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.
A connection to the past, continuing conversations from ancient peoples and times. #FolkloreThursday is run by @FolkloreThurs and is a wonderful place to share folklore related blog posts and facts every Thursday on Twitter.
A sea-shanty for the Blue Men of the Minch
Quotes above from Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie
21 thoughts on “Folklore terror on the Scottish seas”
Blue Men in the stormy waves. I once read somewhere that the barrier between the worlds is thinner in Scotland. I remember the weeks I spent there many years ago, the tortured voices I heard in the wind. Haunted and haunting land. And to think I’ll be visiting again in just a few days. Your tale makes me anticipate it even more.
We certainly have our fair share of legends, spirits and ghosts. Then of course we have An da shealladh – one of the many words for Gaelic second sight. It’s just about to turn autumn here – always a lovely time to visit. Hope you have a great time and get in touch via the contact page if you want any tips!
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Fabulous Alex. knew nothing of the Blue Men. Adam Nicolson wrote in Sea Room of a trawler that brought up a piece of wirein the Minch that the crew kept on the battery for a while in case it bcame useful. It turned out be a gold Iron Age torc.
I knew nothing about them either Eddie. Great detail about the trawler. There must be all sorts at the bottom of the Minch since it’s been such an ancient sea lane for so many different people.
This is such a wonderful post, Alex! These kind of legends are right up my alley. I also write stories (my new book is coming out next week!!!) and I feed my imagination with parables, legends and tales. I wish I could meet the Blue Men…
Thanks Nataly – hope all goes well with the book, shall keep an eye on that. If you meet the Blue Men have your rhyming wits about you!
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I really like this… You never appear in myReader!
Oh no is that still going on Raj? Try unsubscribing and re-subscribing? Or follow by email?
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I will try the follow by email option. I did the unfollow and follow already
I first encountered the Blue Men in Adam Nicholson’s book and was fascinated by the idea…as you say, it has no parallel as far as I know, unlike many other legends. I love the way you take the idea and riff with it on the urban gangster theme…over the past couple of years I have become fascinated with rap and grime and I think the adversarial nature of it would suit the legend beautifully. Another super post, Alex, always fascinating and a good read 🙂
Thanks for the kind comments Iain! Been enjoying grime / rap / hip hop for years and was pleased Skepta won the Mercury last night.
I wonder if I am the only person who thought of the Princess Bride when you mentioned rhyming for your life. They were on a ship as well, passing through troubled waters…
“No more rhyming, I mean it!”
“Anybody want a peanut?”
Oh – that one is lost on me! It probably recurs quite often. One Thousand and One Nights is another one – although not poetry, but the idea of telling stories to save your life.
Oh, I’m sorry. “The Princess Bride” was an 80s film, kind of a cult classic. I guess it’s cult-ness didn’t go past our shores, ha! I’d recommend it but I don’t know if it’s one of those “you had to grow up watching it to appreciate it” type of movies or if it would stand on its own today. 😉
Scottish legends are really interesting but it becomes more fascinating by the way you write this piece! And I like the part when you allegorize the Blue Men to modern-day gang lords. Cool! 🙂
thanks for this – I have a wonderful painting of musicians crossing the Minch in two rowing boats which I bought on one of my journeys to the Highlands from a wonderful studio which had the best prehistoric rock outside I have ever seen.Now I have a story to accompany it!
The thought of crossing the Minch on rowing boats! Where was that studio as a matter of interest?
It was called Teh Blue Gallery and is here bit.ly/2neYYnP Definitely worth a visit – lovely man,
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Thanks for that – I shall look out for the place as I hope to be in Skye soon.
I enjoyed reading your post. I sailed across the Minch to the magnificent Shiant Islands last week and was relieved not to see any blue men as I couldn’t have spoken to them in rhyming couplets!
Hope it was an easy sailing and you had a lovely time! My rhyming couplets are pretty poor as well.