The Mermaid Wife

She begged and begged and begged the Shetlander to give her back her skin. But the man, stunned by her beauty and eager to possess her, cruelly refused…

By Liana Paraschaki and Illustration by Allison McKay

Beneath the rolling hills and evergreen meadows of the Shetland Islands lies one of the best-kept secrets in all of Scotland. In the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, far beneath the fish and the corals visible to the human eye, live the mermaids, in palaces and houses made of corals and pearls and swaying seaweed.

They may look like humans, but their beauty and power far surpass that of our own; they are supernatural beings, capable of many great and terrible things. In order to survive in the depths of the ocean, they must wear the skin of a sea animal, which makes them capable of breathing underwater. Most of the time, mermen and mermaids choose to place upon their shoulder the hide of a seal, as the amphibious animal allows them to exist both underwater and on the shore. On the shore, their hides come off, and the merfolk resume their own form and examine all around them, curiously noticing the human world. But, they must be careful, for they each only possess one skin: if lost, they can never return to the sea.

Once upon a time, a group of merfolk found themselves on the shores of Unst, dancing and playing in the moonlight. Their shed skins were lying all around them, quickly forgotten in the magic of the night. As luck would have it, a Shetlander came across the creek, and the merfolk quickly grabbed their hides and rushed to the sea, scared by the sudden appearance of a human. The islander saw a skin lying by his feet and swiftly hid it in his sack. He had another look at the creek. Suddenly, he noticed the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on sitting on a rock all alone, lamenting the loss of her skin and, subsequently, her life as she had come to know it. Without her skin she was an exile; without her skin, she must become an inhabitant of the world above.

She begged and begged and begged the Shetlander to give her back her skin. But the man, stunned by her beauty and eager to possess her, cruelly refused, offering instead his protection and hand in marriage. The mermaid, finding herself between the devil and the deep blue sea, could do nothing but accept his offer. And so they lived, as husband and wife, for many, many years. He was always stunned by her beauty, and she coldly returned his affection. She would often return to the creek, where a large seal waited for her, day after day, and year after year, holding, in a tongue unknown to humans, an anxious conversation.

The mermaid and her human husband had several children as the years went by, until one day, one of their children found a seal skin, hidden underneath a stack of corn. Both curious and proud, the boy ran to his mother to show her his prize. His mother’s eyes gleamed with joy and she let out a cry of happiness, unlike anything she had ever uttered before. She hastily held her children close to her chest, bidding them a silent goodbye. She hugged them, and once she had kissed their soft cheeks, she ran towards the shore, eager to leave the human world behind her.

The Shetlander returned to his house, only to find his wife missing and his children murmuring something about a seal’s skin and a stack of corn. At once, he realised what had happened, and turned on his heel, running after his wife. He was, however, too late. He came to the creek just as his wife, now fully turned into a seal, was returning to her home, followed by the seal that had met with her every year of her human existence.

The mermaid took one final look at the creek, saying her farewells to the human world, when her eyes landed upon the Shetlander, standing miserably on the shore. Her heart beat loudly in her chest, and, for a passing moment, she felt his sorrow as if it were her own. “I always loved my first husband best,” she told him, and, with those parting words, she disappeared into the depths of the ocean forever.

Illustration by Ally McKay.