Sìthaich: The Fairies of the Highlands

The English word fairy does not translate sìtheach well at all. You know that old expression 'lost in translation'? Well 'fairy' is the ultimate understatement. The sìthaich have awesome powers and should be treated with great respect--particularly the ban-sìth or banshee as she is called in English.

 Ban-sìth or bean-shìth in Gaelic means 'fairy woman'. They've have had a bad reputation in English stories; they screech and howl and scare folk. But, in a lament to a MacCrimmon piper, a banshee is said to 'sing a sad lament'--sheinn a' bhean-shìth a torman mulaid. So much for screeching.

 But here is the interesting bit. According to Gaelic folklore in Scotland and Ireland, only Gaelic families are worthy of a banshee. In the seventeenth century in particular the banshee is seen as a protectress of the people who rightfully hold the land. People believed in the banshee in the Scottish Highlands as well. A friend said he had heard the banshee lament in a close (passageway) in a Glasgow block of flats. This is the modern era!

 So what does a banshee do that is so valuable? A banshee is a death-messenger. Horrors! My novels are about a woman who can become a banshee. How can a banshee be a sympathetic heroine and death messenger you might ask? 

In Gaelic tradition a warning of death is a good thing. With her lamenting, she told people close to the dying person that the time had come to prepare a funeral; she cried early enough for people far away to give them a chance to go home and prepare for a proper funeral. See? Banshees are considerate.

 In my story, The Banshee of Castle Muirn, the village wise woman, a banshee in reality, requires an apprentice to take over her duties. She's getting too old for the business. The wise woman is feared and shunned just for being a healer; yet her services are eagerly sought. They have no idea she is a banshee. They have no idea why she is such as good healer. They suspect magic of some sort however.

 The only possible candidate for training is Shona Campbell, the daughter of a Campbell chieftain. She agrees to train as a healer as some knowledge of that art is expected of a good wife. The wise woman mixes a little banshee training in with the healing. But Shona has no desire to become a banshee; she wants to marry a good man who is acceptable to her clan. Then she finds out that she is expected to marry a particularly nasty Lowlander. She believes her father far away in Edinburgh is in danger. She becomes a banshee to protect her family.

 Pronunciation: ban-sìth is ban-shee (no surprise) with the stress on the second syllable.

  © Sheila Currie  2018