“The Irish Washerwoman” is a traditional Irish jig. It’s fun. The Scottish Washerwoman, or Bean Nighe, is decidedly not. Like her cousins, the Irish Banshee and the Scottish Bean Sith, she is a messenger of death. Usually, she appears at a stream or ford, washing blood from the clothes of the soon-to-be-deceased. She is an old hag, dressed in rags. Her hair is scraggly. Pointed teeth stick out of her mouth, and her long breasts hang down. (Take note: those breasts are important!) The Bean Nighe may seem frail, but avoid tangling with this Faerie! Some say that, if you get close to her, she will strike you with a stick or even a piece of clothing, causing paralysis of whatever body part she hits. There is, however, a way to get her on your side. But it involves getting very close to her. It is said that if you suck one of her breasts, you can then claim her protection as her foster-child. Yeah, good luck with that!
The Scottish Brownie, though, is one Faerie you might want around. Similar to the Irish Grognoch, Brownies will help with the household chores and duties around the farm, wanting only a bit of cream or food as payment. Similar to their Irish cousins, Brownies are short and hairy. They wear no clothing except, occasionally, a cap or dirty rags. Unlike Grognochs, who tend to get underfoot, Brownies work at night while the humans sleep, cleaning, milking the cow, gathering the eggs, and so forth. Grognochs are exclusively male, but in the case of Brownies, there are females as well as males.
Meg Mullach (aka Maggie Moloch) is a famous Brownie of Scottish folklore. Her son will be of interest to Harry Potter fans. He was a Dobie. But, unlike the House Elf from Harry Potter, that wasn’t his name. It was Brown-Clod. He simply was a type of well-meaning but slow-witted Brownie called a Dobie. In the J. K. Rowling books, House Elves are slaves to the family they serve but can be set free if the master presents them with an article of clothing. This comes up in some versions of the lore about Brownies too. However, other variants say Brownies will become insulted if they are given clothes. As a result, the Brownie will refuse to work anymore for the family and will leave.
At least, hopefully he just will leave. As with any Faerie, it’s never a good idea to insult a Brownie. Tales tell of Brownies who got upset at being given clothes or who felt taken advantage of (for example, one farmer let his farm hands go and left all the work to the Brownie). Instead of just going away, these Brownies responded by throwing dishes around and making a mess of the house before they left. Even worst, some stayed. But they turned
into Boggarts, not the kind which, in Harry Potter, could be laughed away. These Brownies-turned-Boggarts are similar to poltergeists. They break things, hide things, and pull mean pranks. And they are not easy to get rid of. In fact, when the family tries to get some peace by moving to a new residence, these Boggarts follow them so as to keep harassing them.
The Welsh have their own house Faeries: the Bwbach. They are industrious and quite similar to Brownies. Don’t anger them, though, because they have violent tempers and, like insulted Brownies, will turn destructive. Also make sure you have a store of alcohol in the house as, it is said, Bwbachs detest teal-totalers.
All three Celtic cultures—the Irish, Scots, and Welsh—have folk stories about Water Horses. These Faeries are shape-shifters and they should be avoided at all costs. They are murderous and, in some cases, cannibalistic, towards humans. The Scottish Each Uisge, like its Irish counterpart, the Capall Uisge, lives in the sea. It comes on shore and shape-shifts into a magnificent horse or a cute little pony to lure its prey. (The pony form is used to catch children). Once caught, the human is torn to pieces and eaten by the Water Horse. To capture women, this Faerie sometimes appears as a handsome young man.
The Kelpie is a Water Horse who inhabits Scottish lochs and streams. Often it appears as an attractive young woman, sitting on a rock, and dangling her bare feet in the water. Most often,
though, this Faerie assumes the shape of a horse and lures her victims into riding her. Once on her back the person is stuck, unable to get off. The Kelpie then gallops into the water and drowns the rider. Afterwards, she eats the corpse.
Ceffyl Dwr is the Welsh Water horse. This one can fly. Once it reaches a good height, it tosses the victim off, leaving the person to fall to his or her demise. The Ceffyl Dwr doesn’t eat its victims. It seems to kill humans just for fun.
So the next time you’re in Scotland, Ireland, or Wales and you see a beautiful horse or cute little pony, resist the urge to ride it. Even if there is no body of water in sight. (Remember the Cffyl Dwr can fly). If you encounter a Brownie, offer it some cream, but definitely don’t offer clothes. Don’t anger a Bwbach. Oh yes, and if you see an old lady washing bloody clothes by a stream…move on. Quickly!
After three weeks of scary faeries, it’s time for a happy subject. Next week’s blog will be Lughnasa: Celebrating the Harvest.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments. What is your favorite Celtic Faerie (from the last three posts or from other reading, oral tradition, etc.) and why? Until next week, slan!
There is a new blog post every Friday.
Just sign up with your first name and email to get the posts delivered to your inbox. The sign up button is in the upper right corner of this page.