The name bean-nighe or “washer woman” seems harmless enough but this was one woman no one wanted to meet. A cousin of the banshee in Irish folktales, this creature heralded death. Banshees would scream before a person was about to die. More often than not these people heard the wail and died of fright. In Scotland, similar creatures known as caoineags (‘weepers’) wailed before catastrophe. These beings were usually associated with particular clans in Scotland. For example, members of the MacDonald clan heard their caoineag wailing the night before the Massacre of Glencoe. They heeded her warning and hid, thus surviving the slaughter.
The bean-nighe signaled death in a different way. She was usually to be found by a ford, river or loch singing a wailing lament as she washed shrouds in the water. These were for those about to die and sometimes the shroud belonged to the person who saw her. There are varying accounts as to what the washer woman looked like. In Mull and Tiree, part of the Hebridean Islands, the bean-nighe had big breasts which hampered her in her task. She would throw them over her shoulder and they hung down her back as she washed the shrouds. If a man came up behind her and took a breast in his mouth, the bean-nighe had to tell him who the shroud was for. If it was for him or a friend or family member, the man would stop her from washing and postpone death for a while.
However, more often than not it was very difficult to creep up on a bean-nighe and the person who came across her could suffer misfortune at her hands. One writer, Dorothy K. Haynes tells a short story about a bean-nighe and a little girl called Mary. As Mary was walking home one day she heard a ‘splash-clap’ from the river. She went down there, expecting to find her mother washing clothes but instead found a short woman ‘with a withered mean face, and small horrible feet grappling the ground, bare, webbed like a duck’s’. Mary ran home to her mother who persuaded her to return to the site a few nights later and find out who the shrouds were for. Mary tried to sneak up on the bean-nighe but as she approached her, the woman swung around and hit the girl with the shroud. Mary’s legs were completely paralysed and she was left unable to walk. Her mother eventually found her and carried her home to await an even deeper tragedy. The story ends there but it implies that the shrouds were for Mary herself and the little girl will die.
There is nothing to suggest that the bean-nighe caused the death of the person whose shroud she washed. Like the banshee or caoineag she was merely the messenger. Still, people feared to come across her and usually kept walking if they heard unusual sounds coming from nearby waters.