The Blue Men of the Minch
by S. J. McKenzie
‘So it’s all true,’ thinks MacCodrum as he starts to walk home again. The only thing to do now was to see where the old devil was keeping the hat, and then he could have it off him. ‘And I won’t mind doing that at all. If he tries to fight back, so much the better! I’ll give him a good old belting!’
He got all hot under the collar thinking about that for the first part of the walk, but it is a long way from Huishnish, so by the time he got home early the next morning he was cold and footsore and still very much looking forward to grabbing the hat, but not so much to giving his father a belting.
He had to keep a close eye on the old man for a few more days before he finally caught wind of where the thing was hidden. On the third night, he heard his father creeping downstairs and out the back door. Then, out of his window, he spied the old man bringing up something from the well in the yard, and sure enough it was the sea hood.
In the moonlight it was all shining and silver blue, and it was easy to believe it truly was a living soul. The old man just sat there on the edge of the well and held it in his hands, staring at it for what seemed like an age, whispering to it and slowly rocking himself back and forth.
It was a pathetic sight, almost enough to make John feel sorry for his father, but not so much that he didn’t go down there and get out the sea hood as soon as the old man was back upstairs and sleeping. “About time!” he said to the hat as he grabbed it out of the bucket, all wet and shining. “I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on you!”
You might have thought this tale was going to end up neatly, with MacCodrum going back down below and returning the hat to the Blue Men, and then of course he’d find out that their queen was his mother all along, and what a happy occasion that would be.
But you’d be forgetting that he never did what he was told. As soon as you said a word to him, he always had something else in mind. So he wasn’t going to do just what the Blue Men wanted, either.
“Three days before I’m due to go back!” he said. “Plenty of time! I can gather up enough to keep me going for the rest of my days.” For that was what he’d wanted all along, as soon as he’d learned about the sea hoods. Just like his grandfather, he wanted to get his hands on some of the riches that have gone down to the bottom of the Minch near Point Ushnish over the years.
They have a lighthouse there now, which has already saved many a sailor, and it’s not been there long. But before that, who knows how many ships went down there? And not all of them carrying salt fish, either. Spanish galleons were sunk, so they say, and English boats during the Civil War, and all sorts of other vessels besides.
MacCodrum thought this a far better way to make a living than catching fish in the very same place. “If I am going to bring up silvery things from the water, why not make them coins, eh?” he thought. “That way I needn’t be bothered doing it for very long!”
So after he’d got out on to the water, he pulled the sea hood over his head the way they’d shown him, made ready a collection of glowing sea-worms to use as a torch, and then jumped straight in the water and got about it. All this took no more than two hours after he’d taken the hat out from the well. He wasn’t one to waste time when he’d made a plan.
So down he went to the bottom of the sea, and it wasn’t long before he came upon a wreck and took an oak cask of fine old brandy up out of it. “There were creatures down there,” he said about it afterwards, “all sorts of beasties hovering about on the edge of my light, but they must have been cowardly for they didn’t gobble me up after all.”
So there was nothing stopping him from going on and taking as much as he pleased. After that he found another ship, and took some old silver plates from it, and on a third, he found quite a hoard of old coins and the like. All of this he took back up to his boat and then brought it back to a place behind his father’s house where he buried it, near where his father had hidden the cohuleen druith for all those years. Maybe that acorn didn’t fall so far from the tree, after all.
Anyway, that’s only the first day. He went back again on the second day and found even more than before, for he was out in deeper water now, getting closer to the Shiant Islands. His grandfather could do no more than dive down to the wrecks that sank right on the rocks, or wait for things to come floating in to shore. But with the sea hood, the young MacCodrum could go right down to the wrecks of ships that foundered in the deeper water and were all still lying there untouched.
Most folk would have stopped at that, for after two days he had enough to see him by for a good many years. But that wasn’t MacCodrum as a boy. Back out on the third day he was, and this time he went diving down right close to the Shiant Isles themselves.
Well, a priest might say that you should never go fishing with another person’s soul, or something of that sort. But the rest of us would just be content with thinking that a third trip out might be pushing our luck. And so it was. The Blue Men had been waiting nearly twenty years to get back the sea hood, you see, and they weren’t going to wait another day on account of him.
He hadn’t been down there long when up from out of the darkness came three of them, and they were all very much faster than poor MacCodrum. He claims he was weighed down by all the goods he was carrying back up to his boat, but we’ll never know, because we never saw any of that lot.
Two of them grabbed him right round the middle and pinned his arms, so there was no point in him struggling, and the third one, his friend Alexander, looked him calmly in the eye, then took hold of the stolen sea hood and ripped it right off his head.
Then they let him go again as quick as that, and swam off into the deep, leaving him hovering there with just a single breath of air inside, and two hundred yards of water between himself and his next one.
* * *
He survived, of course, although no-one really knows how, and he can’t remember it himself. He says he swam up for all he was worth, but he was a long way down there when they got to him, and he must have blacked out. The next thing he knew, he was waking up clutching onto a small part of what used to be his boat, and he saw that the rest of it was all drifting in little pieces around him, for they’d come up and completely destroyed it.
So he floated around for a day or more on a plank of wood, and then finally washed ashore on a beach up towards Mulhagery, and walked his way back here.
A man shouldn’t really survive something like that. Not down that deep. That’s how some of us got to thinking that maybe MacCodrum’s mother really was from the sea, and that he survived because of being partly a murrough himself. But looking at him with his red hair and all, it was hard to believe it. Anyway we did see a lot of the treasure he’d got up, and he lived off it for many years, but despite his money, he was never the same man.
To begin with, he wouldn’t go near the sea again, and that’s something of a problem out here. But more than that, it was as though he’d lost some part of his will, so that he was never headstrong, and never took a chance on anything. He wouldn’t go his own way, or make plans of any sort. He just sat here on his hoard, as if he was waiting for something that never came, and finally he passed away just last year. He was only forty-eight.
As for the Blue Men, we don’t think of them so much any more. No-one goes out looking for them, and so no-one finds them. If a man’s nets are full of holes, well, he ought to pay more heed to them before they tatter. And if a ship goes down, we blame the rocks, or the weather, or the current that always runs throughout the Minch near the Shiant Isles, even on the calmest day of the year.
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie