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The bean-nighe (
Scottish Gaelic Scottish Gaelic ( gd, Gàidhlig ), also known as Scots Gaelic and Gaelic, is a Goidelic language The Goidelic or Gaelic languages ( ga, teangacha Gaelacha; gd, cànanan Goidhealach; gv, çhengaghyn Gaelgagh) form one of the two groups o ...
for "
washerwoman A washerwoman or laundress is a woman who takes in laundry. Both terms are now old-fashioned. Description As evidenced by the character of Nausicaa in the Odyssey, in the social conventions depicted by Homer and evidently taken for granted in ...
" or "laundress"; ) is a female spirit in
Scottish folklore Scottish folklore encompasses the folklore Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the tradition A tradition is a belief A belief is an attitude Attitude may refer to: Phil ...
, regarded as an omen of death and a messenger from the
Otherworld The concept of an otherworld in historical Indo-European religion is reconstructed in comparative mythology Comparative mythology is the comparison of myth Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in a ...
. She is a type of ''ban-sìth'' (in
Irish Irish most commonly refers to: * Someone or something of, from, or related to: ** Ireland Ireland ( ; ga, Éire ; Ulster Scots dialect, Ulster-Scots: ) is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, North Atlantic. It is separated from Great Britai ...
, ''bean sídhe'', anglicized as "
banshee A banshee ( ; Modern Irish Irish ( in ), sometimes referred to as Gaelic, is a of the branch of the , which is a part of the . Irish is to the and was the population's until the late 18th century. Although has been the first langu ...

banshee
") that haunts desolate streams and washes the clothing of those about to die. '' Les Lavandières'' is the French word under which these "night washerwomen" are perhaps best known. She is also called nigheag, “the little washer,” nigheag na h-ath, “little washer of the ford,” or nigheag bheag a bhroin, “little washer of the sorrow.”


Legends

The ''bean-nighe'', also known as the Washing Woman or Washer at the Ford, is seen in lonely places beside a stream or pool, washing the blood from the linen and grave-clothes of those who are about to die. Her characteristics vary depending on the locality, and differing traditions ascribe to her the powers of imparting knowledge or the granting of wishes if she is approached with caution. It is said that ''mnathan-nighe'' (the plural of ''ban-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.Briggs, Katharine (1976). ''An Encyclopedia of Fairies''. Pantheon Books. pp. 19–20. . 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.Campbell, John Gregorson (1900). ''Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland''. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons. pp. 42–44. On the Isles of
Mull Mull may refer to: Places *Isle of Mull The Isle of Mull (Scottish Gaelic ''An t-Eilean Muileach'', ) or just Mull (; gd, Muile, ) is the second-largest island of the Inner Hebrides (after Skye) and lies off the west coast of Scotland in th ...

Mull
and
Tiree Tiree ( gd, Tiriodh, ) is the most westerly island An island (or isle) is an isolated piece of habitat that is surrounded by a dramatically different habitat, such as water. Very small islands such as emergent land features on atoll ...
she was 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. Those who see her must not turn away, but quietly approach from behind so that she is not aware. He should then take hold of one of her breasts, put it in his mouth, and claim to be her foster-child (see
Milk kinship Milk kinship, formed during nursing by a non-biological mother, was a form of fostering allegiance with fellow community members. This particular form of kinship In anthropology, kinship is the web of social relationships that form an impo ...
). She will then impart to him whatever knowledge he desires. If she says the clothing she is washing belongs to an enemy then he can allow the washing to continue, but if it belongs to himself or any of his friends then he can stop her from completing her task and avoid his fate. On the
Isle of Skye The Isle of Skye, or simply Skye (; gd, An t-Eilean Sgitheanach or ; sco, Isle o Skye), is the largest and northernmost of the major islands in the Inner Hebrides The Inner Hebrides (; Scottish Gaelic: ''Na h-Eileanan a-staigh'', "the ...

Isle of Skye
the bean-nighe was said to have a squat figure resembling a "small pitiful child". If a person catches her she will reveal to him his ultimate fate. She answers all his questions but he must also truthfully answer hers in return. If however the bean-nighe sees him first then he will lose the use of his limbs. In
Perthshire Perthshire (; gd, Siorrachd Pheairt), officially the County of Perth, is a historic county and registration county A registration county was, in Great Britain Great Britain is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean off the northwes ...
she was described as small and rotund and dressed in green, and can be caught by getting between her and the stream. The ''bean-nighe'' is sometimes said to sing a mournful dirge as she washes the clothing of someone who is about to meet a sudden death by violence. She is often so absorbed in her washing and singing that she can sometimes be captured. If a person can seize hold of her after a stealthy approach then 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.” She is sometimes described as having various physical defects including having only one nostril, a large protruding front tooth, or red webbed feet. One popular
Highland Highlands or uplands are any mountain A mountain is an elevated portion of the Earth's crust, generally with steep sides that show significant exposed bedrock. A mountain differs from a plateau in having a limited summit area, and is large ...

