FELL FREE to smoke a pipe or whistle a sea shanty if it helps get you in the mood.
You’re a God-fearing man, and you believe absolutely in the teachings of the church.
You also believe in the existence of ghosts and witches. Your world consists of your town, your boat and the grey, choppy waters of the North Sea. One fine day, as you’re trawling along a deserted bit of coastline a few miles north of Aberdeen, you glance towards the shore and see what looks like a man’s head half-buried in the sand. You persuade your captain to beach the boat and, sure enough, as you get nearer to the high tide line you realise it is indeed a man you’ve spotted. But this man isn’t like any man you’ve seen before. Apart from his face, his entire body is clad in sealskin, and he’s sitting in a strange, narrow, sealskin boat. He’s obviously been here for some time, because the action of the tide has left him almost completely engulfed in sand and seaweed. He’s breathing in short, shallow gasps, and when he sees you he starts speaking in a language you don’t understand.
The man who washed up near Aberdeen in 1728 was in fact an Inuit, a native of Greenland who had travelled more than 1,000 miles from his home. His kayak is still in the collection of the University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum. There’s no record of whether the crew of the fishing boat believed him to be a ghost or a devil or a visitor from another planet, but they loaded him onto a wooden cart and brought him to a nearby house where, in spite of the best efforts of the local people, he died three days later.
Norman Rogers, 62, a retired civil engineer and keen endurance kayaker, had long been intrigued by the mystery of the Aberdeen kayak man, and when an unexpected illness forced him to spend a long spell out of the water a few years ago, he used the opportunity to find out more. The resulting book, Searching for the Finmen, has just been released by Matador. It’s a fascinating read, and it comes to some startling conclusions about how not just one but many Inuit may have crossed the Atlantic in their fragile sealskin boats in the 17th and 18th centuries.
To put the Aberdeen Inuit’s journey in perspective, one of the most notable kayak journeys of recent times was the record-breaking 256-mile paddle from Stornoway to the Faroe Isles completed by Patrick Winterton and Mick Berwick in 2009. Winterton and Berwick had modern kayaks and modern kit, yet they were right at the limits of their (very considerable) endurance after 250 miles. How could anyone possibly have managed to paddle a kayak four times that distance?
At the time the Aberdeen Inuit washed up, it was common for European explorers and whalers to bring back examples of “primitive peoples” from other parts of the globe to impress wealthy patrons or sell as sideshow attractions. Many Inuit were captured in this way, and there are even records of some escaping, wriggling into their kayaks and paddling for home. Rogers argues convincingly that the Aberdeen Inuit may have been one such escapee. However, he also believes that other Inuit may have travelled from Greenland to the Orkney islands at around the same time. There are various records of so-called “finmen” arriving in “fish skin” boats in the islands between 1680 and 1700, and these dates coincide with the first of three particularly cold snaps in the period of global cooling known as The Little Ice Age. With major European port cities such as London frozen up all winter long, the pack ice in the North Atlantic would have extended much further south than it does today, potentially allowing bands of Inuit hunters to move along its edge from west to east, searching for new food sources as their traditional hunting grounds disappeared. Rogers believes this may well have led to a community of Inuit living on the remote island of Suleskerry, just west of the Orkney islands, at around this time. And if that’s the case, he wonders, might this be where the selkie myth originated? Certainly there can be few things that look more like a half-man, half-seal than an Inuit hunter wearing sealskin clothes and paddling around in a sealskin boat.