The Green Women Stories
The Cat-Witch of Laggan
by S. J. McKenzie
part 1 of 2
There once lived a woman called Clara Fahey, who turned out to be a witch, and a sly one at that. She was no ordinary witch, with simple charms for spoiling the milk, or sending young men’s hearts awry; she was the Cat-Witch of Laggan herself, a ruthless killer, feared throughout all Badenoch.
It was only at the end of her very long life that anyone discovered that she’d been living amongst us all unbeknown, and only then because she told us herself, revealing the secret on her deathbed, to the great astonishment of the whole town.
The Cat-Witch was cruel and fearsome, and many lives were taken by her or by one of her kind, in the days of the bodysnatchers: a drunken watchman she killed, a lazy priest, a grave-robber, a killing doctor, a false wife, and a false husband for good measure. All were wicked folk whose time on earth was ended by her claws and whose souls she took below thereafter.
The manner of her appearance was always the same; the victim and a companion — for there must be a witness, it seemed — walked unwitting into some darkened night–time place, followed at a distance by an elderly woman, or perhaps a cat of black and grey. When they were well away from any others, the cat would appear before them, and grow all of a sudden to an enormous size, as big as a lion, or as some said, a racehorse. It would grab even the largest of men by the scruff of the neck as though they were one of its own offspring, and then leap away into the night, leaving the onlooker terrified but quite unharmed.
No-one knew for sure what happened to the victims, until one man bravely gave chase, and saw the huge devil-cat drag his doomed companion — the false husband aforementioned — down into a cairn of stones on the riverbank opposite the Yard of Dalarossie. From that observation, it was clear that the souls of the witches’ victims were not bound for salvation, but in quite the opposite direction. That the witch did the devil’s work was not in doubt after that.
Naturally, there were soon very few cats of black or grey that remained alive in the area, for the people soon hunted them down and killed them all. Moreover, old women seen walking alone at night were hastened away indoors by cautious townsfolk, and one or two were even beaten by terrified souls who imagined themselves to be under attack.
But no-one ever accused sweet Clara Fahey, although she often walked at night on her way home after working in one of the churchyards, a thing she did throughout her life. We may wonder why no-one thought to suspect that childless lady, who lived alone her whole life, and travelled widely all over the area, for a reason we could not fathom. But it is always easy to see what was amiss, in hindsight. At the time, our own daily concerns blinded us to what was going on under our own noses.
Likewise, no-one among us thought to harm her cat. Indeed, all of us had remembered it to be ginger, and we were surprised to note its true colour when she made her deathbed confession. That day, the cat was seen to be of black and grey, and it rested in her lap as she gave us the following account of her greatest misdeed.
* * *
Until recently there lived in Scotland two stalwart heroes, whose deeds were the favoured subject of minstrels and bards everywhere, and whose names have passed down into memory. But in case you are all absent-minded and have forgotten them already, I remind you again of bold John Garve Macgillichallum, Laird of Raasay in the Isles, and also of brave Donald MacIan, the Hunter of the Hills, who lived all about like a true woodsman, but also sometimes here in Laggan. These two men were the sworn enemy of us witches, throughout all the land, and were the bane of several of our number in the years before their timely deaths.
My story begins some thirty years ago, upon the occasion of their meeting in the Graveyard of Dalarossie by the Findhorn, to discuss their latest exploits in the war against my sisterhood. John Garve, having come recently from the Isles, wore clothes befitting a travelling nobleman, with high leather boots and fine calico breeches. He carried both a cutlass and a shooting rifle at his side. Atop his head sat a hat of hare’s fur, roughly made, which made him look quite the fool to my eye, in addition to everything else about him.
Donald MacIan appeared the manlier, wearing plain hunter’s garb topped off with a ragged grey cloak of wool. He carried a bow, had a fierce black–handled dagger by his side, and also a fine hunting dog to accompany him.
“I have slain two foul hags since Hogmanay,” contested bold John Garve as they began to argue about who was the braver. “When I came upon them, they took the form of hares, but after my fast bullets pierced their hides, the witches’ souls departed and left nought but the beasts behind! That was on the shore at Lochalsh, on my way over to meet you here.”
“As you say,” said MacIan, not to be outdone, “but I have slain the Witch of Sunderland, just last week. A cruel green hag she was, and most harmful to the populace, what with her curses and kidnappings and the like. It was difficult to rouse her from her grotto beneath a loch, but once she was upon me, I won the contest with ease, and also with the help of my hound here. The people granted me this fine dirk as a reward, and feasted me for three nights after it was done.” He drew out the gleaming dirk, in demonstration of the generosity of the townsfolk.
Macgillichallum was quite unnerved by what he had heard. Being of the Isles, he was unable to detect that his adversary was merely reciting a fairy tale, well known in these parts, with himself cast as the hero. “Well,” blustered the nobleman, “that is all nought to my most recent accomplishment! Last night, I dispatched to the netherworld the old crone Bella MacPhie, who was the leader of the evil circle in these glens, of that I am sure.
