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Tale of the unexpected: College course on Gaelic supernatural folklore is a surprise hit among students as far away as Canada

The course examines Gaelic supernatural folklore
The course examines Gaelic supernatural folklore

For a course that delves into the world of second sight, it’s success was unforeseen.

Talks on Gaelic supernatural folklore delivered by an island college have been a surprise hit after being forced to go online.

Originally run as an on-campus course, it attracted a small following.

But since going online during the pandemic numbers have boomed, including students from as far afield as Canada.

The course has proven so popular that a waiting list has had to be put in place.

Supernatural stories are incredibly popular

Catriona Murray, a BA Gaelic and Development lecturer at Lews Castle College UHI in Stornoway, resumes the six-week course today.

She says she has had more inquiries about the course than any subject she has delivered.

And rather aptly the full reasons remain unexplained.

Catriona Murray.

“Right now anything to do with the supernatural seems to be incredibly popular with people,” she said.

“A recent podcast, Uncanny, which was developed and delivered during the pandemic, was a runaway success. I don’t know if that’s got anything to do with it.

“But in terms of Gaelic supernatural folklore there is a universal interest. In taps into something in everyone.

“Is there something beyond ourselves? Is there an unseen world?

Halloween Guisers by Margaret Fay Shaw, South Lochboisdale, 1932. Image from the Margaret Fay Shaw Photographic Collection, Canna House, National Trust for Scotland.

“There are a lot of stories people grew up with. When I talk about something it can be like flicking a switch on in some people as it’s a half remembered thing from their childhood.

“It appeals to something in all of us. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is not interested in this.”

Halloween, fairies and witches on the curriculum

Catriona began teaching folklore as part of the college’s BA Gaelic programmes and was asked to give talks on the supernatural to local history societies and community trusts.

“There is always an interest in the supernatural,” she continued.

“And here in the Western Isles, many of us grew up hearing stories of ghosts and the second sight in particular.

It appeals to something in all of us.

Catriona Murray

“What I love about teaching these short courses is that people do them out of genuine interest, and they often bring their own stories to share with the rest of us.”

The course covers subjects including Halloween, fairies, witches and wise women, ghosts and second sight.

It attracts a broad spectrum of people of all ages, including students in a wide variety of disciplines, including visual and musical arts, and film-making, says Catriona.

Reclaiming our heritage

“Halloween is a good place to start, and it’s a good way of reclaiming part of our heritage,” she added,

“Some people have the idea that Halloween and Trick and Treat is an American import, but its roots go a lot further back than that.

“Not everyone is going to learn to speak Gaelic. But a lot of people are interested in Gaelic culture and heritage which has been neglected to a certain extent and yet is really accessible.

“Most Gaels, whether they speak Gaelic or not, have knowledge of these stories and it does something in terms of identity.

“Through cultural and heritage related things people feel part of something so there is that element to it for some people.”

Gaelic culture portrays ghosts as visions of the future

She says most interest focuses on ghosts and second sight.

“In Gaelic heritage these are not two separate subjects, they are two sides of the same coin. People are interested in the relationship between foretelling the future and this notion we have in English of ghosts always being spirits of the dead.

“In Gaelic culture ghosts were not always spirits of the dead, they were sometimes visions of the future as well.

“That is very interesting to people as the traditional spirituality and churchgoing tends to be in decline and they look for something in that area.”

Stories of ghosts and murders

A popular ghost story centres on a mill in Breasclete on the west of Lewis, said to be haunted by a woman with elaborately coiffured hair.

After the original miller and his family were driven away, the woman continued to appear, latterly to a young boy employed as night watchman.

When word got about that the boy had seen her, the account given by the first miller resurfaced.

She had told him that she and her brother had come to work in the area at the time of a great herring-catch, and been murdered for their money.

The murderer had never recovered her coins, for they were hidden in her plaited hair.

Lews Castle College UHI.

The Loch of the One-Night Shieling

Another story, which many districts claim happened locally to them, is Loch Àirigh na h-Aon Oidhche, or The Loch of the One-Night Shieling.

One version is that a man built a shieling for his two daughters in an eerie and lonely spot. On their first night there the two women take pity on an old lady passing by and offer her shelter.

Having only the one bed, the old woman shares with them. In the morning, one girl wakes up in a pool of blood, but not her own. When she looks at the woman she has turned into a monster.

The girl flees, but the beast kills her with one blow. Her father hunted down the creature and killed it.

However, having lost his two daughters, he ensures no one ever spends another night in the shieling.

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