Poetry duels, pagan beer rituals and playing with storms – the unique folklore legend of the Blue Men of the Minch, with a sideways look at their urban gangster cousins.
The Minch is a strait found between the mainline of north-west Scotland and the Hebridean islands of Skye and Harris and Lewis. It is notoriously rough and stormy although the one time I have crossed it the conditions were calm. We were clearly in good favour with the Blue Men of the Minch, the storm kelpies who live there and amuse themselves by flinging sea water at ships.
The Blue Men of the Minch
The Blue Men live in underwater caves in the turbulent tidal water around the Shiant Isles, known as the Current of Destruction for its shipwrecking reputation. When the Blue Men sleep, floating just below the water, the weather is fine and the Minch is calm. But when awake they conjure and play with storms, “splashing the waters with mad delight”.
The Blue Men wear blue caps, and are human size with grey faces and long restless arms. They often swim with their torso raised out of the sea but they can also dive like porpoises. They are the personification of the sea; churning waves, storm and high wind as they emerge from the sea and reach to climb a ship. On bright clear nights they play shinty, the Highland game played with stick and a ball that is similar yet different to hockey.
According to Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie they have no counterpart elsewhere in the world, rare in the folklore world of spirits and demons. The source of their legend is unclear and there are theories linking the Blue Men to the descendants of angels fallen into the sea; the North African slaves of passing ninth century Vikings; the Tuareg people of Saharan Africa, who were known as the “blue men of the desert and the tattoo customs of the Picts, the “painted people”.
Rhyming for your life
The most fascinating angle of the myths perhaps reflects the oral traditions of Scottish Gaelic culture. When the Blue Men approach a ship the leader, Seonaidh (or Shony), issues a challenge to the ship’s captain. The crew can save themselves but only if they all take part in a duel of poetry. Shony will shout a line or couplet of poetry and the verse must be completed in perfect rhyme and metre by all on board, be they captain or ship’s boy. Fail and the Blue Men will drag all souls down to the bottom of the sea.
An encounter recorded by Mackenzie tells how, during rough seas, the Blue Men’s chief shouted up to a powerful ship taking a short cut through their sea-stream between the Shiant Isles and Lewis.
Man of the black cap what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?
The skipper’s answer was not only quick but challenging.
My speedy ship takes the shortest way
And I’ll follow you line by line
The Blue Chief angrily responded:
My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you below the waves
But the skipper was defiant.
My ship is speedy, my ship is steady
If it sank, it would wreck your caves.
The Blue Chief had been out-rhymed by the skipper. Defeated he signalled to his followers and they disappeared beneath the waves. The ship continued its journey unharmed and under “snow-white, wind-tight sails”.
Sunset on the Minch and the Blue Men’s city cousins
When I first read about the Blue Men I was camping near a beach where the waves of the Minch gently lapped. The sunset turned the sea into a glittering metallic silver offset by sky bands of delicate mauve, pink and gold. From our vantage point on the cliff we watched a cruiser stop and turn, to allow sunset glistening the seas to be enjoyed over dinner and cocktails. It was beautiful and benign, in sharp contrast to conversations earlier that day with local crofters and estate workers about destructive storms ripping roofs off buildings; of powerful angry waves driving up the beach threatening to engulf the tents of wild campers as they scrambled for safety.
Later, when we drove back towards Glasgow I spent an idle hour creating and dreaming of the Blue Men’s city equivalents, their malcontent gangster cousins. On stormy nights the spirits of ancient gangsters and street criminals emerge from wastelands, drains and streets. They are a churning mass of broken pavements and over-turned bins, sawn-off shotguns and flashing blades, flickering street lights and graffiti scrawls. They take over your party or club and give you one chance. Maybe you have to respond to a couple lines of rap, or finish a verse or joust in full in an exchange of wit. If anyone loses the duel everyone is dragged down to the lost underworlds of the city.
Ale for seaweed: A Lewis pagan ritual
The Blue Men of the Minch were also linked to a pagan fertility ceremony that took place on Lewis on All Saints’ Day. Families gathered to brew ale from the season’s grain. At night someone waded into the sea up to his waist and offered a cup full of ale to Shony, asking the water spirit to deliver sea weed to the shore for fertiliser. He poured the ale into the sea and they retreated to the nearby church where there was a single candle burning on the altar. When it was extinguished everyone moved to a field to drink the rest of the ale and have a party. Not surprisingly it was said that the strict local Presbyterian influence sought to discourage this suspicious pagan ritual, conveniently ignoring the pagan traditions borrowed and woven into their own Christian beliefs.
If you ever cross the Minch be sure to practice your rhyming skills, just in case you come face to face with its blue lyrical murderers.
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Quotes above from Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie