The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles (Scottish Gaelic: Na h-Eileanan Siar) is an island chain made up of 200 islands in a 130 mile archipelago off the north west coast of mainland Scotland. They form part of the Hebrides, separated from the Scottish mainland and from the Inner Hebrides by the waters of the Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. The Minch (Scottish Gaelic: An Cuan Sgitheanach, An Cuan Sgìth, Cuan na Hearadh, An Cuan Leòdhasach), also called North Minch. The Lower Minch (an Cuan Canach), also known as the Little Minch, is the Minch's southern extension.
Legend also tells that the Minch is home to a clan of mythical blue men. Most of the time “The Blue Men Of Minch” swim the seas, but sometimes sleep in underwater caves. While the Blue Men slept the weather could be fine and the seas calm. However, when awake they could conjure up storms whenever they wanted. These creatures, that are the size and shape of humans, are very strong and can be seen swimming and diving with pleasure when the seas are rough. Following the boats that are navigating the waters of the area they can be friendly towards humans, but this can be dependant upon their mood and if they are treated with respect.
Donald Alexander Mackenzie (24 July 1873 - 2 March 1936) was a Scottish journalist and folklore expert and described the Blue Men in his book Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, published in 1917:
The strait which lies between the island on Lewis and the Shant Isles is called the ‘Sea-stream of the Blue Men’. They are of human size, and they have great strength. By day and by night they swim round and between the Shant Isles, and the sea there is never at rest.
The Blue Men wear blue caps and grey faces which appear above the waves that they raise with their long restless arms. In summer weather they skim lightly below the surface but when the wind is high they revel in the storm and swim with heads erect, splashing the waters with mad delight. Sometimes they are seen floating from the waist out to sea, and sometimes turning round like purpoises when they dive.
People of the Outer Hebrides are rightly proud of their Celtic culture, history and folklore. Many locals viewed the Blue Men as helpful if treated with care and with due regard. Legend tells of ale being poured into the water as a gift to persuade the Blue Men to leave seaweed on the beach as fertiliser. Encouraging the benevolent side of the Blue Men’s nature is also undertaken by the tradition of the locals lighting of a candle by the sea on the night of the Celtic festival of Samhain (Halloween). However, it is also said that the Blue Men of Minch are a personification of the often treacherous waters that they inhabit. Like the seas their mood can change quickly and they can cause ships to founder and their crew and passengers to perish.
If the Blue Men gather to attack a ship it is said they will shout to the captain of the vessel challenging and threatening in verse. They engage in a rhyming duel reciting a poem to the master of the vessel demanding that the verse is completed. If the skipper completes the rhyme successfully and achieves the last word the ship may be spared. If the captain fails in that task then the blue men will attempt to overturn the ship and capsize it. In this way it has been said that some captains have escaped disaster on the seas by the sharpness of their wit and tongue, while those less fortunate are left to perish in the cold and raging waters of the Minch.
Here is a description of such a challenge between the Chief of the Blue Men and the Captain of a vessel as described by Donald Alexander Mackenzie:
Chief of the Blue Men:
Man of the black cap, what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?
My speedy ship takes the shortest way,
And I’ll follow you line by line.
Chief of the Blue Men:
My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you below the waves--
My ship is ready, my ship is steady,
If it sank it would wreck your caves.
The Chief of the Blue Men having been answered strongly and with confidence by the skipper of the vessel the ship sailed on to safety.
If you are travelling in Scotland and crossing the seas of the Minch. Remember the legend of the Blue Men Of Minch. We wish you a safe passage, but if you look into the sea and get the merest glimpse of a blue shadow. Be ready with your rhyming skills!