The Word on the Street
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Child prodigies, mermaids, cannibals, 10-stone babies! Perhaps we shouldn't scoff at the strange tales that captivated the readers of early broadsides, for today's tabloids still thrive on our love of the grey area between fact and fiction.

Maybe it is easier to understand why 200 years ago or so broadside accounts of mermaids and other such manifestations would have been believed by a large section of the population. Superstition and folk-memory lingered longer in Scotland than other parts of Britain and indeed Europe.

Detail from mermaid broadside
Mermaid At Cromarty!
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Mermaid At Cromarty!

This broadside, which probably dates from the mid-18th century, gives a detailed report of a mermaid's appearance off the Cromarty coast.

It is written and presented as if it were news. It includes dates, and names places and individuals to give the impression that it was a real event.

But more than likely it was just an elaborate hoax that tapped into the superstitions of the time.


Baby illustration from broadside
10-Stone Baby!
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10-Stone Baby!

This was truly an incredible story - an 11-month old baby boy weighing just under 10 stone. The infant is described by the unknown author as 'one of the greatest wonders ever witnessed among the human race' and his existence was verified by 'great numbers of persons ... of the most respectable order'.

Belonging to a 'respectable family' in Cambusnethan, near Glasgow, the child is reported to be not much taller than others of his age, but 'his thickness is the principal object which strikes the attention of the beholder.'

He was famous enough for his death in 1821 - at 17 months old - to be reported in the newspapers.

The Female Foot Boy broadside
Female Foot Boy!
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Female Foot Boy!

This is a rattling good yarn from the 1820's which would not look out of place in a modern tabloid. It concerns a young woman who had to dress as a man to earn a living.

When her true identity was discovered, she was forced into marrying an unmarried mother - a bizarre arrangement which happily did not prove to be permanent!

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National Library of Scotland 2004

National Library of Scotland