Scottish folklore is filled with creatures, both fascinating and terrifying, that are meant to instil a sense of meaning in the magical world around us. The Bean-Nighe is sometimes referred to as the washer woman of the road, or the Nigheag na hath, depending on which tale features it as one of these creatures. In general, though, they are seen as a negative force similar to a banshee or woods witch.

Each story that revolves around the Bean-Nighe enforces a moral or fact of life that was valued in Scotland, like many stories in Scottish folklore.

Facts and Appearance

The Bean-Nighe is seen usually as a female spirit or fairy woman, although her appearance tends to closely resemble the warty witches in the contemporary setting. She’s seen as a squat figure resembling a washerwoman washing clothes, with a hooked nose and unusually long breasts.

In addition to a very hag-like appearance, the Bean-Nighe sometimes sports red webbed feet, abundant seaweed in their hair, and has a horrid reek coming from her body.

Folklore and Powers

Folklore & Powers

Folklorists offer amazing insight into the common trends of the Bean-Nighe and her role in folklore. For example, in Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, folklorist Donald Mackenzie writes that the Bean-Nighe spirit would sometimes plague their victims with a mournful song if the person were seemingly about to meet a particularly violent end (scary!).

In other versions, you could actually catch the Bean-Nighe to receive three wishes, similar to a genie. It’s truly interesting how some of these stories have similar trends to folk tales halfway across the world.

As for the origins of the Bean-Nighe, John Gregorson Campell believes that the Scottish Gaelic legend stems from the spirit of a woman who died during childbirth. Rather tragically, the woman is now committed to the desolate streams of the Scottish Highlands until she passes.

The only method to avert this curse involves washing every piece of the deceased woman’s attire. If one happens to come across the Bean-Nighe and carefully and respectfully approaches her, she may bestow wisdom or fulfil a wish. Numerous tales are tied to her existence with many variations of her behaviour and appearance depending on the locality.

Stories around Bean-Nighe

Picture this: you’re wandering the woods and find yourself close to a crips Highland stream. There, you spot an old woman who looks like she’s washing clothes in the water. Something about the encounter is deeply unsettling, and you’re unsure of what is going on. As you make your way downstream, you hear a sudden noise and final chortle before life leaves you.

The Bean-Nighe is frequently considered to be an omen of death that you can’t escape. If you pay close attention to the washer woman, you may notice that she’s washing bloodstained clothes. Pretty spooky, right? Well in many of the stories that surround the Bean-Nighe, she’s considered t be a sign you are about to die in Scottish and Irish folklore.

Here are some more tales that feature this unique Scottish fairy.

The Mermaid of Loch Slin

Mermaid of Loch Slin

In the Mermaid of Loch Slin, the Bean Nighe features as a mermard. It’s said that one Sunday morning, a lass (that’s Scottish for girl) is walking alongside the picturesque Loch Slin. As she turns the corner, she encounters a towering woman standing in the water, busily washing garments on a stone. Littering the nearby ground were over thirty clothes, all marred with blood stains. Although the lass found the sight peculiar, she continued on her journey.

Tragedy falls later as the lass realises that this took place before a tragic accident at the local Fearn Abby. The abbey’s roof had collapsed inwards, which resulted in the death of 36 people. More peculiar and tragic still is that in 1742 the roof of the abbey did collapse!

The Bean-Nighe and Clanranald

A while back in Scottish history, clan chieftains would have people attending them called gillies. They have various tasks, such as carrying their chiefs over streams. One of these gillies was on their way home when they encountered a Bean-Nighe at a lochside.

The folklorist, Alexander Carmichael, recollects the interaction between the two as follows:

‘ Gille-cas-fliuch ‘ went gently and quietly behind ‘ nigheag ‘ and seized her in his hand.

” Let me go,” said ‘ nigheag,’ ” and give me the freedom of my feet, and that the breeze of reek coming from thy grizzled tawny beard is anear putting a stop to the breath of my throat. Much more would my nose prefer, and much rather would my heart desire, the air of the fragrant incense of the mist of the mountains.”

” I will not allow thee away,” said gille-cas-fliuch, “till thou promise me my three choice desires.”

“Let me hear them, ill man,” said ‘nigheag.’

“That thou tell to me for whom thou art washing the shroud and crooning the dirge, that thou wilt give me my choice spouse, and thou wilt keep abundant seaweed in the creek of our townland as long as the carle of Sgeir-rois shall continue his moaning.”

” I am washing the shroud and crooning the dirge for Great Clanranald of the Isles, and he shall never again in his living life of the world go thither nor come hither across the clachan of Diinbuidhe.”

Hearing the story, the gillie ran to Clanranald and told him exactly what he heard. Upon hearing the story, Clanranald made a hard round leap onto his feet and ordered that a cow be felled and that a little coracle be made ready. It happened, and Clanranald went to the loch, although he never returned.

Bean-Nighe in Scotland

The tales of the Bean-Nighe vary depending on where you are in Scotland. Here are two versions of the washer woman that differ slightly from the tales mentioned above.

The Isle of Skye

The Bean-Nighe who was said to haunt the Isle of Skye resembled a small child. If a person spotted her first, she would reveal their fate to them, but they must also truthfully answer any questions she might ask. However, should this Bean-Nighe spot the person first, then they would lose the use of their limbs.

Isle of Islay

On Islay, there was said to be a Bean-Nighe who showed many similarities to Caoineag. The Caoineag was another Banshee-type character, another washer woman who despised interruptions so much that if you disturbed her, she would thrash your legs with a water-soaked plaid until your legs no longer worked.

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