The mermaid of Tiree — engaging with local historyAugust 11th, 2020 By Douglas Roberts
In the late summer of 1793, on the island of Tiree off the west coast of Scotland, two young girls stumbled across a body washed up on the beach at Grianal. Unsure of what to do, they fetched the local farmer, Colin MacNiven, who returned to the beach with the girls and some of his servants and lifted the body from the stony shore. To MacNiven, the body appeared to be that of a young man, somewhere between twelve and fourteen years of age, who had been severed in two at the waist. Instead of legs, his lower half resembled a large, flat-forked tail with porpoise-like skin.
Concerned that the body would be attacked by dogs or otherwise injured, MacNiven loaded the corpse into a barrow and carried it to a nearby sandbank, where he buried it and marked the place with gravestones at the head and fin.
Soon after, stories of the 'Tiry mermaid' began to spread locally, one of several such mermaid sightings that were recorded in Kintyre and the islands at the time. Over time, it became part of the region’s folklore.
Saved by some yellowed parchment
The story of the 'Tiry Mermaid' might have ended there, as an addendum to the larger mythology of merfolk around the world, if it weren’t for a yellowed paper parchment preserved in the archive of the Argyll Estate. This document, the official record of a court deposition held on the island of Tiree some eighteen years after the girls found the body on the beach, describes how James Maxwell Esq, one of the King’s Justices of the Peace, invited Colin MacNiven to tell his story under oath on August 11th 1812.
Colin’s account goes into almost forensic detail about the nature and state of the mermaid’s body. So intrigued was the magistrate that he asked the farmer to show him the grave. Accompanied by Maxwell’s son Neil, a doctor, they opened the grave, examined the skeleton, and confirmed that it matched Colin MacNiven’s description.
The document stands on its own, with no context or follow-up, no further explanation of why the deposition happened, or what anybody else made of the story.
A document, story, and drama to engage students
I read the document in my role as education consultant for an archives outreach project on Tiree in May 2019. Working with a class of 11-year-olds at the local primary school, I decided to engage the children with this mysterious document through drama.
The children had the opportunity to see, learn about and carefully handle the original document, and to read aloud a transcript of Colin MacNiven’s actual words. Using these words, we created a short performance of the whole story, which the class presented at a community event at the close of the archives exhibition week.
We created still images of the girls finding the body, imagining their facial expressions and stances. We re-enacted their rushing to tell the nearby farmer, finding words to convince him of their unlikely story. We discussed the children’s own experiences of being believed or disbelieved. And we re-enacted the deposition hearing, where the farmer MacNiven is formally sworn in before the magistrate, asked to speak his story slowly and clearly, questioned sharply and asked to provide proof. Finally, we recreated the journey to the gravesite and the examination of the skeleton as a short performance, improvising dialogue that might have taken place.
Several of the students lived near Grianal beach and were able to tell us about items they have found washed up there (luckily, no skeletons), often entangled in the long thick leaves of kelp that adorn the Tiree beaches.
There was wide-ranging speculative discussion in the class about what the body 'really' was and what 'really' happened, through which we were able to explore the reliability of original records, the nature of primary and secondary sources, and the lenses through which we view history.
The class followed up the work with investigations into:
- similar stories from the island’s history
- the legacy of shipwrecks and storms on that wild part of Scotland’s coast
- the importance of the kelp industry to western Scotland’s development and survival in the 19th century
- the national role of local magistrates, and
- the effect of rising sea levels.
The original story leaves many unanswered questions, and this was also a valuable lesson about the nature of historical evidence.
Grianal beach is only a couple of miles from Tiree school. It continues to act as a connection point for those children into the mermaid story and outward to the wider history of Tiree and Scotland.
Using drama to create connections
I use drama as a medium through which students at every stage of primary and secondary education can gain an imaginative and emotional connection to records of local people, places, and stories from history.
With this connection, I find they can engage more fully with sources, information and data, investigating and discussing, making links with their existing knowledge. This drama work can be simple but powerful — creating still images, improvising dialogue, embodying characters, reading aloud the actual words of real people long dead.
Local history as an access point
In Scotland, as in New Zealand, using local history as an access point to the wider stories of the country’s history is becoming a key methodology in the classroom. Local archives and libraries contain a wealth of material with direct relevance to students’ daily experience of their local area. Even a single document — a photograph, poster, map, letter, or official record — can be the starting point for historical projects and research, and digitisation of records is revolutionising access to these sources.
The renewed focus on New Zealand’s history in schools is an opportunity for educators and learners to find these local access points in the archives and libraries of material held in each of the regions and in national repositories such as the National Library of New Zealand, Alexander Turnbull Library, and Archives New Zealand.
Much of our human historical record is mysterious, incomplete, contested. Is there a mermaid buried under the sands of Tiree?
Like the body on the beach, original sources can offer as many questions as answers, but they provide us with a dramatic way into the past that engages and inspires students to keep looking and see what else they can dig up.
Find out more
Case study: Argyll Estates Archive, Inveraray (pdf, 1.5KB) — Douglas’ continuing work with Argyll Estates on Tiree.
Friends of the Argyll Papers — more about Argyll Estates and the Argyll papers.
Education and learning — Douglas’ work as an Education Officer for the Scottish Council on Archives.
Theatre of Remembrance — another of Douglas’s drama-based projects.
ArchI've Learnt — original source analysis worksheets for primary and secondary students.