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The Cat-Witch of Laggan

by S. J. McKenzie

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The details of my encounter with MacIan are well known; he made sure enough of that, the braggart. Therefore, I do not need to relate them to you again, but will rely on your recollection of the story that has been told in these parts ever since.

But while you remember the tale, understand the truth of what really took place: I had the upper hand the whole time, not MacIan; for it was not ever my purpose to kill him, but rather, to make it appear as though he had killed me. In this, I was quite successful.

Donald MacIan, the hunter of the hills, had a bothy, up in the forest of Gaick. He retreated there in the evenings after his hunting and trapping was over for the day. One night as he was preparing for sleep, there appeared at the door a large cat, of ash in colour, most soaked and weather–beaten, for there was a storm raging outside.

“Great hunter of the hills,” exclaimed she, “I claim your protection. Oh spare this poor wretch, who flies to you from the cruelty and oppression of the elements, and of her own sisterhood.”

MacIan knew her for a witch at once; not by her conversation, as a normal man might have done, but due to the wrinkled skin around her eyelids that she could never lose, no matter what form she took. But the noble fellow disdained to take advantage of an enemy in such a forlorn situation, instead asking her to come to the fire and warm herself.

Most fussily, she refused this invitation until he had performed a further service. Taking from her head a strand of black hair, she passed it over to him and requested that he use it to tie up his dogs, which had been snarling at her most impolitely ever since they laid eyes on her.

The hunter, knowing well that the hair would become a strong binding rope upon her command, threw it instead across the beam of wood that supported the roof of the bothy, and placed instead about the neck of his dogs one of his own hairs, which of course had no effect in restraining them, but his soothing words were enough to quiet them for a time.

As soon as the dogs were docile, the hunter saw that he had been too generous to his enemy, for the cat began to increase in size, which caused him to comment in light–hearted tone: “A bad death to you, you nasty beast, for you are getting very large, and soon there will be no room or the two of us.”

“Aye, aye,” replied the cat, equally jocosely, “as my hairs imbibe the heat, they naturally expand, until I take up all the room I require.”

Having exchanged these pleasantries, the main part of the adventure was at hand; for the cat soon reached such a size that there was no mistaking her for anything other than the Cat-Witch of Laggan about to make a kill. But as she stood up and prepared to pounce, the two dogs sprang at her before she could strike at their master, to her considerable surprise.

The witch now made to cast her spell upon the pair. “Fasten, hair, fasten,” she exclaimed, supposing the dogs to have been bound by her own hair, but of course, this did not have the strangling effect upon the beasts that she supposed, but instead served presently to snap the cross–beam in twain, causing the little bothy to collapse in upon the three of them.

Brave MacIan had fled outside the structure shortly beforehand, knowing full well what would occur if the strangling charm were spoken. To his sorrow, both of his dogs were found lifeless within the ruins, but that was nothing to the joy he felt upon finding the true body of the Witch of Laggan also therein.

A cruel old hag she had been, grey as a hare and wrinkled as a toad, and covered all over with the devil’s teats. He dragged her body down to Laggan in triumph, but before it could be burned, it collapsed into a strange slime, like that found on the sea–shore after a storm.

And that concludes the tale of the death of the Cat-Witch of Laggan, and it was the cause of much rejoicing for good–minded folk everywhere.

So, now you have recalled the tale of my apparent destruction, you need only know that at the instant of greatest need, I took on the form of a corbie, and flew away from there without the hunter knowing a thing of it. I left behind a body of sorts — a thing of fleshy substance shaped like my own — which lasted just long enough for MacIan to prove that he had bested me.

And as far as anyone knew until this very moment, that was the fate of the Cat-Witch of Laggan.

* * *

Now, on to the outcome of the wager: if he kept his word, Macgillichallum must admit MacIan to be the better of him, and pay the price they had agreed. I hoped and prayed to my own gods that this would be the end of the evil contest between them, and that John Garve, suitably shamed, would never return to the mainland. But it turned out that on his next visit to Laggan, the nobleman did not behave as I had anticipated.

News of my death must have reached Raasay within a fortnight, but yet it was another six months before he made an appearance here. The pair of witch–hunters met in Laggan, not a stone’s throw from the sacred yard where I buried my mother, and she buried hers before that, so that it pained me to hear the ugly lies and protestations of the Islander spoken so close to where their precious remains are interred.

