Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The baobhan sìth - 'fairy furies'

One of my favourite tales from Scottish legend is about the baobhan sìth - a kind of otherworldly vampire I suppose you could say. I've been trying to find the version of the tale that I remember studying at university, but alas it doesn't seem to be amongst my paperwork.

My trawls on the internet have turned up a couple of versions but they're not as good as the one I remember - there was something about it that I found genuinely creepy. But still, it's a good story, and I mentioned werewolves a few posts ago so I figure why not vampires now, eh? Of the following tales, the first one is closest to how I remember the story going.

So without further ado:
A notion was prevalent among the people of Lewis, and of the Highlands and Islands generally, that it was imprudent to wish — or rather to express a wish — for anything at any time of the night without simultaneously invoking the protection of the Deity.

If the invocation were forgotten or neglected they believed that their wish would be granted in some terrible manner. Probably this superstitious belief originated in the following and kindred stories.
Three men were hunting in the hills of Kintail. Having had but little success, and being reluctant to return home empty-handed, they agreed to pass the night in one of the shielings or huts, of which there were many on the moors. ('Shielings,' says my informant, 'much larger than those to be met with in Lewis.') Having lit a fire in the shieling they cooked some venison, of which they made a repast. After their meal they pulled some dry grass and moss and spread it on the floor to serve as a bed. Two of them sat on one side of the fire and the third at the other side began playing the trump (Jew's-harp). One of the two began to talk of their unsuccessful day's toil, but added that they would not grumble at their ill success were they now with their sweethearts. His comrade agreed with him heartily, and at the same time expressed a wish that their three sweethearts should be with them in the shieling.

Immediately three tall, handsome young women made their appearance, two of whom crossed over to the two men, the third remained with the musician. The fire was dimly burning, and the man could not see how things were going with his comrades and their two strange visitors, but he noticed to his consternation a stream of blood flowing towards the fire from the place where they were, and looking at the same time at the woman who sat by him he observed that her feet were not like human feet but like the hoofs of a deer.
His fears were terribly aroused, and he wished heartily to make his escape. He made an excuse to the woman that he must go out for some water to drink, but she ofiered to go herself. He declined and rose to go out. He no sooner made a movement to the door than the woman got up, and endeavoured to lay hold of him before he reached the door, but he escaped and ran with all possible speed towards the nearest human dwelling.

The woman pursued him with a speed equal to his own. At length he reached a glen which was inhabited, and there the woman gave up the chase, and exclaimed several times: 'Dhith sibhs' ur cuthaich fein ach dh'fhag mo chuthaich fein mise.' You ate your own victims (?), but my victim (?) escaped from me.

On the day following the people of the glen went to the shieling, where they found the mangled remains of the two men, their throats cut, their chests laid open, and their hearts torn away. I asked my informant who these women were. He wondered at my ignorance, and replied that they were 'Baobhan Sith' (Fairy Furies). He often related similar stories.
Carmichael, Celtic Review Volume V, 1905, pp163-165.

Reading between the lines we might think there's a clear implication of some hanky panky going on between the two victims and their otherworldly partners before (or during, let's say) their untimely demise. In this version of the tale there's also an implied link between the venison the hunters ate and the deer hoofs the baobhan sìth presented themselves as having - the baobhan sìth emphasises it when she says, "You ate your own victims (?), but my victim (?) escaped from me." In effect, offence has been caused - the men ate her kind (or kine) - deer being commonly associated with the sìth as being their 'cattle' - so she will devour him in return. Their wish for company gave the baobhan sìth the opportunity to carry out their revenge.

This next excerpt gives two other versions. The first version doesn't mention deer at all, and the tale is a more clear-cut case of vampirism and being careful what you wish for (and perhaps especially when you wish for what could be construed as 'loose women' - obviously a big no no in those times). I've tweaked the formatting to add some paragraphs in:

Four men from Strathmore, who were hunting among the hills, sought shelter one night in the shieling at Airigh nan Guthach, between Loch Droma and Braemore. To while away the time, one of them supplied vocal music puirt-a-beul while the others danced. One of the dancers ere long gave utterance to a wish that they had partners. Presently four young women came into the hut. After some introductory conversation, partners were appropriated, one of the women seated herself by the musician, and dancing was resumed, and was now carried on with much more vigour and enjoyment.

After some time spent thus, one of the men observed drops of blood falling from one of his companions. Concealing the alarm that the sight caused him, he told his partner that he wished to go outside for a little. She did her utmost to induce him not to go, and only when he proposed to let her hold an end of his plaid while he was without did she give a reluctant consent. Outside he pinned the free end of his plaid to the turf wall of the hut, and fled for his life. When his flight was discovered, his partner started in pursuit. Her companions spurred her on, calling " Cha bu tu do mhathair air t' aois. A Stiana chaoil, nach beir thu air!" "You are not your mother at your age. Slender Christina, can't you catch him!" Christina wailed back "Chaill mise mo dhubhach, 's dh' ith thusa do dhubhach!" "I have lost my dubhach, and you have eaten your dubhach." Before she could overtake the fugitive, he found refuge in a horse fold at Fasa-grianach. Once he got in alongside of the horses she was powerless to harm him. When daylight came he gave the alarm, and a party of friends and neighbours went to the shieling, and found only the lifeless remains of the other hunters. The creatures with whom they had associated had sucked the blood from their bodies.

The story is told with some or other of the following differences. The number of the men was three. They were on their way home over the Dirrie Mor to Lochbroom. They sought shelter in the hut from a storm. One of the dancers or the musician chanced to lower his glance, and saw that the women had hoofs. The musician stopped the music in his alarm, and his companions thereupon fell lifeless corpses. He started up to flee for his life. The woman at his side laid hold of his plaid to detain him. He threw off the plaid and fled. Her response to the incitement of her companions is "Mise 's mo dhubhach, mise 's mo dhubhach" "I and my dubhach, I and my dubhach!" 
In a "Guide to Ullapool and Lochcarron," published a few years ago, the name of the shieling is given as Airigh mo Dhubhach, and is derived from the wail of the mothers of the dead men "airigh mo dhubhach" 'shieling of my sorrow' but the name, as we have heard it, is Airigh nan Guthach. The word dubhach, so far as could be ascertained, is obsolete, and its meaning unknown. The reference, however, is evidently to the blood sucked from the victims by the hags, and the term is doubtless to be compared with dubhaith, a pudding, and duthatch, great gut, anus, sausage.
Rev. Robertson, 'Folklore from the West of Ross-shire,' in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Vol XXVI, 1907, pp268-269.

So there you go. Scottish vampires.