Highland
story connected with the washing of death shrouds regards the so-called "Mermaid of Loch Slin". A maiden from
Cromarty Cromarty (; gd, Cromba, ) is a town, civil parish In England, a civil parish is a type of administrative parish used for local government Local government is a generic term for the lowest tiers of public administration Public adm ...
was walking along a path by the side of this
loch Loch () is the Scottish Gaelic Scottish Gaelic ( gd, Gàidhlig ), also known as Scots Gaelic and Gaelic, is a Goidelic language The Goidelic or Gaelic languages ( ga, teangacha Gaelacha; gd, cànanan Goidhealach; gv, çhengaghyn Gae ...

loch
one Sabbath morning, and after turning a corner she saw a tall woman standing in the water "knocking claes" (clothes) on a stone with a bludgeon. On a nearby bleaching-green she observed more than thirty smocks and shirts, all smeared with blood. Shortly following the appearance of this figure, the roof of
Fearn Abbey Fearn Abbey – known as "The Lamp of the North" – has its origins in one of Scotland's oldest pre-Reformation church buildings. Part of the Church of Scotland and located to the southeast of Tain, Ross-shire, it continues as an active ...
collapsed during worship service, burying the congregation in debris and killing thirty-six people. Historically, the abbey roof did collapse in 1742 with the death toll reckoned at nearly fifty. One folktale collected by Alexander Carmichael in the “Carmina Gadelica, Vol. II,” runs as follows: ‘In the dead watch of the night, ‘Gille-cas-fliuch,’ Wet-foot Man, of Great Clanranald of the Isles, was going home to Dun-buidhe in the upland of Benbecula— ben of the fords. And when he was westering the loch, whom should he see before him in the vista on the ‘clachan,’ stepping stones, but the washer woman of the ford, washing and rinsing, moaning and lamenting— “A leineag bheag basis na dorn, A mailaran broin na beul.” 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 a-near 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-fluich, “‘till thou promise my me three choice desires.” “Let me hear them, ill man,” said nigheag. “That thou wilt tell to me for whom thou art washing the shroud and crooning the dirge, that thou wilt give me my choice wife, and that thou wilt keep abundant seaweed in the creek of our townland as long as the earl of Sgeir-Iois 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 Dun-buidhe.” Gille-cas-fliuch threw the shroud of death into the loch on the point of his spear, and he flew home hard to the bedside of Clanranald. He told everything that he saw and heard and that befell him. Clanranald leaped his hard round leap on to his feet from the heath-bed, and he ordered a cow to be felled and a little coracle to be made ready. A cow was felled accordingly, and a little coracle was constructed, in which Clanranald went from the island over the loch to the mainland, and he never again returned Dun-buidhe in the upland on Benbecula.’


Etymology

A ''bean-nighe'' ("washerwoman") is a specific type of ''ban-sìth''. (1900, 1902, 2005) ''The Gaelic Otherworld''. Edited by Ronald Black. Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd. p.311: "A ''bean-shìth'' is any otherworld woman; the ''bean-nighe'' is a specific otherworld woman." Both the Irish '''' and the Scottish Gaelic ''ban-sìth'' (both meaning "woman of the sídhe", "fairy woman" or "woman of peace") are derived from the Old Irish ''ben síde'', "fairy woman": ''bean'': woman, and ''sídhe'': the
genitive In grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, a ...
of "fairy". In Scottish Gaelic, ''ban-sìth(e)'' also occurs as ''bean-shìth(e)''. Both are correct. ''Sìth'' in
Scottish Gaelic Scottish Gaelic ( gd, Gàidhlig ), also known as Scots Gaelic and Gaelic, is a Goidelic language The Goidelic or Gaelic languages ( ga, teangacha Gaelacha; gd, cànanan Goidhealach; gv, çhengaghyn Gaelgagh) form one of the two groups o ...
(''síd'' in
Old Irish Old Irish (''Goídelc''; ga, Sean-Ghaeilge; gd, Seann Ghàidhlig; gv, Shenn Yernish or ; Old Irish: ᚌᚑᚔᚇᚓᚂᚉ), sometimes called Old Gaelic, is the oldest form of the Goidelic The Goidelic or Gaelic languages ( ga, teangacha ...
, also means "peace"), and the fairies are referred to as the ''daoine-sìth'' (Irish, ''daoine sídhe'') - the "people of peace". ''Sídhe'', in its variant spellings, refers to the ''sídhe'' (mounds) where these beings dwell. The ''bean-nighe'' is sometimes known by the
diminutive A diminutive is a root word A root (or root word) is the core of a word that is irreducible into more meaningful elements. In morphology, a root is a morphologically simple unit which can be left bare or to which a prefix A prefix is an aff ...
s ''ban-nigheachain'' ("little washerwoman") or ''nigheag na h-àtha'' ("little washer at the ford").


See also

*
BeiraBeira can refer to: *Beira (mythology), the mother to all the gods and goddesses in the Celtic mythology of Scotland *Beira, Azores, a small village on São Jorge Island *Beira (Portugal), the name of a region (and former province) in north-central ...
*
Cailleach In Gaelic Gaelic is an adjective that means "pertaining to the Gaels". As a noun it refers to the group of languages spoken by the Gaels, or to any one of the languages individually. Gaelic languages are spoken in Ireland, Scotland, and the I ...
*
Caoineag The caoineag () is a female spirit in Scottish mythology, Scottish folklore and a type of Scottish Highlands, Highland banshee, her name meaning "weeper". She is normally invisible and foretells death in her clan by lamenting in the night at a water ...
*
Huldra A hulder (or huldra) is a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore Scandinavian folklore or Nordic folklore is the folklore Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses ...
* Les Lavandières * Morrígan * Moura Encantada *
Wirry-cow In Scotland, a wirry-cow is a bugbear, goblin, ghost, ghoul or other frightful object. Sometimes the term is used for the Devil or a scarecrow. The word was used by Sir Walter Scott in his novel ''Guy Mannering''. The word is derived by John Ja ...


References

{{Fairies Aos Sí Fairies Fantasy creatures Female legendary creatures Irish folklore Irish legendary creatures Scottish folklore Scottish legendary creatures Tuatha Dé Danann Water spirits