Mermaids, Seals and Islands
You never know what you might see along Pembrokeshire’s spectacular coastline or the islands of Skomer and Skokholm. It’s a haven for wildlife, flora and fauna, as well as seals, dolphins, puffins and…. mermaids?
Well, you never know. Here, Bluestone National Park Resort’s very own historian, Terry John, looks back at one tale of a mermaid and the rich environment many of our guests come to explore here in West Wales. Maybe it’ll give you some inspiration to visit the wealth of natural habitat we have in and around Bluestone?
Many years ago a farmer man was strolling on Aberbach beach, not far from Strumble Head on the north-west coast of Pembrokeshire, when he came across an astonishing sight.
Sleeping curled up on the rocks near the tide-line was a mermaid! Her beauty fascinated him, but he also knew that possession of such a fabulous creature would bring him a fortune. Even more, should she bear him children, they would possess unearthly powers, which in themselves could result in untold riches.
Creeping stealthily over the rocks, he managed to position himself between the mermaid and the sea. Tip-toeing forward he approached to within a few feet of her, but at the last second he slipped on some seaweed and almost fell. The sound of his stumble awoke the mermaid, who cried out in terror. The farmer lunged at her and managed to wrap his arms around her.
According to legend, once a human lays a hand upon a mermaid, she cannot escape. Despite her appeals for mercy, he carried her off to Treseissyllt Farm where he imprisoned her at the back of the house in a room with no windows.
That night, as he tried to sleep, he was amazed to hear the mermaid singing. Her song was long and slow, full of longing for her ocean home. As the night darkened towards morning, the farmer became aware of movements outside the house, the muffled sounds of footsteps in the grass, hushed voices, the tapping of fingers upon the window-panes. Then, all at once, the doors of the house sprang open and a great wind buffeted the walls.
The farmer leapt out of bed and hurried to the back room. The door lay open wide and the bonds with which he had tied the mermaid were scattered across the floor. Rushing out into the night, he raced down the track leading to the beach and as he reached the shore, he glimpsed in the moonlight half a dozen grey shapes slipping into the waves.
As the mermaid and her rescuers swam out into their watery domain, she turned and in a loud, clear voice pronounced a curse on the farmer and his home. “No child should be born there for generations to come,” a spell apparently unbroken until the middle of the 20th century when an ambulance called to attend woman in labour at Treseissyllt arrived minutes after the birth had taken place.
Now you may not believe in mermaids, but the interesting thing about this story is that it’s practically unique. Mermaids don’t feature much in Welsh mythology, though there are several stories of them inhabiting the waters off Pembrokeshire.
They pop up much more frequently in Cornwall, whilst Scotland is rich in the folklore of selkies, who live in the sea as seals, but can shed their skin to become human on land. Wales has its own version of the selkie, but here they are humans who originated in the oceans and have returned to the sea. The legend of Arianrhod, a powerful figure in Welsh mythology, tells us that she bore a son, Dylan Eil Don, who was reputed to be a sea spirit and who escaped to the sea immediately after birth.
So it may be that the mermaid of Aberbach was in fact a sea spirit and that she and her rescuers took the form of seals when they entered the sea.
Many guests staying at Bluestone like to spend at least one day near the sea, especially if they come from an inland area. Most of them probably never expect to spot one of the mer-people, but they are much more likely to encounter a seal.
The Pembrokeshire coast and the off-shore islands are wonderful places for seal watching, especially at this time of year. As the Autumn approaches, the seals begin to congregate in greater numbers in the rocky caves and beaches of the islands, where they find shelter from the winter storms and where the females can give birth to their pups.
On Skomer, one of their favourite spots seems to the off-shore rocks clustered around the Garland Stone, off the north coast of the island, although there usually some lounging about on a convenient rock almost anywhere along the cliff line. And if you keep your eye on the lines of waves marching in from the distant stretches of the ocean, you‘re almost bound to spot a sleek grey head popping up out of the foam and watching you with as much interest as you are watching it.
