded it in the body and tail, and in little time the dog caught it by the hair and held it, though often it pulled him under the water.
The boys, seeing this, gathered courage, and we rowed the boat up to it, and with the assistance of a herring net, we surrounded it and the dog, and brought both into the boat – it had lost a great deal of blood, and was weak when we brought it in; it struggled hard and kept making a noise like a young child. We had to tie it with ropes. When we came on shore, I drew up one of the boats and filled it with salt water, into which I put the animal – and in which I kept it.
Its wounds are better; it eats fish, but it likes herrings better than any other kind; its hair is above a yard long, and a dark green; red eyes, a flat nose, and a large mouth; it has but three fingers on each hand, and they are taper to the point; it is five feet four inches from the crown of the head to the tip of the tail, and like a woman from the [hips] up; the skin is nearly white, except the tail, which is the shape and colour of a cod fish.
It has been seen and examined by Mr Nash and Mr A H Coats, two of the Coast-Officers, who happened to be here this morning; Mr Murphy, our Minister, and several others, our neighbours. I will endeavor to keep it alive for a short time, for the benefit of the curious, who are welcome to come and see it.
I am sir,
Your obedient servant,
Wm McClelland
Portmuck, Island-Magee
29th Sept 1814
On 3 October 1814, the Chronicle reported that a correspondent in Larne had informed them that the mermaid letter was a hoax.
Sources:
The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 1 & 3 October 1814
Notes
1. Possibly a reference to the Portgordon Merman, a similar hoax that took place in the north-east of Scotland six weeks earlier. See ‘The end of a fishy tail’ by Alison And Gordon Rutter in Fortean Times [FT298:51].

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