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Friday, 14 September 2012

Purt ny Niarbyl

Excerpt from 'A Manx Scrapbook' by W. WALTER GILL

Niarbyl (yn Arbyl), " The Tail," well describes this long reef jutting South-Westward like a crocodile's back above the surface of the water. Though it consists of little more than 400 yards of almost bare rock, half a dozen spots on it are distinguished by names ; names too trivial and commonplace to be worth writing down, but each serving to identify a ledge or point which may be profitably fished from or an inlet where a boat may be moored. For the piece of water which this promontory shelters, considering it as the harbour which it was before certain natural changes occurred, no other name is now used but " the Niarbyl," or more fully Purt ny Niarbyl (for Purt yn Arbyl.) Purt Mooar was formerly an alternative. An old name, dimly remembered, is (phonetically) Purt Vezhool, with the stress on the last syllable. It is said to mean " Harbour of Refuge "-i.e. for fishingboats in a North-Westerly gale. So the place undoubtedly was, but whether that is the English equivalent of " Vezhool " is not so certain. In William Cashen's Manx Folk-lore it is written Purt Mashool.
" The " Niarbyl, with its magnificent South-Westerly outlook, is a favourite resort of the few summer visitors who penetrate to that out-of-the-way spot, but the local people do not take much interest in it summer or winter, excepting on tolerably fine Good Fridays. On that day it is their custom to meet there on the shore. Nothing special happens ; cakes, sweets and " pop " are consumed, perhaps shellfish-flitters and so on-are gathered, or were till recently ; the people merely walk about, sit if it is warm enough, and chat; not only Dalby people, but outsiders from as far off as Peel. The habit suggests that some sort of a fair was held there once, even as Periwinkle Fair was held on the shore near Strandhall in Malew.

As befitted its romantic situation, the Niarbyl " was a great place for the fairies, and they used to be seeing a lot of mermaids coming ashore there once, or so they say." Such is the guarded testimony of a Peel man of 70, for sixty years a fisherman in these and other waters. Seals still appear occasionally at certain points up and down the Southern coast of Patrick ; the last one that landed, or was stranded accidentally, by daylight, was promptly killed ; that was during the war, a time when more unusual things than seals or even walrus were apt to be seen. So far as I am able to judge, however, I do not think the mermaid tradition in the Isle of Man originated in the visitations of seals of any species ; but it is not easy to say exactly what was understood by " mermaid " a century or so back. The term seems to have included much queerer creatures than the picturesque lady from the sea with fish-tail and tresses, mirror and comb. The following paragraph is a copy of a newspaper cutting dated 1810, on which the title of the paper unfortunately does not appear.
" Two merchildren were lately discovered by three respectable tradesmen of Douglas, Isle of Man, during an excursion on the Calf of Man, in quest of sea-fowl. Attracted by a sound somewhat resembling the cries of a young kitten, they found, on searching among the rocks, two small marine animals, exactly resembling in their form that species of creature so often described and known by the name of the merman. One of them was dead, and much ulcerated [lacerated ?] by the violence with which it had been driven on shore, during a violent gale of wind on the preceding night; the other was, however, conveyed to Douglas, where it still remains, and seems likely to do well. It is one foot eleven inches and three quarters in length, from the crown of its head to the extremity of its tail ; five inches across the shoulders ; its skin is of a very pale brown colour, and the scales on its tail are tinged with violet ; the hair, if it may be so called, on its head, is of a light green cast, it is attached to the crown of the head, only hanging loose about the face, about four inches in length, very gelatinous to the touch, and somewhat resembling the green seaweed commonly growing on rocks; its mouth is small, and has no appearance of teeth. It delights much in swimming about in a large tub of sea-water, and feeds chiefly on muscles and other shellfish, which it devours with avidity: it also now and then swallows small portions of milk and water, when given to it in a quill." It is regrettable that the merchild should not have delayed its appearance until the institution of a Manx museum.

