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The towering cliffs, murky waters, and secretive caves of the coast have shaped the legends and myths engrained in Britain’s folklore. Investigate the tales and sounds of this mysterious landscape and the stories that it has helped to inspire.

The coastal landscape is shrouded in eerie mystery. Sea mists, tempestuous waters, dramatic scenery and unearthly sounds lend themselves to many a tale that send a shiver down the spine. There can’t be many coastal towns or fishing villages that don’t have a malevolent mermaid, tormented spirit, drowned bell or mysterious sound in their folklore.

Of mermaids and selkies

Tales of beautiful temptresses luring unsuspecting mariners to an early grave with their honeyed voices have existed for thousands of years. The Greek myths speak of the sirens who used their enchanting songs to captivate passing sailors and draw them towards the deadly rocks surrounding their island. Usually portrayed as beautiful young women, these beings possessed the most beguiling of voices, seductive enough to bring the most resolute of men into their deathly embrace.

We also encounter tales of sea maidens closer to home. In deepest Cornwall, the village of Zennor has a legend that speaks of a beautiful and mysterious woman who would occasionally come to the church of St Senara and enchant the parishioners with her heavenly singing. Eventually, one of the parishioners, Matthew Trewhella, decided to follow this captivating beauty out of the church. He was last seen following her towards the sea, never to be seen again. Years later, a passing ship’s captain spoke of an encounter with a beautiful mermaid who kindly asked him to lift his anchor as it was blocking the doorway of her home where her child and husband – Matthew – were waiting. Finally the fate of the local man was known. Today, a battered wooden chair carved with the image of a mermaid sits in St Senara’s church. They say that the carving serves to remind young men to be wary of the charms of beautiful women.

Scottish and Irish folklore also tell of mysterious creatures known as the selkies, or sealfolk. Believed to take the form of seals when at sea, once on land, selkies had the power to shed their seal skin and transform into a man or a woman. Legend suggests that selkies in human form would be doomed to a life on land if ever their magical skins were lost or stolen. Stories from the islands of Orkney and Shetland detail romantic encounters between selkies and local people. Both selkie men and women were reportedly so bewitching that no human could resist their charms. While selkie men would usually come ashore for a short time, just long enough to seduce a local woman, the common theme for selkie women is rather more sombre. These alluring seal maidens were often forced into staying on land by young men who would steal their skins and take them as their wives. Though not always an unhappy union, a selkie wife would still yearn for the sea and could often be found wandering the coastline, singing heart-wrenching laments. Some would eventually recover their skins and return to the sea, coming back to land occasionally to see their human husband and children. But such was the lure of the sea that they could never be truly happy without it.

Investigating the songs and behaviours of seals themselves might provide clues to the origins of these myths. Half the world’s population of Grey Seals can be found around Britain’s shores, with large populations living in the Scottish Hebrides and along the Northumbrian and Lincolnshire coastlines. During their autumn breeding season, females come ashore in the thousands to give birth and remain on land until their pups are ready for independence. It’s at this time that males hit dry land in order to woo the available females, forming large breeding colonies, known as rookeries, on rocky shores, sandy beaches and sometimes in caves. This short period is both an aural and visual spectacle, with the air overflowing with the mournful, haunting and almost human-like wails of these marine mammals.

What are the superstitions of sailors?

Sailors are a superstitious bunch and birds never really fare well in their company.

The harsh cries of seagulls, a sound so entwined with the sonic landscape of Britain’s coastline, were believed to be the voices of dead mariners drowned at sea. Considered harbingers of bad weather, this morbid association eventually transformed seagulls into omens of death.

Other seabirds such as Storm Petrels and Gannets were also believed to carry the souls of deceased sailors and fishermen.

When these birds were spotted at sea in large flocks, it would indicate that the weather was about to turn for the worse. Although the origins are hazy, Storm Petrels were said to be the heralds of Mother Carey, the cruel sea witch who wreaked havoc on the ocean waves, gleefully sending vulnerable seamen to their deaths so that her and her partner, Davy Jones, could feast upon their bodies:

She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed yound seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.

It is from this legend that the birds get their more colloquial name of ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’.

The deep and boundless sea would have been enigmatic to the people who interacted with its sometimes calm, sometimes tumultuous presence. Inspired by its mystery, people would have passed down the tales, stories, myths and legends that still take root in our imaginations.


Banner image © Jonny Hannah

  • Cheryl Tipp
  • Cheryl Tipp is the British Library’s Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds. With a background in zoology and library services, Cheryl has spent the past 15 years looking after the Library’s world- renowned collection of over 250,000 species and habitat recordings. She has worked extensively on projects that encourage the creative reuse of archival content, from student videogames to short films from emerging filmmakers. She is currently Secretary of the International Bioacoustics Council which seeks to promote discussion and the exchange of ideas between scientists, engineers, sound archivists and field recordists working with natural history sound recordings.

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