“The bargain we made was not just,” he claimed, as MacIan eyed him warily. The hunter of the hills had come alone, as was honourable, but Macgillichallum had brought with him four of his manservants, each armed like their Laird, to preclude the possibility of a single–handed fight with MacIan that he would undoubtedly have lost.

“I am in no mind to pay any debt,” said the Laird of Raasay. “Had I won, you could not have paid me, and that was an equally likely occurrence. Therefore, it was not a gentleman’s agreement. Besides, you have no corpse to show me as proof. Should I take the word of a common hunter and a rabble of townsfolk, who are likely in his debt, when I have not the evidence of my own eyes? I think not.”

MacIan, unable to fight the nobleman, railed at him instead, accusing him of deliberately delaying his return so that the corpse could not be shown, and calling him by all sorts of names that were most distressing to hear spoken in that place, but I knew his reasons to be just. Eventually, he despaired, and made his way back to his bothy, leaving the nobleman in Laggan with his foolish pride intact.

Well, MacIan may have been defeated, but I was not. The murder of one of our sisterhood was worthy of revenge to be sure, but I had thought that to strip him of honour would be a worse fate than helping him to a hero’s death. But now that I saw he had no honour to speak of, only one fitting punishment remained.

Moreover, he had broken a sacred promise. No man or woman may break a pledge made at the Yard of Dalarossie without offending the dead that rest there. Such a deed bears likewise bears only one punishment. That is our way. It has always been so.

But how to accomplish his death, when he was surrounded at all times by a retinue of warriors? In this I would need the help of the sisterhood.

As Macgillichallum returned to the coast on horseback, I summoned twelve of our number to a meeting here in Laggan. After having agreed upon our course of action and we sped ourselves to Lochalsh, where we caught up with the enemy in a ferry–house.

They were in the act of determining whether to set sail for the Isles in a gale that had recently blown up. I entered alone, while my sisters remained outside, perched upon the stone wall and cawing in mirth as the Laird of Raasay’s men tried to make ready the rigging in such a fierce wind.

“Ah, old woman there,” called John Garve in a garrulous tone as I approached. “My men are a–feared that they will not make home, if they set out this day. I, on the other hand, am of a mind to reach my residence as soon as I am able, regardless of any squall or storm. What say you of this?”

As he spoke, I noted with pleasure that he and his crew had taken recourse to that great supporter of spirits under every trial, the usquebaugh, a few bottles of which will add vastly to the resolution of any company, while detracting to an equal degree from their ability to do anything with it.

Clearly, there is only one reason that a man seeks the opinion of a crone, and that is to infer that his comrades have less spirit then she. I was happy to oblige him in this, and answered him as follows:

“If a man makes a pledge to another, but then will not honour it when the hour arrives, it must be questioned if he is a man at all. Perhaps you would be better travelling with a woman? I will gladly be your companion in this journey. And should you seek further comrades than me, you might find the seals in the bay have more courage than your kinsmen, and a better odour to boot.”

John Garve laughed heartily at that, and his men were shamed, and at once agreed that to set sail at once was most necessary indeed. For my own part, I asked for nothing more than to sail with them as far as the Point of Eyre on Skye, and Garve was happy to oblige, after the assistance that I had just rendered him.

What now were the consequences of my actions? No sooner had we taken to the waves than the wind drove us speedily in the direction of Raasay, but the storm was even more violent than it had appeared from the shore and the crew soon lost what heart they had. The heroic chieftain labored hard to dispel the despair which begun to seize them, by singling out the most frightened souls and comparing them to worms beneath the earth, thereby lifting the spirits of all others that heard it.

And it must be said that his seamanship was fine and worthy, for in spite of the combined efforts of the sea, the wind, and the lightning, he kept the vessel steadily on her course towards Eyre, which of course was my chosen place of disembarkation. Just as it seemed that the bold fellow had won out against the sea, it was time for us to condemn him to it.

First of all, a very large black cat was seen climbing in the rigging. Where formerly there had been a flock of twelve small seabirds perching there, now nonesuch were apparent, and the cat was soon followed by another of equal size, and the last by a successor, until presently there were twelve very large beasts of black or grey, weighing down the masts, spoiling the sails and clawing at the rigging in an assault that would soon render the whole ship quite impotent against the storm.