The well-known legend of the child found on Eairy Cushlin shore cannot fairly be compared with this foundling of the Calf, and the nearest thing to a merman that I know of, outside Roeder's Manx Notes and Queries, figures in a story localized at the Niarbyl. It runs to the effect that an old man with long white hair, seated in a boat which seemed to be part of himself, so that they couldn't tell where one ended and the other began, used to be seen off the Niarbyl, coming from Fleshwick way; and he sang such beautiful music that the people used to gather on the shore to listen to him. The tune he sang, or one of his tunes, known as the Arrane Ghelby, " the Dalby Song," has been republished in the Folk-song Journal, No. 28, from the first number of the magazine Mannin, but the contributor to the latter, the late Miss Sophia Morrison, omitted the apparently trivial and nonsensical detail of the seeming unity of man and boat. It is nevertheless of great interest as reproducing a deeplyrooted belief formerly held from the Shetlands down to the Southern Hebrides, as well as in Scandinavian countries, and not yet, I think, quite extinct. The late David Mac Ritchie has frequently utilized it in his attempts, by no means wholly unsuccessful, to find an ethnical basis for an important section of Scottish folklore. Particularly in his Testimony of Tradition he would explain the world-wide legend of mermen and mermaids by this belief in " Finn-men " who frequented the coasts and were supposed to have paddled their canoes across from Norway single-handed. From my copy of Wallace's Description of the Isles of Orkney, which is dated 1700 (Mac Ritchie says it was first published in 1693 and contains the earliest explicit reference to the subject) I quote the following (page 60)
" Sometimes about this Country, are seen these men they call Finn-men. In the year 1682, one was seen in his little Boat, at the South end of the Isle of Eda, most of the people of the Isle flocked to see him, and when they adventur'd to put out a Boat with Men to see if they could apprehend him, he presently fled away most swiftly. And in the year 1684 another was seen from Westra ; I must acknowledge it seems a little unaccountable, how these Finn-men should come on this coast, but they must probably be driven by Storms from home, and cannot tell when they are any way at Sea, how to make their way home again; they have this advantage, that be the Seas never so boisterous, their Boat being made of Fish Skins, are so contrived that he can never sink, but is like a Seagull swimming on the top of the Water. His shirt he has is so fastened to the Boat that no Water can come into his Boat to do him damage."
Brand's Brief Description of Orkney, 1701, supplements Wallace's statements : " his Boat is made of Seal-skins, or some kind of Leather, he also hath a Coat of Leather upon him, and he sitteth in the middle of his Boat with a little Oar in his Hand, fishing with his Lines. And when in a Storm he seeth the high surge of a wave approaching, he haih a way of sinking his Boat, till the wave pass over, lest thereby he should be overturned."

Mac Ritchie in a pamphlet, The Kayak in North-Western Europe, finds earlier traces of these centaurs of the sea than are embodied in the above quotations, harking back even to the tradition of the Mountain Lapps that their race reached Sweden from the Continent by means of small skin-boats. Wallace's mention of " fish-skins " was, it is scarcely necessary to say, as purely a flight of fancy as the popular belief that the speed of the Finn-men's canoes was such that when they pleased they could cover nine miles at a single stroke of the paddle. The material employed to make of man and boat one water-tight self-propelled being was seal and other skins stitched cunningly together, as in the present-day Eskimo kayak, and to this extent was justified the confusing of him with seals of a supernatural sort which could doff their skins and come ashore. These again have tended to merge into the mermaid tradition ; but whereas the Finn-men were disliked by the fishermen of the Northern Isles because they heralded a scarcity of fish, the appearance of the mermaid—in the Isle of Man at least—was an omen of a good catch ; for she was not seen only in proximity to the shore.
One detail in Brand's notice reappears in the legend of the sea-god Manannan, who could stay under water for the length of nine waves and come up again with the tenth, and no wet on him at all.

