The Seal Catcher And The Merman

: The Scottish Fairy Book

Once upon a time there was a man who lived not very far from John o'

Groat's house, which, as everyone knows, is in the very north of

Scotland. He lived in a little cottage by the sea-shore, and made his

living by catching seals and selling their fur, which is very valuable.

He earned a good deal of money in this way, for these creatures used to

come out of the sea in large numbers, and lie on the rocks near his

house basking in the sunshine, so that it was not difficult to creep up

behind them and kill them.

Some of those seals were larger than others, and the country people used

to call them "Roane," and whisper that they were not seals at all, but

Mermen and Merwomen, who came from a country of their own, far down

under the ocean, who assumed this strange disguise in order that they

might pass through the water, and come up to breathe the air of this

earth of ours.

But the seal catcher only laughed at them, and said that those seals

were most worth killing, for their skins were so big that he got an

extra price for them.

Now it chanced one day, when he was pursuing his calling, that he

stabbed a seal with his hunting-knife, and whether the stroke had not

been sure enough or not, I cannot say, but with a loud cry of pain the

creature slipped off the rock into the sea, and disappeared under the

water, carrying the knife along with it.

The seal catcher, much annoyed at his clumsiness, and also at the loss

of his knife, went home to dinner in a very downcast frame of mind. On

his way he met a horseman, who was so tall and so strange-looking and

who rode on such a gigantic horse, that he stopped and looked at him in

astonishment, wondering who he was, and from what country he came.

The stranger stopped also, and asked him his trade and on hearing that

he was a seal catcher, he immediately ordered a great number of seal

skins. The seal catcher was delighted, for such an order meant a large

sum of money to him. But his face fell when the horseman added that it

was absolutely necessary that the skins should be delivered that


"I cannot do it," he said in a disappointed voice, "for the seals will

not come back to the rocks again until to-morrow morning."

"I can take you to a place where there are any number of seals,"

answered the stranger, "if you will mount behind me on my horse and come

with me."

The seal catcher agreed to this, and climbed up behind the rider, who

shook his bridle rein, and off the great horse galloped at such a pace

that he had much ado to keep his seat.

On and on they went, flying like the wind, until at last they came to

the edge of a huge precipice, the face of which went sheer down to the

sea. Here the mysterious horseman pulled up his steed with a jerk.

"Get off now," he said shortly.

The seal catcher did as he was bid, and when he found himself safe on

the ground, he peeped cautiously over the edge of the cliff, to see if

there were any seals lying on the rocks below.

To his astonishment he saw no rocks, only the blue sea, which came right

up to the foot of the cliff.

"Where are the seals that you spoke of?" he asked anxiously, wishing

that he had never set out on such a rash adventure.

"You will see presently," answered the stranger, who was attending to

his horse's bridle.

The seal catcher was now thoroughly frightened, for he felt sure that

some evil was about to befall him, and in such a lonely place he knew

that it would be useless to cry out for help.

And it seemed as if his fears would prove only too true, for the next

moment the stranger's hand was laid upon his shoulder, and he felt

himself being hurled bodily over the cliff, and then he fell with a

splash into the sea.

He thought that his last hour had come, and he wondered how anyone could

work such a deed of wrong upon an innocent man.

But, to his astonishment, he found that some change must have passed

over him, for instead of being choked by the water, he could breathe

quite easily, and he and his companion, who was still close at his side,

seemed to be sinking as quickly down through the sea as they had flown

through the air.

Down and down they went, nobody knows how far, till at last they came to

a huge arched door, which appeared to be made of pink coral, studded

over with cockle-shells. It opened, of its own accord, and when they

entered they found themselves in a huge hall, the walls of which were

formed of mother-of-pearl, and the floor of which was of sea-sand,

smooth, and firm, and yellow.

The hall was crowded with occupants, but they were seals, not men, and

when the seal catcher turned to his companion to ask him what it all

meant, he was aghast to find that he, too, had assumed the form of a

seal. He was still more aghast when he caught sight of himself in a

large mirror that hung on the wall, and saw that he also no longer bore

the likeness of a man, but was transformed into a nice, hairy, brown


"Ah, woe to me," he said to himself, "for no fault of mine own this

artful stranger hath laid some baneful charm upon me, and in this awful

guise will I remain for the rest of my natural life."

