exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

Wordsmiths of the Waters:The Blue Men of the Minch

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When the tide is at the turning and the wind is fast asleep,
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue deep,
Oh, the waters will be churning in the stream that never smiles,
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the charmèd isles.

from Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth And Legend by Donald Alexander McKenzie

The Blue Men of the Minch are a group of mythological humanoid creatures that inhabit the waters of the Minch, a strait in the north-west of Scotland that separates the mainland from the northern Outer Hebrides.

Also known as Sruth nam Fear Gorm, or the Stream of the Blue Men, the Minch is notorious for being a very rough stretch of water to navigate, especially during the strong Atlantic storms that regularly sweep through it. The treacherous currents are often blamed on the Blue Men, stirring up the waves with their incessant swimming.

The Blue Men are said to live in caves under the waters of the Minch. They resemble humans in shape and size but their skins are blue and shine in the light, and various sources report them having fish tails instead of legs, akin to mermen. They are very strong and as a group can easily down a stricken ship, though like many supernatural creatures they can be bested by a quick-witted tongue. They are most often seen from the waist up, floating amongst the waves and turning sharply like porpoises as they dive. To spot a Blue Man in the waves is a sure sign that a storm is approaching.

It is said that the Blue Men always have guards on the lookout for vulnerable ships, and that they will unfailingly target those who mistreat the Selkies and other sea folk. The only way to avert an attack is to beat the chief of the Blue Men in a rhyming contest – many a ship has been lost because the skipper was not skilled in verse! The chief of the Blue Men will rise high in the water and shout a rhyming couplet to the skipper of the vessel. If the skipper does not reply promptly with a further couplet to complete the verse, the Blue Men will pull the ship down below the waves.

One tale tells of a great ship with white sails that cut swiftly through the Minch like an arrow in flight, despite the high winds and turbulent waves. As the Blue Men rose from their caves on the seafloor, some grabbed hold of the keel of the vessel and were surprised to find it steady and solid. The chief of the Blue Men made his way to the front of the ship, and from amongst the roiling waves he shouted:

Man of the black cap, what do you say
as your proud ship cleaves the brine?

As quick as a flash, the skipper answered:

My speedy ship takes the shortest way, 
and I’ll follow you line by line!

The chief of the Blue Men had never before met with a response that was at once an answer and a challenge, and he responded angrily:

My men are eager, my men are ready
to drag you beneath the waves-

The skipper defiantly declared:

My ship is fast, my ship is steady.
If it sank it would wreck your caves.

Much to his annoyance, the chief of the Blue Men had been bested and he had no choice but to retreat back down below the waves, empty-handed. The ship went freely on with safe passage through the Minch.

Although no one has been foolish enough to attempt to kill any of the Blue Men – or if they did, they haven’t lived to tell the tale – one story does recount the capture of a Blue Man when a ship’s crew found him sleeping on the waters on an unusually calm summer’s day and pulled him aboard. The crew bound him from ankle to shoulder in the strongest rope they could find until it seemed impossible for him to move at all.

The ship had not gone far when two Blue Men were spotted speeding through the waters towards it. When they reached the vessel, one of them was heard to say

Duncan will be one

to which the other replied

Donald will be two. Will you need another ere you reach the shore?

The skipper of the boat was about to shout a couplet in reply but before he could utter a sound, the Blue Man in the boat opened his eyes and snapped free of his bonds as easily as if he had been confined with gossamer, and answered:

Duncan’s voice I hear, Donald too is near,
but no need of helpers has strong Ian Mhor.

And with that he jumped off the ship, leaving the open-mouthed crew with nothing more than a pile of frayed rope and the knowledge that the Blue Men of the Minch each have their own very ordinary names.