The Blue Men from The Sound of Shiants
I have just returned from a trip to Lewis and came across this wonderful story. It is from the Shiant islands (meaning the holy or enchanted islands). The Shiant Islands lie four miles or so off the coast of Lewis and 12 from the northern tip of Skye. The Shiants are a wild and dramatic place, with 500 foot high cliffs of black columnar basalt, surrounded by tide rips, filled in the summer with hundreds of thousands of seabirds and with a long and haunting history of hermits, shipwreckers, famine and eviction.
But this story is not set on the land but in the angry waters that surround them called ‘The Sound of Shiants’. These waters are infamous for tide-rips and overfalls that have caught many a ship out and smashed it to pieces on the rocky shores of the islands. It is in these waters that ‘The Blue Men’ are supposed to live. Some people say they are descended from the ghosts of sad Moorish people, taken by the Vikings in the ninth century and lost at sea, on their route north. Others say they are, like selkies, the souls of dead mariners. The origins of ‘The Blue Men’ cannot be agreed on, but what everyone does agree on is their appearance and behaviour.
A ship travelling though these waters will begin to slow down, this is due to The Blue Men taking hold of the vessel, holding it back. Sailors have witnessed eerie long thin blue hands coming over their boat’s gunnel. Your boat could be caught forever in this icy grip, at the mercy of the weather and the will of the waters, but The Blue Men give you a chance.
It has always been known in these parts that it is eloquence and a sharp wit that can save you more than the sword. The challenges of The Blue Men are, of course, cried out in Gaelic. One after another, from the lowest to the chief, each will pose a riddle or offer a line of verse. One after another, from the ship’s boy to the skipper, the crew must respond, matching rhythm as well as wit.
Once a fishing boat was trying to work it’s way through The Sound of Shiant to Loch Erisort. She was suddenly gripped by the arms of The Blue Men. The skipper hushed his crew, he knew to wait for the questions. Knowing this is the only way any of them would survive.
The first question came, like a whine above the cold wind. ‘How many cables would you need, to reach from the keel of your ship to the bottom under you now?”
The crew are not allowed to discuss the answer and do not get much time to respond. They all looked at the youngest lad, this was his first trip aboard, he spoke out:
‘One,’ he said. ‘One is long enough.’
This was correct and the Blue Men conceded this one to the crews relief. Then came the next one:
‘And what’s the sharpest thing in all the worlds?’
It was the man at the halyard that took this challenge. ‘The sharpest thing in the world I know, and maybe in your one too, is hunger.’
There was a gasp from the crew as they realised they had come through this one as well. But now the chief of The Blue Men put his head above the surface of the water. He smiled at the man who had spoken in the knowledge that their next question should win them their catch.
‘What am I thinking?’
The man at the halyard who had previously answered said: ‘You’re thinking you’re talking to the skipper but you’ve only just reached me, the mate. And we’ve matched you on every point so far.’
The chief of The Blue Men was not yet willing to release his grip and said: ‘You’d better put forward the man in command’.
The skipper of the vessel looked over the gunnel. He was bald with a ruddy face, he looked into the eyes (or what he though were the eyes) of the chief of The Blue Men. The chief then asked:
‘The loudest noise you’ll ever hear.
The swiftest thing in all the worlds
The tightest course you’ll ever steer?’
The skipper thought for a minute, then answered:
‘After the sheets of light appear
the hammer of Thor will part the skies
and tear the skin of the drum of your ear.’
The chief seemed to accept this and the crew egged their skipper on to give an answer to the other questions:
‘Fire is a very swift thing
but the north wind itself
is that bit more keen.’
Every man and boy abroad knew the answer to the last one, the skipper spoke for all of them:
‘If the course can’t vary one degree
that will take more than a hand that’s true
that will require honesty.’
The skipper’s mate then spoke out, ‘and if you know anything of honesty, you and your clan will release us now.’
The ship was set free and set back on his journey and the crew survived to tell the tale.
It is interesting to compare this legend with the tradition of the MacVurichs (spelling variant of MacMhuirich later known as Clan Currie) the bards from the Uists. If the crew are sufficiently eloquent they can conjure up the wind if they want.
Western Isles Folk Tales by Ian Stephen
Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas (1856 – 1935)
Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by A.L. Burt, 1901).