The Green Women Stories
The Gruagach and the Milk Stone
by S. J. McKenzie
part 1 of 2
Lying in a high field, near to my old house in Bennan, is a large flat stone, covered all over with holes. It may have once stood upright, or perhaps it has always lain flat upon the ground, so that the shallow holes fill quickly to overflowing whenever it rains, and the whole rock glistens grey and green. About the size of a coin are the holes, except the large one, right at the middle of the stone. Into that hole the milk was poured each night, and it never went to waste.
No–one could recall how the tradition began, or why the stone was chosen. To be sure, it had lain there long before the Gruagach herself was ever known on Arran. It must have stood in that field since the beginning of time, and the Old People made their circle marks upon it not long after. The Lady — for that is what we called her mostly — was far younger than the rock itself, but she was also the oldest thing living on Arran. Our grandmothers knew of her, and theirs before them, for all we knew.
What we did know for certain was that the libation must be made, if she were to remain with us. So each night the milk was poured upon the stone, and each night the eldest woman living at the house nearby must make the incantation:
Gruagach of Bennan,
Uphold our herds,
Keep down the murrain,
Keep the sickness from them.
In the morning, a cowherd chosen for the task would duly note that the milk was no longer present in the hole. This strange but simple fact held true each morning, no matter what the condition of the weather in the night. And in return for our libation, the Lady of Bennan tended to our cattle, and they were the finest on Arran. That is, until the time of her departure and the end of my sadness.
* * *
Long before I was born, there lived in this house a woman called Anne McPhaill, and she had the sight. It wasn’t strong with her, as it had been with some of her people in the past, but neither was it a matter to be taken lightly.
When she was young and newly married, she had seen the figure of her husband standing by the front door at a time when she knew him to be far out to sea. In this way she knew that death had taken him long before the tragic news was confirmed by his returning shipmates.
After that, she lived as a widow through many years, and knew the sorrows and troubles of the local people better than any other. It was she who first saw the Lady. This is what she related about her:
“I was at my window last evening, looking out over the field after hearing some noises there, when I saw a figure moving about. At first all I could see of her was the hat she wore, tall and conical, and it was difficult to make out the body beneath. Then out came the moon, and she was full and shone for me most kindly on the Lady, who I could see as clearly as if it were but a cloudy day. She stands as tall as a man, and is slender as a birch, and her hair shines like fine strands of gold. All the way down to her knees it falls, covering her all about like a mantle, so that she has no need of any clothing, so far as I could tell. But I could not say what lies beneath, and I never truly saw her face.
“She moved about in the field there, waving about a wand of some kind, but I could not make out what it was. I heard the lowing of cows, which startled me, for no cattle have been near that field in my long lifetime, and I thought I must have been dreaming. I could see no cattle at all, only the Lady moving about in the field, waving her wand this way and that as though directing a herd that was visible only to her.
“And that is when she began singing to herself. Her voice was low and mellow, not like that of a girl, but of a grown woman caught unawares, and thinking that no other can hear her, makes no effort to raise her voice. I caught snatches of the song, and the melody was unfamiliar to me, but I remember the words as clear as the moonlight that shone upon her:
The English made my heart a cairn,
They killed my lover and my bairn.
Hi, ho! Bring out the Herd!
They have stripped me to my shift,
And left me with my soul adrift,
Hi, ho! Bring out the Herd!
“Realising at once what she was, I gasped, whereas before I had stood in perfect silence. But she heard even that tiny sound, despite the breeze and the lowing of the ghostly herd around her. She spun around, and I caught my only glimpse of her face; a single blue eye shone out from beneath that yellow-gold hair and fixed me with fear and curiosity, and I could not tell you how long she held my gaze, but while her eye remained upon me, I was rooted to the spot and could do no more than look back at her. Then all at once she fled away into the darkness of the trees, and I could see her no more.
