Folktale Friday: Bean Nighe – The Washerwoman of Death

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

The Bean Nighe (Ben Nee-ya) is a supernatural washer woman from the Scottish Highlands who scrubs the clothes of the soon-to-be-dead.

Bean Nighe FAQs

“How do I know if I’m looking at a Bean Nighe?”

If you’re in a remote area on the islands of Tiree or Mull, and you spot a naked woman whose ludicrously large, sagging breasts are slung over her shoulders. You’re half way there.

If that same woman is knee-deep in a river, beating personal stains out of a pair of pants with a rock – you’ve found your gal.

“Um, okay, but what if I’m not on Tiree or Mull?”

It varies.

If you’re on the Isle of Skye, she appears as “child-sized”, whereas in the Highlands of Perthshire the Bean Nighe is small, round and clothed in “pretty green”.

What doesn’t change is her dedication to doing laundry the old fashioned way.

Photo by Robert Schrader on

“What is the threat level of a Bean Nighe?”


Unlike her French cousins the Les Lavandieres, who have been known to break the arms of those who refuse to give them a hand with the washing, the Bean Nighe foretells death as opposed to causing it.

“Whose death?”

That depends on whose clothes she’s washing. If the clothes are yours the end is near; if they belong to another you’re in the clear.

Having said that, one white t-shirt is hard to tell from another, particularly at a distance. So, if you truly want to know whose death her appearance is heralding, you need to get close to her.

Preferably without her noticing you.

Photo by Rafael Barros on

“And how do I do that?”

As with her looks, methods to outwit the Bean Nighe vary depending on what part of the Highlands you find yourself in.

In Perthshire, you can capture the witchy washerwoman by getting between her and the water.

Once caught, she can be –

mastered and made to communicate her information at the point of the sword

John Gregorson Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, 1900
Photo by Octavian Dan on Unsplash

However, if you’re in Mull or Tiree, you can sneak up behind her, grab one of her bosoms and pop it in your mouth.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Rather than exploding into a homicidal rage, this gross violation will cause the Bean Nighe’s maternal instincts to kick in and she’ll be willing to answer any questions you may have as well as –

communicate whatever knowledge (you) desire.

John Gregorson Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, 1900

“How do I defeat the Bean Nighe?”

If during your informal interrogation she admits to washing a shirt of someone you don’t like, you let her continue and their death will swiftly follow.

If she admits she’s scrubbing your smalls, or garments belonging to your family and friends, she can be “put a stop to.”

And, let’s face it, there’s really only one way to interpret that.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on

However, you could simply choose to steer clear of the isles of Mull and Tiree altogether.

This guarantees you will never have to worry about running into the unearthly laundress or her low-hanging fruits.

Photo by Andres Ayrton on

“So what have we learnt?”

If you happen to be in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands and you notice a solitary woman doing laundry in a river or stream it might be best to give her a wide berth.

Sure, she could be a cash strapped backpacker trying to save a couple of pounds by handwashing her travel trousers instead of visiting a laundrette, but she could also be a supernatural harbinger of doom foretelling your death or that of a loved one.

Either way, she’s best left alone to do her laundry in peace.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on


Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, by John Gregorson Campbell, 1900
(available through Project

Les Lavandieres:

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