“She came upon me as I rested in a bothy, and asked to sit down by my fire, for she had travelled long. Knowing that I was in mortal peril if I agreed, I upped and had it out with her then and there, and with my sword here I hastened her meeting with Old Nick. By my hand she received her dark inheritance, far sooner than she would have liked I’m sure!” He drew the cutlass to finger the blade, and chuckled heartily at the relation of this brutal murder.
These were evil things to hear spoken in this holy place, especially with the two of them fondling their weaponry as each vied to impress the other with their barbarity. But then the competition seemed to be over for the time being, and they discussed other things regarding the craft of my people; in particular, our ability to take on the shapes of animals. In particular, they puzzled over what happened to the possessed creatures once we had departed from them.
MacIan took the view that a witch transforms her own body into that of an animal, and then turns back again, so that the question of its whereabouts after the spell was quite irrelevant, as it never truly existed.
John Garve was of the opposite view; according to him, we send our spirits into the body of an existing beast, and when we depart, the beast remains there none the wiser for what has happened, knowing only that it is in a different place from that which it last remembered. “But the little beasties have no memories, so most likely they pay no mind to the strangeness of it,” he trailed off.
I listened to all of this with great interest, but honestly I have no idea which of the two spoke correctly, having taken the form of a humble crow and perched upon a wall nearby to them while they spoke. And what I heard had angered me.
Bella MacPhie, while not our leader, had been a true friend of mine, and one who had taught me much about our ways. And while it was clear that the two hags claimed by John Garve at Lochalsh sat now upon his head, I believed that he had truly slain MacPhie, for the tragic news of her death had already reached me; indeed, it was my very reason to be eavesdropping upon these two rogues in the first place.
Now that my suspicions were confirmed, I was determined to have revenge upon John Garve Macgillichallum, and I started to make plans as to what might be done about him. But as I sat listening to those gentlemen discuss their cruel sport, their conversation took an unusual turn, one which at once brought a new plan to my mind.
“Well, enough of our chatter,” said John Garve abruptly. “Down to the matter that brought us here; who is the true bane of witches in Scotland at the present time? I say we make a contest of it. The first of us to slay the Cat–Witch of Laggan will win the title of Witch-bane forever more, and also collect from the other the sum of ten pounds. The loser will have the remainder of the year to pay. What say you to that, MacIan?”
It was known to both men that MacIan, a poor woodsman, could in no way afford to lose such a wager, but in the eyes of both, that same fact meant he could not afford to refuse without letting it be known that he thought the other man a better witch-hunter than himself.
Macgillichallum was counting on the poor hunter’s good sense outweighing his pride, but MacIan surprised the nobleman, agreeing to the bargain like so:
“Aye, I have no fear of losing that bet,” he said. “I even know where the witch is to be found, and I know what’s to be done about her, so I’m ahead of the game already. When you see me next I’ll be ten pounds the richer.”
And after shaking the hand of the nobleman, he walked away from that holy yard and made his way to Laggan, southward through the hills. The nobleman stood there for a while longer, cursing the other man for having accepted the bet, and then he too departed southward, taking the road by the river so as to be assured the comforts of the towns.
Well, now I was most interested indeed, being the very witch they had so recently named. I was unafraid; rather, I was wondering how I might go about turning their wager to my advantage, hopefully to be rid of the both of them, for good.
* * *
I sat in the yard for some time after the two heroes had departed, and pondered my best course of action. As you will know, the Yard at Dalarossie is a place of holiness and wonder, and was sacred to my people long before the Christian faith was ever known here. Nowadays, there are Christian relics present too, which may also serve in some minor way to protect the place against unclean spirits.
Of course, that was precisely why Macgillichallum and MacIan had chosen the yard as their meeting place. Thinking that no witches or devils of any kind could ever come within, they could be assured of making their bargain without any interference from the infernal powers.
I also could be sure of protection from any evil spirits while I was within the yard, but more importantly to my purposes, I knew that it would be one of the last places that anyone would think to look for me. So, while the two heroes of the tale went out hunting for cats and old women, I preferred the safety of that ancient graveyard, and the little church within it.
A few days later I travelled to the Yard of Moy — another holy place to our sisterhood — to see the body of my friend MacPhie interred there. Then, I returned to Dalarossie and stayed several weeks, helping the church warden with his duties. I kept back the grass and gorse from the graves, and tended to the garden, to the roses and the hedge-rows, and to the rowans that stood in the corners of those ancient burial yards to protect the souls of the dead from any evil.
On Sundays I travelled to Laggan-side in the form of a corbie, so that I might keep an eye on our adventurers and make sure that they had come to no harm thus far.
And on the third Sunday, I found that an opportunity for revenge had finally presented itself. Macgillichallum had tired of the game, having no real spirit for hunting anything other than hare and hind, and he departed for Lochalsh where his kinsmen waited with a boat for Raasay. As soon as he was gone and I could be sure to encounter MacIan alone, I put my plan into effect.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie