Caitríona, a stout cattle owner in Strathavon, was desperate to find means to save her cattle from a fatal disease that was ravaging all the herds in the region.
As all Christian rites and prayers proved fruitless, the poor woman finally sought the advise of an old hag with a permanent, toothless smile who lived in the nearby glen.
The old woman had seen it all before and knew the best remedies. The most effective, according to her, was to go to the local churchyard at midnight when there was a full moon (the timing was essential) and obtain a head from the dead body of a man. The old hag insisted that only a dead man's head would be able to destroy the devil's power responsible for killing bovine. This, provided that it be obtained at midnight and held aloft to face the full moon. Caitríona must also carry out the same ritual at midnight before the moon for the following three days.
The cattle owner was a hardy, practical women. As she had tried everything, she reasoned that there would be no great harm in finally taking a witch's advice. She was a bit adverse to the idea of going to the churchyard in the middle of the night alone however, so she managed to persuade a woman neighbour friend to accompany her.
On arrival Caitríona's friend couldn't hide her fear, and refused to enter the churchyard. She reluctantly promised to wait at the church gates for Caitríona who staunchly went ahead on her ghoulish errand.
She chose an old grave, managed to move the broken pieces of tomb stone and began digging with the spade she had thoughtfully brought along for that very purpose.
She soon came to a body and detached the skull. It still had a few hoary hairs that shone silvery in the bright moonlight and floated gracefully in the breeze. She was about to set down the head and tidy things up, when suddenly an eery voice broke the silence of the night. "Whit the caber dost thou think ye be doing wi' ma heid the noo?"
On hearing this Caitríona hastily replaced the head, but undaunted, she soon dug up another skull deeper down in the same grave. The second skull was quite bare but full of earth. Once more the uncanny voice lamented. "That heid noo belongs to me faither!" Again Caitríona replaced the skull, wiped her muddy hands on her apron, and then dug down further to find a third, darker stained skull. "And that one noo belongs to me grandda!" came the withering voice.
At this Caitríona replied that the head would only be on loan, and she would make up for it afterwards by making sure that the neglected tomb would be well tended in the future. She would even embellish it with seasonal flowers, she added. This seemed to reassure the ghost who nevertheless replied, "That ye do ye fat besom, or I shalt haunt ye and your kin for ere mere".
Unimpressed, Caitríona showed the skull to the full moon then wrapped it in a cloth, replaced the earth, dragged the broken tomb stones together to fit in their proper places. She then left the cemetery expecting to find her friend, only to discover that she'd gone.
On hearing the churchyard conversations, nothing prevented Caitríona's friend from waiting any longer. The shock had caused her hair to become white and stand on end. Terrified she had run off in the night like a mad, bleached golliwog.
Although the old hag's remedy made absolutely no difference to the fate of Caitríona's doomed cattle, she fully respected the agreement she had made with the ghost. She replaced the borrowed scull and faithfully tended the grave regularly, which indeed was to her credit.
As her entire herd of cattle was wiped out by bovine bacteria, brachyspira pilosicoli or buffalopox, Caitríona took to sheep farming and made a fortune by selling Scottish lamb as well as fine wool that was woven to make the best Scottish tartans in the Highlands.
It was said that such success following tragedy had something to do with her tending a certain grave in the local cemetery. If there's any truth in this, then it would go to show that one should best heed one's own heart and mind, rather than old hag's tales. But perhaps the old woman was much wiser than one might think..
Scottish myths 31
Scottish myths 29Retelling © Mirino from 'The Death Bree', Scottish Folktales changed to accord more with Highland common sense, with thanks. Photos (Duddingston kirk, also radically changed) from Scotfot, with many thanks. September, 2013