At first none of the huge creatures spoke to him. For some reason or

other they seemed to be very sad, and moved gently about the hall,

talking quietly and mournfully to one another, or lay sadly upon the

sandy floor, wiping big tears from their eyes with their soft furry


But presently they began to notice him, and to whisper to one another,

and presently his guide moved away from him, and disappeared through a

door at the end of the hall. When he returned he held a huge knife in

his hand.

"Didst thou ever see this before?" he asked, holding it out to the

unfortunate seal catcher, who, to his horror, recognised his own hunting

knife with which he had struck the seal in the morning, and which had

been carried off by the wounded animal.

At the sight of it he fell upon his face and begged for mercy, for he at

once came to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the cavern, enraged

at the harm which had been wrought upon their comrade, had, in some

magic way, contrived to capture him, and to bring him down to their

subterranean abode, in order to wreak their vengeance upon him by

killing him.

But, instead of doing so, they crowded round him, rubbing their soft

noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and implored him not to

put himself about, for no harm would befall him, and they would love him

all their lives long if he would only do what they asked him.

"Tell me what it is," said the seal catcher, "and I will do it, if it

lies within my power."

"Follow me," answered his guide, and he led the way to the door through

which he had disappeared when he went to seek the knife.

The seal catcher followed him. And there, in a smaller room, he found a

great brown seal lying on a bed of pale pink sea-weed, with a gaping

wound in his side.

"That is my father," said his guide, "whom thou wounded this morning,

thinking that he was one of the common seals who live in the sea,

instead of a Merman who hath speech, and understanding, as you mortals

have. I brought thee hither to bind up his wounds, for no other hand

than thine can heal him."

"I have no skill in the art of healing," said the seal catcher,

astonished at the forbearance of these strange creatures, whom he had so

unwittingly wronged; "but I will bind up the wound to the best of my

power, and I am only sorry that it was my hands that caused it."

He went over to the bed, and, stooping over the wounded Merman, washed

and dressed the hurt as well as he could; and the touch of his hands

appeared to work like magic, for no sooner had he finished than the

wound seemed to deaden and die, leaving only the scar, and the old seal

sprang up, as well as ever.

Then there was great rejoicing throughout the whole Palace of the Seals.

They laughed, and they talked, and they embraced each other in their own

strange way, crowding round their comrade, and rubbing their noses

against his, as if to show him how delighted they were at his recovery.

But all this while the seal catcher stood alone in a corner, with his

mind filled with dark thoughts, for although he saw now that they had no

intention of killing him, he did not relish the prospect of spending the

rest of his life in the guise of a seal, fathoms deep under the ocean.

But presently, to his great joy, his guide approached him, and said,

"Now you are at liberty to return home to your wife and children. I will

take you to them, but only on one condition."

"And what is that?" asked the seal catcher eagerly, overjoyed at the

prospect of being restored safely to the upper world, and to his family.

"That you will take a solemn oath never to wound a seal again."

"That will I do right gladly," he replied, for although the promise

meant giving up his means of livelihood, he felt that if only he

regained his proper shape he could always turn his hand to something


So he took the required oath with all due solemnity, holding up his fin

as he swore, and all the other seals crowded round him as witnesses. And

a sigh of relief went through the halls when the words were spoken, for

he was the most noted seal catcher in the North.

Then he bade the strange company farewell, and, accompanied by his

guide, passed once more through the outer doors of coral, and up, and

up, and up, through the shadowy green water, until it began to grow

lighter and lighter and at last they emerged into the sunshine of earth.

Then, with one spring, they reached the top of the cliff, where the

great black horse was waiting for them, quietly nibbling the green turf.

When they left the water their strange disguise dropped from them, and

they were now as they had been before, a plain seal catcher and a tall,

well-dressed gentleman in riding clothes.

"Get up behind me," said the latter, as he swung himself into his

saddle. The seal catcher did as he was bid, taking tight hold of his

companion's coat, for he remembered how nearly he had fallen off on his

previous journey.

Then it all happened as it happened before. The bridle was shaken, and

the horse galloped off, and it was not long before the seal catcher

found himself standing in safety before his own garden gate.

He held out his hand to say "good-bye," but as he did so the stranger

pulled out a huge bag of gold and placed it in it.

"Thou hast done thy part of the bargain--we must do ours," he said. "Men

shall never say that we took away an honest man's work without making

reparation for it, and here is what will keep thee in comfort to thy

life's end."

Then he vanished, and when the astonished seal catcher carried the bag

into his cottage, and turned the gold out on the table, he found that

what the stranger had said was true, and that he would be a rich man for

the remainder of his days.