April 2016. A chill spring walk on the beach at Balnakiel Bay up at Durness rooted out deep old memories from me. It was cold enough for the pale white sand to feel like snow underfoot, and the wind was singing across broad space. It is an open and inviting place even in these conditions, but there are still quiet corners for concealment among the marram grass dunes.
We searched for who-knows-what in those small peaks and valleys of sand, and finally found the treasure we were looking for: a mermaid’s purse. A common find up here, but precious nonetheless. It is still displayed on our bookshelf along with skulls and devil’s toenails. The mystery and fragility of it is enchanting. If I had not known what it was, I would never have guessed. Perhaps I might have assumed it was a type of seaweed. A buoyant pod comparable to those of bladderwrack.
Fortunately, like most people I knew that it was an egg case from a ray or skate. These are cartilaginous fish related to the sharks. It was this connection which sent my mind swirling back to my visit in London to the Grant museum of Zoology. I learnt there about the mythical yet conversely tangible creature known as a Jenny Haniver. They essentially are the mutilated and desiccated corpse of a skate or similar reconceived as demons, basilisks or dragons. An exercise in the intriguing pseudoscience of Cryptozoology, it was presumably, and may still be in some parts of the world, a nice little earner on the side for sailors and fishermen who would sell these curiosities to gullible naturalists and wide eyed collectors. There must have been quite a skill involved in the dissection and reassembly of the fish, and I can imagine young apprentices being shown the method by a kindly old tar. Regardless of the skill and effort put into their production, the experts weren’t often fooled. Conrad Gessner, a Swiss naturalist featured one in his 1550’s book Historia Animalium, but warned against their authenticity.
I’m glad that the practice is rare these days. Fish are always better when they’re alive and living naturally, but there is something endearingly weird about Jenny Hanivers. Far from being the terrifying monsters they were intended to represent, they often have cheeky smiles and friendly open arms. But there is a duality to them. They also represent the mystery and terror of the depths not only of the sea, but our own psyche.
Even today, with their half-knowing grin, they blithely mark the boundary of scientific understanding.