Cat Sìth: including 5 Legendary Tales
Written by: Caitlin
Published: 7th September 2021
Have you ever heard of Cat Sìth? The mysterious creature is a feature of many a Scottish story, often feared by the people, but on occasion responsible for bringing good fortune too. In this article we have including some of our favourite Cat Sìth legends and fables, as well as unpicked the history of the mysterious and magical beast, so you can make up your own mind whether you think of it as a friend or a foe…
What is Cat Sìth?
The English translation of Cat Sìth is The Fairy Cat
The legendary Cat Sìth is a fairy creature originating from Celtic mythology. It is believed to appear as a black cat, which is slender but as large as a dog, with a white spot on it’s chest, and it haunts the Scottish Highlands. It walks on all fours around humans, but will stand up on hind legs when it’s not being watched.
Legend has it that the spectral Cat Sìth haunts the Scottish Highlands.
It is commonly believed that the Cat Sìth of the Scottish highlands was inspired by the real life Scottish Wildcats, or more specifically, the Kellas cat, which is a hybrid between common, domesticated cats and the Wildcats of Scotland. When most wild cats have an almost tabby cat like fur the Scottish wild cat is sometimes all black. This would fit with the description of the Cat Sìth being both dangerous and feral, yet in some cases being used as household pets.
If you would like to find out more about Scottish Wildcats you can do so HERE.
Many people believed that the Cat Sìth were responsible for stealing the souls of the unburied dead and that they commonly preyed on funeral parlours and such places where the body is laid to rest and prepped prior to it’s burial. The highland folk would try to ward off the Cat Sìth with various riddles, music and catnip among other things, and they would also keep the corpse in a cold room, as they believed that Cat Sìth was attracted to warmth.
Cù Sìth (meaning Fairy Dog) is Cat Sìth’s dog like counterpart, which is also believed to haunt the Scottish Highlands. A similar creature exists in Irish folklore, known as cú sídhe, and it also bears some resemblance to the Welsh Cŵn Annwn.
This canine version is said to make its home in the clefts of rocks and to roam the moors, allegedly being around the same size as a calf! With it’s allegedly green and shaggy coat, large eyes and fiery glow, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the Cù Sìth is said to be even more sinister that the Cat Sìth.
Whereas the Cat Sìth only stole the souls of the already dead, it is said that the Cù Sìth preyed on the alive. It was capable of silently stalking it’s victim and would take their soul to the fairy realm or underworld. Sometimes three blood-curdling yowls that could be heard for a great distance, even far out at sea, would be uttered. Then who ever heard the howling of the beast had to reach a place of safety by the third howl or else they would be killed by the sheer terror.
The Cat Sìth in Folklore
The Cat Sìth may be the first folklore responsible for the modern day association between black cats and Halloween.
Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival, marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or “darker-half” of the year. It was typically held on the 1st November, with celebrations starting the night before on the last day of October, and it served as one of the earliest influences on the contemporary holiday of Halloween.
On Samhain, it was believed that the Cat Sìth would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out for it to drink. Those houses that did not leave out a saucer of milk were consequently cursed by the Cat Sìth. This curse was said to cause the udders of all the victim’s cows to go dry!
The Late Wake
As briefly mentioned before, the main reason that the people of the Scottish Highlands didn’t trust the Cat Sìth is because they believed that it could steal a person’s soul, before it was claimed by the gods, by passing over a corpse before it is buried.
In order to protect their deceased loved ones souls, watches called the Fèill Fhadalach, which means late wake, were formed night and day to make sure that the corpse was never left unattended. They also devised a number of ways to distract the Cat Sìth, such as games of leaping and wrestling and also riddles and music. They would even spread catnip throughout all the rooms in the house except the room that the body was in, and they would keep the room where the body lay very cold with no fires as they believed the Cat Sìth was attracted to warmth.
The Farmer’s Cat
As this story goes, there was a farmer who was returning home from working the field one night, when he encountered a very unusual funeral procession. Apparently there were eight cats carrying a coffin, which was draped in the royal shield, and following behind them was a parade of cats, who were chanting about how the King Of Cats was dead.
Nine black cats with white spots on their chests carrying a coffin with a crown on it were spotted by the farmer.
Upon seeing this, the farmer was surprisingly not scared, but simply intrigued. One of the cat’s spoke to the farmer and said “Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead”. So he carried on his way and when he arrived home he told his wife about what he had seen. As he described the strange sighting, his pet house cat sat up and said, ”Old Tim is dead, Then I must be king”. After speaking, the cat stood up, walked out of the house, and was never to be seen again by the farmer or his wife!
The Witch with Nine Lives
This story may be part of the reason for the commonly held belief that cats have nine lives!
While most folklore speaks of the Cat Sìth as a fairy creature, there is also another train of thought that suggests that the creature is actually a witch who has the ability to change into cat form. According to this particular tale, the witch changed into a cat and back to a witch again eight times, usually done whilst in danger. But on the ninth transformation, she was forced to remain a cat forever.
The Cat Síth is believed my many to take another form of, or at the very least to be related to, the legendary demonic cat which is sometimes known as ‘Big Ears’. Big Ears can be summoned in the brutal divination ceremony known as the taghairm. In this barbaric ritual cats were roasted alive for four days, one after the other, with no food to be consumer by the practitioners.
Some say that this supposedly summoned a legion of devils in the guise of black cats, with their master at their head, all screeching in a terrifying way. Some say that this would cause Big Ears to appear and grant any wish to those who took part in the ceremony. Either way, it doesn’t sound like a practise that is likely to be resurrected anytime soon!
Allan nan Creach was a bloodthirsty and merciless warrior who would mount expeditions to plunder his neighbours territory from his home in Tor Castle. By the late 1400s however, his fortunes had waned and he sought consul from Gorm Shiil, the Blue-Eyed witch. Under her direction and aided by a servant, he went to a corn-kiln just outside Tor Castle, near present day Fort William, to attempt the Taghairm nan Cat.
As the servant commenced the process of roasting the cat before a slow fire, Camdubh, the King of the Cats, appeared and offered his counsel in return for the liberation of the victim on the spit. Once freed, this cat disappeared into what was to be known as Buinne a Chait (The Pool of the Cats on the River Lochy).
In return, Allan asked how he may atone for his wicked past. To obtain forgiveness the King of Cats ordered Allan to build seven churches, one for every creach he had raised. Allan commenced his church building immediately and before he died he had indeed kept to his side of the agreement.A story from True Highlands
An incredible story this may appear to simply be, but when you start looking into it, it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction, and myth from history. Why not visit some of the seven churches for yourself and see what you think? Six of the seven sites are located at:
- St Kenneth’s Kirk
- Cille Choirill church
- Kilmodan church
- Eilean Munde
- Kilmallie parish church
- St. Finnans
You can find out more about all of them HERE. And as for the seventh church? Well that remains a mystery…
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