The Isle of Skye takes its name from the old Norse sky-a meaning ‘cloud island’, a Viking reference to Cuillin Hills, which can be seen often enveloped in a sea of mist.
The second-largest of Scotland’s many islands, Skye brags a 50-mile patchwork of velvet moors, ragged peaks, sparkling lochs and towering sea cliffs.
Stories of fairies, water horses, and seal people entrench the long history of fishing culture across these islands.
According to folklore, the Asrai are aquatic fairies living in seas, lakes and lochs. Like mermaids or nixies, they are sometimes described as timid and live for hundreds of years, coming up to the surface of the water once each century to bathe in the moonlight. They can change into any animal they want, often taking the form of seals or land mammals.
The story of Mary of Ollisdal by George Macpherson perfectly summarises the magic surrounding the Islands and the people’s connection to the sea.
The story is about a shepherd’s wife, Mary, who lives up by the coast in a cottage with her goat, growing potatoes, oats and corn. Despite others calling her silly for believing in the local fairies, Mary is fond of them. Every night, she leaves a wee offering for the little people, of oatmeal or sugar.
One winter, snow blizzards come suddenly and heavily, laying several feet deep. Another shepherd lives nearby with his pony and worries for his friend Mary. He heads across the hills with his pony and some provisions, but all he can see is the top of Mary’s chimney. As they come down the mountain, they see a great red fox come out of the chimney and run away across the snow. He’s sure Mary is dead.
But when he gets to the chimney, he drops down and surprisedly finds Mary sitting by the smoking fire. “Oh, Mary, I was sure I would find your body, after the fox had nibbled on it.”
“Oh no no,” Mary said, “that darling fox has been bringing me a rabbit, grouse or hare every few days since the snows started. It’s a lovely great fox.”
As the shepherd returns over the hills, he realises that perhaps it wasn’t a great fox but the fairies repaying their debt to Mary.
This story and many others demonstrate the ancient culture of fishing and caring for the land and its inhabitants across these Islands.
Fishing is more than a job for many people; it’s an entire way of life.
The spread of industrial fishing displaced people who relied on traditional fishing methods.
This situation could not be remedied by simply transferring workers to another plant; a community’s way of life reflects how they see themselves as a whole.
Kelp farming represents a way for coastal communities to remain in touch with the sea while reviving a rich tradition and creating sustainable jobs for Skye’s inhabitants, regardless of the species.
It creates a tidy profit but also helps restore local ocean habitats. Research has shown that Kelp attracts seals. Research is yet to show if it attracts seal people, but I’m sure the Isle of Skye will be the place to find out once the Kelp farms are up and running!
Maybe we could all learn to be a little more like Mary and look out for the little species around us!
As our knowledge of the benefits of using sustainable materials and improving our ecosystems increases, we can only hope that the fairies will be pleased.