I tell stories for a living, not just folk stories, historical ones too. I use historical objects to help me to tell these stories and travel all over Scotland with the Travelling Museum, telling the stories related to objects and traditions of Scotland. In December the Travelling Museum received a wonderful donation: an article with images and illustrations of Greenlandic people in the 1800’s.
These illustrations are by Lars Møller, who in 1861 became printer, editor, lithographer and
journalist of the first Greenlandic newspaper “Atuagagdliutit” which translates to “distributed reading matter” and was one of the first illustrated newspapers in the world.
There’s a few reasons why illustrations of Greenlandic people relate to Scottish history, not least of all our late involvement in the Whaling industry. However, as a Folklorist, it’s the connection and commonalities between Scottish and Greenlandic folklore that made these illustrations such an important part of the Travelling Museum. We have similarities in beliefs regarding; the aurora borealis, traditional stories of animals and tricksters and also, goddesses of the sea. And when Greenlandic people were first seen on Scottish coasts, we instantly connected them to our folklore of the Finnfolk.
For centuries stories were told in Orkney and Shetland of a race of people who lived in and
under the sea, the Finnfolk (now mostly spelt Finfolk). Orkney and Shetland were a part of Denmark until the 15th century and tales of the Finnfolk came from Scandinavian superstitions about the Sami people, not Greenlandic people at all. Folk stories have a habit of travelling and incorporating local details where they land, though, and that certainly happened with our Finnfolk stories, which took on Scottish nuances.
In Orkney and Shetland Finnfolk were said to be wizards, capable of shapeshifting into
whales, and seals whenever they wished. They dressed in skins, sailed boats made of skins and stole human husbands and wives from the shores. The stories in Orkney and Shetland served as warnings for children to be fearful and respectful of the sea. And then, one day in 1682 the people of the Island of Eda saw in the sea a man, dressed in skins, sailing a boat made of skins, darting through the waves like a seal, fishing. He was, to the people watching from the shore, a real man of the Finnfolk. He was, in reality, a Greenlandic person, miles from home, navigating notoriously rough seas in a kayak.
Much has been written on the first contact of our cultures, too much to go into here, so
instead I’d like to share with you two stories: one is Scottish, one is from Greenland.
Both are about the power, majesty and mystery of the sea, something which our peoples
have shared a respect for throughout history and folklore…
This story was collected from the peoples at Smith Sound, Greenland by Knud Rasmussen
(1879-1933), a Greenlandic – Danish polar explorer who grew up among the Kalaallit. It was
first published in 1919. Nerrivik A great wizard wanted to marry a woman and so he did his best to make himself look very fine. He made a sealskin coat and spectacles made from walrus tusk. He brought the woman to his home and caught her many many fish. One day he lost his spectacles and his wife cried because he didn’t look so handsome without them. Meanwhile the woman’s brothers had decided they missed their sister and while the wizard was out hunting they took their sister away from the wizards house, back with them in their boat.
Thinking his wife had been stolen the wizard transformed himself into a huge bird and with
his wings he raised a violent storm. The boat began to take on water and the wizard beat his wings harder until the boat with his wife and her brothers was almost capsizing in the massive waves and sea foam. Her brothers blamed her for the storm and so the cast her into the sea. She grasped the side of the boat but her brother cut off her hand and she drowned and sank to the bottom of the sea. However, at the bottom of the sea she became Nerrivik, ruler of all the creatures in the sea. And when people can’t catch a seal, the wizards swim down to Nerrivik and comb her hair for her. And she sends seals and other creatures back to man. That is the story of Nerrivik, ruler of the sea, who gives man food.
In Scottish folklore our sea goddess is related to the Cailleach Bheur, a hag called
Muireartach, from the older Gaelic name Muircheartach. There are variations of stories
about a powerful sea goddess all over Scotland from Shoney in the Hebrides to Gentle
Annie in the Cromarty Firth. This one is the best known and dates around the 13th century:
Muireartach is the sea personified. She has one eye in the middle of her head and huge jaws, full of red, crooked teeth. On days when she is calm, the sea is calm and she calls out to all who would join her in the water. The fish are plentiful and the people happy, well fed. But, when she is in a rage she is to be feared, she is watery punishing death.
One story tells how she heard the Fionn Macumhaill had taken the Victory Cup, which provided food and supplies. She left the sea and became an old woman, pulling a tree out of the ground, stripping it of its branches and using it as a stick. She knocked on the door of Fionn Macumhaill pretending to seek shelter. Fionn did not believe her and locked the doors. She destroyed these with a swish of her hand, took the cup and returned to the sea.
For a wee video story related to this article, find us on Instagram.
Eileen Budd is an artist & storyteller raised in Perthshire amid a rich oral storytelling culture. She has been working with museums for nearly 20 years, using storytelling as a way of interpreting and sharing knowledge of history and Scottish folk tradition. Her fully illustrated book ‘Ossian Warrior Poet’ and mini book ‘Scottish Druids’ can be bought here: https://wideopensea.co.uk/ossian/. Eileen hosts regular public storytelling events as well as events with schools. You can keep track of what she’s up to online: www.ossianwarriorpoet.com and on Instagram: @eileenbudd.