It’s a dark evening and you find yourself wandering in the gloom along the side of a little Scottish highland stream. Suddenly you see some movement down near the water and spot an old woma washing clothes in the stream. You may be tempted to wander down to the side of the stream and pass the time of day before making your way home, but this would be a big mistake, because the old woman is a dreaded bean-nighe.
The bean-nighe, Scottish Gaelic for “washerwoman” or “laundress”, is a female spirit in Scottish folklore, regarded as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld, and also has a French equivelant, Les Lavandières.
She is type of ban-sìthe (a banshee, a female spirit in Irish folklore who heralds the death of a family member, usually by wailing, shrieking, or keening), found near streams and rivers.
If you chance to see her by a lonely pool of water, she will be washing the blood from the clothes and death shrouds of those who are about to die.
In fact, she foretells death and is also a messenger, imparting knowledge or the granting of wishes if approached cautiously.
As story goes the mnathan-nighe, plural for bean-nighe, are the spirits of women who died giving birth and are doomed to perform their tasks until the day their lives would have normally ended. It was also believed that this fate could be avoided if all the clothing left by the deceased woman had been washed.
Otherwise, she would have to finish this task after death.
As you might expect the Bean Nighe wouldn’t win many prizes in a beauty competition even if, depending on the area of Scotland, she is described differently.
In Perthshire, for example, she is always dressed in green and is a small round, fat woman while, on the Isle of Skye she is also said to be small and squat, often passing as a pitiful child, rather than an old woman. On Mull and Tiree, on the other hand, she is said to have unusually long breasts that interfere with her washing so she throws them over her shoulders and lets them hang down her back.
She is sometimes described as having various physical defects including having only one nostril, a large protruding front tooth, or red webbed feet.
In any case the creature is so absorbed in her washing and singing a mournful dirge for those about to die that she can be caught, and this too varies on what part of Scotland you are in, as does what she does upon being caught.
In some places she is caught simply by putting yourself between her and the stream. In other tales, you must sneak up on her and grab her by surprise, without her noticing you while, on Mull and Tiree, a person can sneak up on the ban-nighe and take hold of one of her breasts, put it in their mouth, and claim to be her foster-child. She will then reveal whatever knowledge they want.
Moreover, if she says the clothing she is washing belongs to an enemy they can allow the washing to continue, but if it belongs to them or any of their friends you can stop her from completing her task and avoid their fate. However, if she sees the person first she will take one of their limbs as punishment.
On Skye, if a person catches her, she will reveal that person’s ultimate fate. She answers all questions asked of her, but the person must also truthfully answer hers in return.
If the bean-nighe sees them first then they will lose the use of their limbs.
Other tales tell that if a person captures her she will reveal who is about to die and will also grant three wishes. Hence, when a man would be successful in his work of some phase of his life the people would often say “Mary! The man got the better of the nigheag and she gave him his three choose desires.”
Historically, there is a popular Highland story that tells of a maiden walking along a loch in Cromarty on a Sunday morning when she saw a bean-nighe washing over 30 different bloodied shirts in the loch. After seeing the bean-nighe and returning to the village, the roof of the Fearn Abbey collapsed during the Sunday morning service, burying the congregation in debris and killing thirty-six people.
Interestingly, the abbey roof collapsing happened in 1742 is recorded in written history, with the death toll reckoned at nearly fifty….
Images from web – Google Research