That there was once a race of people who lived on, in, and under the sea as ordinary beings do on land and in boats, and sometimes ventured near the shore or were driven there by the weather, is an article of faith not yet wholly abandoned in the Isle of Man, though now seldom openly acknowledged. I have heard them called " fish-people " ; they talked among themselves, sang and whistled. They are not, so far as my experience goes, associated with seals, nor do I sense a strong supernatural flavour in the belief, for it is held that " whatever there is on land is to be found in the sea too " (also a Hebrew belief, though the Jews excepted the fox) ; but I am aware that there are stories which imply the contrary, both in print and floating ungathered. To the latter class belongs one transmitted to me at second-hand from the parish of Bride; in this a " seal-woman " used to come ashore in human form, and the men used to leave their homes to meet her in the night-time, "some hearing music and following it on their feet, and some lying quiet in their beds, but telling in the morning how they had been travelling after her all the night, and were mortal tired." This sounds very much like a variation on Waldron's theme of " Tehi Tegi," unless both are portions of a more complete legend, dismembered before or after it reached the Isle of Man. Waldron's fragment runs that a foreign enchantress of that name so fascinated the Manxmen that they neglected their daily tasks to follow her ; she " led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable ; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves." Having done this, she flew away in the form of a bat, and her white palfrey in the shape of a sea-hog or porpoise plunged to the bottom of the stream. The torrent which swallowed the gallant six hundred is variously said to-day to have been the Sulby river and a river in Kirk Michael. That Castletown was the charmer's headquarters is deducible from Waldron's statement that " she pretended one day to" go a Progress thro' the Provinces."
The essentials of the foregoing two stories are seen to be recombined in a legend quoted by T. F. Thiselton Dyer in The Ghost World, page V4 : " Gayarre, in his Louisiana, says that mysterious music floats on the waters of the river Pascagoula, particularly on a calm moonlight night. It seems to issue from caverns or grottoes in the bed of the river, and sometimes oozes up through the water under the very keel of the boat which contains the traveller, whose ear it strikes as the distant concert of a thousand Aeolian harps. On the banks of the river, close by the spot where the music is heard, tradition says that there existed a tribe different from the rest of the Indians. Every night when the moon was visible, they gathered round the beautifully-carved figure of a mermaid, and, with instruments of strange shape, worshipped the idol with such soul-stirring music as had never before blessed human ears. One day a priest came among them and tried to convert them from the worship of the mermaid. But on a certain night, at midnight, there came a rushing on the surface of the river, and the water seemed to be seized with a convulsive fury. The Indians and the priest rushed to the bank of the river to contemplate the supernatural spectacle. When she saw them, the mermaid turned her tones into a still more bewitching melody, and kept chanting a sort of mystic song. The Indians listened with growing ecstasy, and one of them plunged into the river to rise no more. The rest-men, women and children-followed in quick succession, moved, as it were, with the same irresistible impulse. When the last of the race disappeared, the river returned to its bed. Ever since that time is heard occasionally the distant music, which the Indians say is caused by their musical brethren, who still keep up their revels at the bottom of the river, in the palace of the mermaid."

Water, especially the moving waters of seas and rivers, provides, it seems, a partial answer to the much-argued question of the origin of folk-song. Tunes of songs and dances are caught by fiddlers and pipers from the voices in the upland streams.Mermaids win lovers from among the landsmen by enhancing their personal attractions with marvellous music. A Lonan Lannanshee, who was alnost certainly a wellwoman, sang all night to a mountain-man whom she had taken a fancy to, as I have noted in my chapter on Wells. The singing of the old man in the boat, which is the essential feature of the scanty Manx legend, has no counterpart in the stories about Finn-men; but it would have pleased Mac Ritchie had he known of it, for it clearly links the canoe-man of the Niarbyl with the singing mer-folk of Northern Europe, and perhaps with the Sirens of the Mediterranean, although the latter partook of the nature of birds. The remarkable length of his hair may be compared on the one hand with that of the orthodox mermaid, which keeps her busy with comb and mirror, and on the other with the long-haired little people of the North whom Mac Ritchie would identify with the mound-dwelling " Pechts " of Scottish tradition and with the fairies, thereby bringing us back to a Finnic or Mongoloid population, from whom the Ainos of Japan and the modern Eskimos are descended. He does in fact (Testimony, page 25) discover representatives of this squat Ugrian race in " the Mer-women of the Isle of Man and the Hebrides," and " the Finn-women of the Northern Isles," his Manx reference being doubtless to the several notices of mermaids in Waldron. But his assumption that the Manxman's Lake near Kirkcudbright owes its name to its having been frequented by mermen from that island cannot be accepted. True, it was haunted, and nocturnally, by shy visitors from thence, but they belonged to a different type of Manxman-smugglers to wit. As regards the matter of hairiness, rón, literally " seal," is used in Ireland (Joyce, i., 300) as a nickname for a hairy man.

