"Fairy woman." A fairy woman. She can be detected by her extraordinary voracity (like eating a cow at a meal), frightful front teeth, the absence of a nostril, a web foot, etc. She was said to be unable to suckle her own children, hence the sìth desire to steal nursing women.
She is also called bean-nighe, "washing woman," because at times she was seen in lonely places, beside a pool or stream, washing the linen of those soon to die. Seeing her is a sure sign that death is near. In Mull and Tiree she is said to have preternaturally long breasts, which are in the way as she stoops at her washing and so she throws them over her shoulder. Whoever sees her must not turn away, but steal up behind her and catch one of her breasts and put it in his mouth. He should then call her to witness that she is his first wet-nurse (muime-chìche). She answers that he has need of that being the case, and will then communicate whatever he desires. He can then tell her to continue washing if the shirt is that of an enemy, or tell her to stop if it belongs to a friend or family member.
In Skye the bean-nighe is said to be squat in figure (tiughiosal). When caught, she would reveal to her captor all that would befall him in life. She would answer all his questions, but he must also answer hers.
In the highlands of Perthshire, the washing woman is represented as small and round, and dressed in pretty green. At moonlight, she spreads the linen winding sheets of those soon to die. She can be caught by getting between her and the stream, but also at sword point. She was encountered by Hugh of the Little Head on the evening before his last battle, and left him as her parting gift (fàgail) that he should become a most frightful apparition after his death.
See also bean sídhe.
- Campbell, J.G. (1900). Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Glascow: James MacLehose and Sons, pp. 15, 42-43.