They Blue Themselves


At the risk of lacking variety, I’m featuring another malevolent sea creature from Scottish mythology this week. This myth appears to be very localized, limited to northern Scotland. These sea people, known as the Blue Men of the Minch, are…exactly that, blue-skinned humanoids inhabiting the Minch, a strait between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland. Various descriptions also give them gray faces, green hair and beards, blue headgear, long arms, and sometimes even wings.

They dwell in undersea caves and are organized in clans led by a chief. They’re said to sleep on the surface of the water, and swim somewhat like porpoises. They’re also said to enjoy a sport called shinty, which is played with sticks and a ball. I’m not sure exactly how they adapt that to life underwater. Like many mythical sea-dwellers, they can affect the tides and stir up storms to harm unwary sailors.

Source: Viner Art
There was, however, a way to avoid this, which was that the Blue Men were fond of rhyming contests. If a captain could correctly answer them in verse, they’d be allowed to pass unharmed. And people say there’s no practical use for poetry! A story reported by John Gregorson Campbell tells us a Blue Man being captured by sailors, but he escapes as soon as his fellows call to him. This tale seems to be the only one in which the Blue Men call each other by name. Donald Mackenzie has them call themselves Duncan, Donald, and Ian. Gregorson Campbell’s version calls one of them Farquhar. Their chief is quite possibly named Seonaidh, or Shony, and there was a ritual that involved pouring malt ale onto the water for him, which would hopefully entice him to provide seaweed.

I don’t think he’s the same one who started the restaurant chain, although I HAVE had the seafood buffet there. And while we’re on contemporary references, I’m not sure the Blue Men of the Minch could be as scary as THESE Blue Men.

They probably don’t recite much poetry, either.

As with many myths, there are several hypotheses on how the stories originated. Some think they were derived from memories of the Picts, who were known for their blue tattoos. Others propose they were based on black Africans brought to Europe by the Vikings. Perhaps more likely is that they were just personifications of the sea itself. Their mythical classification is as a sort of fairy, and specifically a subset of kelpies, even though they don’t turn into horses. Wikipedia references Mackenzie for the idea that fairies are fallen angels who can be divided into three groups, based in the sky, land, and sea, respectively. The sky fairies would have been the Northern Lights.

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