“So, you will not be surprised if I declare that the Lady of Bennan is the ghost of a girl who once lived here, perhaps in this very house. She is a kind spirit, tends our cattle well, and keeps them safe from the disease, which is an act we must repay. The libation must be made every night without fail, as it always has been. We cannot know how she will behave if we do not.”
McPhaill died a few years after that.
* * *
I grew up in the house where McPhaill had lived, for it was taken over by our family when she died. For many years it was my mother’s duty to make the libation each night, and she never failed in it, not once.
Even when we travelled over to Brodick to see her brother married and visit his new house, she could not attend, for we were to be gone the night, and she had to stay to see that the milk was properly poured into the stone.
The need for this was never questioned, nor the necessity for the same woman to do it each night. By our time, such things were set down cold and hard as the stone itself. While the cattle continued to grow strong and healthy, and while the Lady appeared as young and golden as ever, my mother’s life was held fast to the stone as if by a chain, and she grew grey and regretful towards the end of it.
When I was sixteen years old, I finally realised that the same fate was in store for me in years to come. I would be the woman who lived at the stone-house, and I would bear the duty of the libation in the same way McPhaill and my mother had done. It was only natural that curiosity should grow within me about the creature I would be bound to serve, and so I sought out several people in Bennan and Kilmory who had knowledge of the Lady, of one sort or another.
Of all those tales, the one I remember best was told to me by Jamie Carrigan, a senior man of Kilmory with a wife and two sons, and one of the last people in the area to have seen the Lady close at hand. He’d been a boy of no more than thirteen, working on Farmer Cogan’s farm, when the following incident took place:
“I was out walking near the foot of the hills near the headland, with nobody but a few dogs for company,” Carrigan told me. “All of a sudden the sun came out strongly, and there she was, right by me, tending to a herd of cattle which likewise I had not been able to see before. In respect to the shining gold hair, she was just as old McPhaill said, but whereas MacPhaill made her out to be fully human, I’m sure I saw the legs of a goat down there beneath her.
“She saw me just as I saw her, and bounded away towards a cave close to the shore, the one we now call the Cave of the Monster. I wouldn’t have dared to follow, but my dogs went after her as though she were a bitch in heat and ignored all my calls for them to leave off the chase. I could no longer see her, for the sun had gone behind the clouds again, but I could hear her when she went inside the cave, and the noise I heard was one no woman could make, but more like that of an angry bull.
“The dogs followed her right inside the cave, I think because the smell of her drove them mad. To me, it smelled like a female fox that had spent much time in a pigsty, so imagine how it would have seemed to those poor beasts? One of them retreated out soon after, whimpering and limping as though he’d been sorely beaten. The other did not come out at all.
“Farmer Cogan gave me my marching orders for that, for he loved those dogs more than he loved any of his boys. Anyway, I don’t care what people say about the Lady: the beast in that cave has no good in her. I’d have nothing to do with her, if I were you.”
That was but one of the tales I heard about the beast in the cave, which somehow was connected with the kindly maid who tended to our cattle and drank the libation each night. No–one in Bennan knew how or what manner of creature it was. Attempts to obtain information by spying on the milk-stone at night had always left the watcher unenlightened, and the morning would find him half-frozen, or drenched, or preyed upon by the midges and clegs until his skin was raw.
So after a time, the people here had decided that to live in ignorance was better than to invite her wrath, and they gave up on all attempts to discover the creature’s nature. No-one went near the cave, and any dogs that chased her were not pursued.
Almost as though she realised that her secrecy was to be preserved, the Lady began to appear more frequently in the hills above Bennan after that. Out would come the sun of an afternoon, and there she would be, clearly visible on a certain hilltop, her gold hair shining like a beacon, and snatches of the melody of her song caught on the breeze.
The people would fetch their cattle and drive them toward her, taking care not to get too close. Half-way across the valley was considered far enough; from then on, the cattle would make their own way to her, as though drawn on by her song. And she would tend to them in some mysterious way which was never clear from a distance, before hieing them safe again across the vale. And these were the finest cattle on Arran, as I told you before.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by S. J. McKenzie