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The Blue Men of Scottish Legend

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The following fairy tale was told to me by a man wearing Carhartt flannel-lined jeans, a tweed jacket, and brown Gorsuch shoes. And there was a twinkle in his eye as he spoke. It might have been more fitting – more stylish – if he’d been dressed in Ralph Lauren designer duds, but he wasn’t. Maybe RL needs to review and retool their marketing, as a Scottish fairy tale would seem to mesh well with their brand.

No one is really sure where this fairy tale originated. Some scholars say that the story of the Blue Men came from Morocco, through the Berber traders as they sailed north to do business with the Scottish islanders. The faces of the Berbers were glossy blue from the pigment they used to dye their leather merchandise. When business went bad, the Berbers became pirates, sailing the strait looking for ships to plunder. These pirate attacks were called “mad pleasure.”

According to legend, not only do the Blue Men have blue skin, but long gray faces with beards, and green hair. Their eyes are small, their noses are flat like the back of an axe, and their mouths are wide. They have long arms and fish-tails instead of legs, which means they are mermen. They are as large as a normal land-bound man, and their strength is prodigious.

An astute captain may, however, fend off an attack by the Blue Men. This is done by engaging the chieftain of the Blue Men in a rhyming contest. For the Blue Men have a fondness for extemporaneous rhyme. This is because the Blue Men are descended from Glaukos, who was an educated man (in a literary sense) and the helmsman of the Argos, upon which Jason sailed in his quest for the golden fleece. Glaukos ate magic herbs and turned into a sea god, or so the story goes.

The Blue Men – most of them anyway – live in caves under the waters of the Minch, which is a strait separating the mainland of Scotland from the Isle of Lewis and the Shiant Isles. Some call this strait the Stream of the Blue Men (Na h-Eileinean). Others call it the Current of Destruction, because they say the constant swimming of the Blue Men stirs up the waves, making it dangerous for boats and ships.

The Blue Men, like the “sons of God” (angels) in the biblical book of Genesis, are sexually aggressive, seeking out pleasure with mortal women. Many times these intimacies produce children. Some of the male offspring resemble the Blue Men and live in the sea. As do some of the female offspring. They are called Blue Women (Na Te Ghorm, hai Glaukoi). For unknown reasons, the Blue Women are not as famous as the Blue Men, but they are just as sexually aggressive as their male counterparts.

Some of the offspring resemble mortals, having legs instead of fish-tails. And their complexions are dark, which is to be expected. Some of them have webbed fingers. The midwives trim away the webbing with knives or scissors. Nevertheless, a rough callous remains along the inner edges of the fingers. Many of the Scottish Highlanders have this callous, so we know they are different from other mortals – Blue Man blood flows through their veins.

And for a fact, the Blue Men may be related to the “sons of God,” the angels. For many of the Highlanders say that the Blue Men are fallen angels who were not as guilty as the rest, so they weren’t thrown into Hell. Others say the Blue Men are people being punished by God for some sin. Although the sin is never specified.

The inference of this angelic connection pleases the Highlanders. For it means the blood of a formerly heavenly race of people flows in them, too. And it means that even though they are energetic sinners, there is hope for the Highlanders. Perhaps they, too, will avoid Hell.

One prominent tale of the Blue Men goes thus:

“A fishing trawl passed through the strait on its way home after a day of heavy fishing. A light fog stood upon the carpet of a gray sea. Lookouts were posted. One of them spotted something floating on the surface of the sea off the starboard bow. It was a Blue Man fast asleep in the water.

“Quickly and silently, the fisherman netted him. Taken on board, he was bound hand and foot. His skin was blue and his fish-tail glistened with scales even though there was no sun.

“The trawler had not sailed a thousand feet when two more Blue Men rose to the surface shouting:

Duncan will be one,
Duncan will be two,
Will you need another
Ere you reach the shore?

“A moment later, as if he alone had understood the mysterious message, the prisoner snapped his bonds and dove into the sea.”

Strictly speaking, there’s not really a moral to the story of the Blue Men. There is, however, an explanation. The Blue Men are a myth. A myth that explains the origin and distinctiveness of the Scottish Highlanders. And although a myth is irrational and unscientific on the one hand, it is psychologically and spiritually necessary on the other. Human beings need more than antiseptic facts and empirical evidence to account for themselves; they need belief, history and, most importantly, stories. For stories have life, and they provide a sense of glamour. Facts and evidence don’t convey a sense of life or a glow of glamour, they are inanimate.

Without glamour there is no culture. Culture is built upon the ideas, habits, skills, art, instruments, and institutions of a given people. And all these building blocks of culture must support and carry a certain portion of beauty or charm to justify their existence – or at least appear to have a suggestion of charm, even if in reality they don’t. For the people of a culture need to believe they are special, and not common. For being common is depressing, which leads to self-pity. Whereas being special aggrandizes in a healthy way. It engenders ambition, love, mercy, courage, and self-sufficiency.

Myths, then, are the cultural equivalent of a person who is a name-dropper. If I know someone who is famous, then by association I’m special too.

To this end, a narrative of how and why they are special becomes imperative. So stories are concocted, stories which explain origins, characteristics, and exclusivity. The narratives do not always declare a people or culture to be blessed, just special. Indeed, some mythical narratives describe cultures that are special because of their monumental suffering. Their very act of suffering becomes a monument to their specialness. For only an extraordinary culture – an extraordinary people – could suffer so and still survive. Any other culture would, necessarily, have vanished.

The myth of the Blue Men provides uniqueness – the twinkle of glamour – to the culture of Scottish Highlanders. They are special sinners: a lusty people, but at least this is a socially acceptable sin, one that other cultures may actually be jealous of. But, the Highlanders claim, their randiness is the result of their greatness as a race – the blood of fallen angels runs through their bodies. Thus they are twice special.

Collectively and individually, human beings need to feel, to believe, and to demonstrate that they are unique. Without this self-perception, they are devoid of glamour. Without glamour, human beings lose their self-esteem and enter depression and despair. Then begins degeneration, which is simply the search for glamour through pleasure. Which is a dead end, because, although pleasure is enjoyable, it has no glamour.

Ralph Lauren – or any of the major apparel designers – could take a clue from the Blue Men about glamour and its effects on the human psyche.

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