• Graham Watkins

The Mermaid of Cemaes Head


Peregrine was a fisherman, like his father and his grandfather before him, a hard workingman used to the harsh life of working the nets and braving the elements. He was not an educated man but he was a good fisherman. He understood the ways of the sea and its moods and he knew the best places to fish. Peregrine lived in St.

Dogmaels, a small fishing village near the mouth of the River Teifi. Each day he would set sail in his boat using the tide to take him over the bar in the mouth of the river and out to sea. In the summer the fishing was good and with fair weather Peregrine returned each evening with his boat, low in the water, laden with fish. In the winter when the wind blew from the west and the tides ran fast, fishing was difficult and dangerous. Despite the bad weather Peregrine and his friends had no choice but to set sail and trust in God to bring them home safely. Rarely would these stout fishermen stay home mending nets. Hungry children, empty bellies and faith made sure they were out in all weathers.

One beautiful August morning Peregrine left early before any of the other fishermen had risen from their beds. He set sail for Cemaes Head and started to drift with his nets almost under the jagged cliffs. He knew the herring would be running inshore around the headland. They did the same at this time every year. As the boat drifted he watched choughs mobbing herring gull nests on the cliff. Further out to sea, bottlenose dolphins were jumping and Peregrine wondered why they continually leapt out of the water flipping and twisting in the air.

Suddenly his nets went taught. Peregrine stopped daydreaming. There was serious work to do. The boat changed direction and started to move against the current. Carefully and very slowly Peregrine began to pull the net into the boat. He did not want to lose such a fine fish or damage his net. The fish was putting up a good fight and the boat started to shake as it sped through the water. Peregrine was soon soaked with spray and sweat as he eased the wet ropes into the boat. He could feel each tug from the fish; it was getting closer to the boat.

The battle between man and fish went on for hours until, with the sun high in the sky, the net slackened as the fish tired. With a final heave Peregrine pulled his catch into the boat. What he saw took his breath away. The tail was large with two fins covered with silver scales, gleaming in the sunlight; the body was that of a woman with a peach complexion and a head crowned with long golden hair.

Peregrine sat down in the stern of the boat to consider things. This is a fine catch he thought. Be she fish or woman, someone would pay a good price for such a creature. He looked around. During the struggle the boat had drifted far out to sea. There was no time to waste. Peregrine checked that his catch was secure, hoisted the sail and set a course taking him past Cardigan Island and home.

'Please let me go Peregrine,' whispered the creature, quietly. Peregrine hardly heard her. 'Please let me go Peregrine,' she whispered again. Peregrine stared at the creature.

'Why should I?' he asked.

'My mouth is dry and my scales are cracking. Please let me go Peregrine or I will die,' she said.

Peregrine looked at the creature trussed up in his nets. She was limp and forlorn. Suddenly, he felt sorry for her. A wave of guilt and revulsion for what he was doing swept over him. Peregrine pulled out his knife, cut the nets and eased the creature gently over the side of the boat. She disappeared beneath the water and he sat there confused. Was it all a dream? He collected his thoughts, tidied the nets and reset the sail to catch the wind. As the boat slowly got under way the mermaid suddenly emerged and pulled herself up on the gunwale.

'Peregrine, you are a good man and one day I will repay your kindness,' she said then submerged and, with a flash of silver, swam away. Back in St. Dogmaels Peregrine told no one about his encounter with the mermaid. Who would believe such a fisherman’s tall tale?

The months passed and Peregrine, eager to see the mermaid again, often fished at Cemaes Head. By October the weather had deteriorated and the Head, with its strong winds and winter tides, was no place to be. The fishing boats from St. Dogmaels stayed closer together now and looked for calmer water to cast their nets in. One fateful morning the boats were just leaving the protection of the lee shore of Carreg Aderyn when Peregrine felt a jerk and his boat listed to starboard. A head crowned with long golden hair appeared over the gunwale.

'Peregrine, you must turn back. Peregrine, you must turn back. Peregrine, you must turn back,' she said three times and without waiting for an answer or a question, vanished back into the water. Peregrine started to wave to the fishermen in the nearest boat.

'Turn about. We must go back,' he yelled, but they ignored him. He tried again. 'We must not fish today,' he cried but the others, now further out to sea, did not hear his cries and sailed on into open water.

Peregrine pushed the tiller over and, running before the wind, was soon back in the estuary and safely tied up in St. Dogmaels. The fishing fleet sailed out past Cemaes Head where, without land to protect them, a storm hit with its full force and many brave fishermen lost their lives.

The legend of Peregrine and the mermaid is based on events that took place in the 18th Century which are recorded in St. Dogmaels Parish Church. On the 30th September 1789 the fishing fleet was close inshore near Allt y Coed Farm and sheltering from a strong, steady southwesterly wind. Nets had been raised and the boats had a good catch of herring on board. They were waiting for the rising tide to carry them over the bar and into St. Dogmaels. Without warning the wind started to blow from the northwest so that the fishing boats had no land to offer protection from the full force of the gale. The sea quickly grew mountainous and many of the fishing boats were wrecked on the rocks. Others floundered and sank.

One fisherman however, who lived at Cwmmins, St. Dogmaels, read the weather signs correctly that day and did not put to sea. He stayed home, safe and warm in his cottage that day. His name was Peregrine. Altogether, 27 local fishermen died in the storm, a devastating calamity for such a small and tight knit community.