The bean nighe (Scottish Gaelic for “washer woman”), is a Scottish fairy, seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld.
The tradition of ‘The Washerwomen at the Ford’ has its roots in Celtic legend and myth, she wanders near deserted streams where she washes the blood from the grave-clothes of those who are about to die. It is said that mnathan nighe (the plural of bean nighe) are the spirits of women who died giving birth and are doomed to do this work until the day their lives would have normally ended.
A bean nighe is described in some tales as having one nostril, one big protruding tooth, webbed feet, long-hanging breasts, dressed in green and a white gown or shroud with her long stringy hair partially covered with a hood. Dressed in green, she was a small in stature and had webbed feet. If one is careful enough when approaching, three questions may be answered by the Bean Nighe, but only after three questions have been answered first.
A mortal who is bold enough to sneak up to her while she is washing and suck her breast can claim to be her foster child. The mortal can then gain a wish from her. If a mortal passing by asks politely, she will tell the names of the chosen that are going to die.
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. While generally appearing as a hag, she can also manifest as a beautiful young woman when it suits her, much as does her Irish counterpart the Bean Sídhe.
There’s 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.
The washerwomen at the ford appears in Wales, Scotland and Ireland but there is little reference to a tradition in England, although lonely pools are often haunted by some supernatural creature. This is likely to be related to Celtic survivals in the afore-mentioned countries.
The Bean-Nighe is a great example of folklore and it remains just that.