A story is told of an inhabitant of Unst, who, in walking on the sandy margin of a voe, saw a number of mermen and mermaids dancing by moonlight, and several sealskins strewed beside them on the ground. At his approach they immediately fled to secure their garbs, and, taking upon themselves the form of seals, plunged immediately into the sea. But as the Shetlander perceived that one skin lay close to his feet, he snatched it up, bore it swiftly away, and placed it in concealment.
On returning to the shore he met the fairest damsel that was ever gazed upon by mortal eyes, lamenting the robbery, by which she had become an exile from her submarine friends, and a tenant of the upper world. Vainly she implored the restitution of her property. The man had drunk deeply of love, and was inexorable; but he offered her protection beneath his roof as his betrothed spouse. The merlady, perceiving that she must become an inhabitant of the earth, found that she could not do better than accept of the offer.
This strange attachment subsisted for many years, and the couple had several children. The Shetlander’s love for his merwife was unbounded, but his affection was coldly returned. The lady would often steal alone to the desert strand, and, on a signal being given, a large seal would make his appearance, with whom she would hold, in an unknown tongue, an anxious conference.
Years had thus glided away, when it happened that one of the children, in the course of his play, found concealed beneath a stack of corn a seal’s skin; and, delighted with the prize, he ran with it to his mother. Her eyes glistened with rapture — she gazed upon it as her own — as the means by which she could pass through the ocean that led to her native home. She burst forth into an ecstasy of joy, which was only moderated when she beheld her children, whom she was now about to leave; and, after hastily embracing them, she fled with all speed towards the seaside.
The husband immediately returned, learned the discovery that had taken place, ran to overtake his wife, but only arrived in time to see her transformation of shape completed — to see her, in the form of a seal, bound from the ledge of a rock into the sea. The large animal of the same kind with whom she had held a secret converse soon appeared, and evidently congratulated her, in the most tender manner, on her escape. But before she dived to unknown depths, she cast a parting glance at the wretched Shetlander, whose despairing looks excited in her breast a few transient feelings of commiseration.
“Farewell!” said she to him “and may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I resided upon earth, but I always loved my first husband much better.”
This story is a traditional Shetland story, edited by W. W. Gibbings and David Price. Published in Folk-Lore and Legends: Scotland (London: W. W. Gibbings, 1889), pp. 86-88. Retrieved from Project Gutenburg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17071/17071-h/17071-h.htm
I left this story unedited, as I appreciated the relationship between the man and his wife. He held her against her will, forced her to be his wife, and she later escaped to rejoin her family underwater. For my retelling of a similar story, visit: http://littlebrownwren.com/2014/05/06/the-merrow-of-gollerus/