In the following story no place or individual is named, but it pertains to the present topic, and would be more fittingly located at the Niarbyl than anywhere else except perhaps Fleshwick, which was an equally favoured rendezvous of the sea-folk. A Manx farmer had heard great talk of the beauty and charm of the mer-women, and would have no other kind of bride; so he sent a man-servant to the beach till he would catch one and bring her to him. The servant went and watched them nine times before he could get hold of one without her skin or covering, whatever it was she had. When his master took possession of her, people warned him to take care she would not get the skin back again, or he would lose her for ever. So he hid it away in a room that was kept locked and never used. But years after, when they were spring-cleaning, the story says, the covering got turned out, and she found it and put it on, and vanished into the sea. This is in its main points a type of story common in Scotland and elsewhere, but it is the only Manx one of its kind I can recall, outside the covers of Waldron's little book. The sending of a proxy to obtain the bride is an unusual feature of such anecdotes, though it occurs in a story of a different genre, that of the sending by Cuchulain of his charioteer to Fairyland on a similar errand. The lady he brought back was the wife of the sea-god Manannan.

It may be remarked that the Manxman's sea-born bride was not a mermaid. That creature, like the Fenoderree, always appears singly, but the servant watched them nine times ; his captive evidently belonged to that clan of the sea who in Orkney are called " selkies," seals ; and these again are by the best-instructed in those islands distinguished from " Finn-folk." That the man had to watch so many times before he could lay hold of one was doubtless because the seal-folk only transform themselves and leave the water in certain propitious circumstances of tide, weather and moon. A belief that according to the direction from which the wind is blowing the seal's coat is rough or smooth (phocine or human ?) may perhaps embody part of these circumstances.

That the mermaid of convention ever had a real existence is more than I should care to assert. Half white-skinned and half rough-scaly, she is rather to be regarded as the symbolic representation of an imagined or real race of people, half marine and half terrestrial ; and a voyage in search of these would call for the opening of a fresh logbook.

The Niarbyl's connexions with the Other World have not lain entirely seaward. At a cottage on the shore, where now is only a garden, the S__ family (whose name at least was represented locally in 1513, but is now extinct in the district) possessed a child who was understood to be a changeling ; he had the wizened visage characteristic of his kind, kept shaking his head from side to side all day long, and when anybody took notice of him he would look up the chimney.

Though he was quite old enough to speak no person ever heard him say a word. Someone who was travelling about the roads advised his parents to burn him, and when the fairies would be hearing his screams they would take him away and bring back the child they had stolen. The family had built up the materials for the fire out of doors in front of the house, and were just taking hold of him in spite of his struggles; when some of the neighbours came out and put a stop to it.

Branching off the road from the Niarbyl up to Ballacallin village is the Bayr Corrag, " Broken or Dangerous Road," near the fork of which was seen by a child some fifty years ago the Arkan Sonney or Lucky Piggy, " a beautiful little white pig " which is believed to bring good fortune to those who see it. She tried to catch it, and called to her uncle, who had gone on ahead, to come back and help her; but he replied that it could not be caught, and she was to leave it alone. Before he reached the spot it had disappeared. The account of the affair given me by the woman who had been favoured with a sight of the creature was quite circumstantial.