Skomer and its neighbouring island of Skokholm are both maintained by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and both are internationally famous for the vast numbers of shearwaters, guillemots and razorbills who make their homes there – and that’s without counting everybody’s favourite, the puffins who, by this time in the year, have left the islands. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of bird life to be seen. In addition to the species already mentioned, and depending on the time of year, there are fulmars, choughs, black-backed gulls and kittiwakes.
One of the most spectacular sites on Skomer is The Wick, an enormous cliff face rearing out of the water and criss-crossed with ledges that provide nesting places for a host of seabirds. Just stand and watch the continuous flurry of wings as the birds wheel and dive and swoop upwards on the air currents. It’s something you’ll never forget.
Ramsey Island, off the St David’s peninsula, is cared for by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Here you can spot, amongst other species, choughs, ravens and peregrines, as well as watching the seals. There are also breathtaking views across to the mainland though, for me, one of the island’s most fascinating aspects is its history.
Occupied like the other islands, from the earliest times, it was the home some 1500 years ago of St Stinan (Justinian), who retreated there to escape the sinful ways of mainland life. Unfortunately his followers found his religious disciplines so severe that they beheaded him. Undeterred, the saint picked up his severed head and walked back across the waters to what is now St Justinian’s, where he collapsed. Where his head struck the ground, a spring of water gushed out. You can still see the spring, housed now in a little stone chamber.
We shouldn’t forget Caldey Island, which also has its population of seals. They are most easily seen from the cliffs near the lighthouse, on the southern tip of the island.
The landscape of Caldey is much softer than that of its sister island, probably because there are small groves of tree here and there and because it is farmed, rather than being maintained as a wildlife sanctuary. The white walls of the monastery, with its red roofs, lend it a Mediterranean appearance. There has been a monastic presence on Caldey since the 6th century, though the present order, The Reformed Order of Cistercian Monks, arrived in 1929.
You can happily spend a day on Caldey, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, paddling on the sands of Priory Beach and shopping for the chocolate, ice cream and perfumes and other goodies that are produced on the island.
One of my favourite places to spend a few contemplative minutes is the church of St Illtyd, adjacent to the Old Priory, with its ancient walls, stained glass windows and floor of pebbles worn by the feet of generations of worshippers.
The stillness is restful and I always pause to look at the Catuocuonas stone unearthed, so it is said, many years ago in the ruins of the Priory. Over 1200 years old it bears an inscription in Ogham which tells you that it is ‘The stone of Maglia-Dubracunas, the son of….but we shall never know who, as the dedication is incomplete. Like all Ogham inscriptions, this one is incised along the angle of two sides of the stone and reads upwards on the left and downwards on the right. Below it is a Latin inscription that asks you to pray for the soul of Catuoconus, though we do not know who Catuoconus was.
All the islands except Skokholm are open to visitors until the end of October, weather permitting, so if you are staying at Bluestone during that time then you are ideally placed to pay a visit to one of these magical places. Skokholm is closed because of ongoing building and maintenance work, but it should re-open in 2013.
There is however another group of islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire which you may never visit, though if you are extremely lucky, you may catch a glimpse of them. They are known as the Green Meadows of Enchantment by some, or as the Magical Isles by others. Lying to the west of Pembrokeshire, they are visible to mortal eyes only for a brief second. Legends tell us that occasionally in the past sailors were able to land on them, but when they returned to their boats, the islands would vanish from sight.
It was well known that the inhabitants of these mysterious realms would regularly attend the markets at Milford Haven and Laugharne. They always made their purchases without speaking a word and knew without being told how much each item cost.
There is said to be a patch of grass on St David’s Head which came originally from the islands. If you stand on it, you will be able to see the islands quite clearly. Nobody knows exactly where this grass grows, so the only way to find it is to keep walking back and forth until, suddenly, the islands appear far out at sea.