Its a dark evening and you find yourself wandering in the gathering gloom along the side of a small highland stream. You are alerted by some movement down near the water and spot an old woman apparently 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. This would be a big mistake for the old woman is the dreaded Bean Nighe, ‘The Washerwomen at the Ford’.
The Bean Nighe (pronounced ben-nee’-yeh) is related to the Irish Banshee (Bean Sidhe) and also has a French equivelant, Les Lavandières. She is seen wandering near streams and pools where she washes the bloodstained clothes of those who are about to die. As such she is seen as an omen of death just like the Banshee. The legend has it that the Bean Nighe is the spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth and is cursed to carry out her role until the day her life would have normally ended.
As you might expect the Bean Nighe wouldn’t win many prizes in a beauty competition. She is a small and very ugly woman with a hooked nose and one large nostril. She has a large protruding tooth webbed feet and long hanging breasts. Safe to say that it take more than a few drams before you considered chatting her up, which is a shame really because with the right approach it could have its rewards. When we say ‘right approach’ we don’t use the term lightly, get it wrong and you are in serious trouble.
Now before you go, ‘right then, im aff up the burn tae get jiggy wae yon washer wifey’ a note of caution – the approach is a bit, er direct shall we say! Firstly you must approach quietly without her seeing you. While she’s busy at her washing you need to quickly grab her breast and suckle from it (well we did warn you). Once there you can claim to be her foster child. You will then be granted a wish (presumably ‘i wish to forget about what has just happened’ being popular at this point).
No mean feat, as a chat up technique it wouldn’t go down well at the village hall caeilidh so one can imagine that pulling off the same stunt with the ‘fairy folk’ would have dire consequences if it went wrong.
There is supposedly a less dangerous technique of getting between her and the water and for this you are supposed to get three wishes. I’m guessing this is ‘wishful thinking.’
One last note, should you happen to be wandering near a stream on Islay beware as their version; the Caointeach or “wailer” of Islay is much more dangerous. If she is interrupted from her grim task she will strike the person’s legs with her wet linen whereby they will loose the use of them altogether. Try explaining that one to the wife!