“Infernal witches!” cried Macgillichallum, as his men cowered in fear. And all of a sudden he knew me, and turned on me with the following cry: “Damn you, Witch of Laggan, and damn all your brood. You still live. I knew MacIan for a liar.”

“MacIan spoke the truth as he knew it,” called I above the wind. “You are the liar, Laird of Raasay, and Hell will take you long before it ever sees me.” At the conclusion of this banter, I also assumed the form of a cat, the largest of all that were present, and leapt up onto the mast–head, where my weight began at once to over–topple the vessel onto her leeward wale.

Though doomed without doubt, John Garve was determined to sell his life as dearly as possible, and immediately commanded an attack upon my sisters and me, but his men were so overcome by fear that not a single one of them obeyed it. Soon they were all below the water and making their way to watery graves — for not a soul among them could swim.

Meanwhile my sisters and I resumed the form of birds, and flew ourselves to Skye, laughing and cawing in the brutal wind. And that is how we achieved the doom of John Garve Macgillichallum, Laird of Raasay, much to the lamentation of the Clan Leod and many other people of the Isles, but conversely to our great satisfaction.

* * *

That was the testimony of the Cat-Witch of Laggan, Clara Fahey. She passed easily into the eternal sleep not minutes after it was complete.

It was the source of great amazement to us, and at first there were many who did not quite believe it, for it recalled a time so different from that in which we found ourselves, that it was hard to remember it as true. MacIan had died twenty years before, and the activity of witches had ceased at about the same time, so it seemed to us here in Badenoch as though that age were behind us, and now we had nought to fear in the night but the depredations of the glaistig and the water–horse.

A crowd of us had gathered in the house with Fahey, for she was esteemed as most virtuous and her passing was to be an event of considerable sorrow. When she began talking, some folks thought she had lost her mind, and others protested that she should stop at once, lest she say anything that might offend God or his minister.

But then, as she began to tell us of those dire events of thirty years before, at length we began to believe. The familiar cat upon her lap lent the tale an air of truth, as did the scars upon her legs, revealed to us as corroboration of the fight with MacIan’s hounds in the bothy. And most strange of all, her corpse soon became strange and shapeless before it could be laid to rest, meaning that no burial could we give her, either within the churchyard or without it. However, it seems that the Cat-Witch may have had her own ideas regarding the final resting place of her soul, as this final part of the tale will attest.

A man of Laggan was returning home late that night, southward through the dreary forest of Monalea, when he met a young woman dressed in black, who ran with great speed in the other direction.

The young woman approached and asked the man if he knew the right hour, as she must be in Dalarossie by midnight. Thinking her familiar, but unable to place her exactly, the man nonetheless assisted the woman and told her that the yard was not far, but that she had best hurry, as midnight was nearly upon them. Off she ran, uttering the most fearful lamentations, and the traveler continued on his way also.

He had not gone long when he was overtaken by a large black dog, which traveled past him with much haste, as if upon the scent of a track or footsteps; and soon after another large black dog swept passed him in the same manner, closely followed by its master, a hunter dressed all in black, with a bow upon his back and a black dirk at his side, and mounted on a fleet black courser that was flecked all over from the chase. Once again, the traveler thought this newcomer to be familiar to him, but he could not exactly place when he had met him before.

“Pray,” says the rider to the traveler, “did you meet a woman as you came along the hill?” The traveler replied in the affirmative. “And did you meet a dog soon after?” rejoined the rider. The traveler again replied that he did. At this the rider stirred up his horse again and sped northward to catch the woman in the final moments of the day that remained.

And the traveler, now somewhat afraid, ran southward and hoped that was the end of it. But before he had gotten another mile, the rider overtook him on his return, with the two black hounds galloping by his side. The young woman was not to be seen with them. Clearly, she had made it to Dalarossie just ahead of them.

On the traveller’s return home to Laggan, he was told about the death of the Witch, and at once made sense of what he had seen. At the death of her body, her soul had fled from the infernal powers which sought to claim it, seeking the safety of the Yard of Dalarossie. For that yard is so sacred a place that even the soul of a witch is protected from harm there. And as far as we know, the devil’s man was unable to catch her, and it was her final resting place.

Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie

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