Sleek, silent, and graceful, the Cat Sìth is one of the most feared creatures of Scottish mythology. Taking the form of a black cat with a white spot on its chest, Cat Sìth are incredibly large; around the size of a medium or large dog depending on which sources you consider. Though the name Cat Sìth can be loosely translated to 'Fairy Cat', many sources do not consider them fairy creatures, but shape shifters.
Like so many creatures in Scottish mythology, Cat Sìth are not exclusive to Scotland; they are also mentioned in Irish folklore where they are referred to as Cat Sí. The stories about these creatures are diverse and sometimes sinister.
Witches in Disguise
Delve into the lore surrounding Cat Sìth and you will quickly see a big inconsistency in the way they are discussed. Firstly, they may be discussed as fairy creatures. Abnormally large cats with unnatural stealth and agility, they are found across the highlands and islands.
Secondly, they may be referred to as shape-shifters. Not fairy creatures, but witches who can transform into pitch black cats with white patches on their chest. They can do so nine times and nine times only; after their ninth transformation, the are stuck in cat form forever.
This may explain why some sources state that Cat Sìth only walk on all fours when observed by humans; in private, they walk on their hind legs.
The origin of these myths seem to be lost, but as a witchcraft historian, I would be shocked if the references to witches didn't become common in the 16th and 17th centuries when paranoia about witchcraft in Scotland reached a fever pitch. Perhaps this myth also fed into the old adage about cats having nine lives.
Whichever form of the story you believe, Cat Sìth are usually categorized as malevolent creatures, and they are shunned. Why? Because they present a danger to the human soul.
Cat Sìth are soul thieves; some stories surrounding these creatures state that Cat Sìth could pass by recently deceased people before they were buried and steal what soul lingered before it could pass on or be claimed by God.
For the highly religious people of medieval and Early Modern Scotland, this would have been a true horror. Whether Cat Sìth devoured the souls or had some other fate planned, I could not find out; perhaps it was never defined in the stories. Folklore is, in my opinion, the original form of horror story; the unknown is often the most fearful thing of all.
This common belief may have led to a death tradition; the Feill Fadalach, or Late Wake (technically this translates to 'Late Party'), is a process of watching a body after death. Wakes are also often referenced in Irish culture, and there's no certainty that this tradition is connected to Cat Sìth as some sources claims.
Nonetheless, certain folkloric sources will state that this tradition of watching a body day and night served to keep Cat Sìth away and protect the soul of the dead so that they could be buried complete with their soul and claimed by God.
The watchmen of these wakes were said to take steps to distract or ward off Cat Sìth. This included not lighting fires near a body as Cat Sìth love warmth and would be attracted to fires. They might also leave out offerings or prepare riddles to distract the Cat Sìth.
They're not all bad, however. As a happier addendum to this myth, some tales state that Samhain is a sacred day for Cat Sìth, and those households who leave milk out as an offering on Samhain night may be blessed by Cat Sìth for the coming year. Fail to leave an offering, however, and they may curse your home; if the Cat Sìth lacks milk, so will you. Your cows udders will dry and milk in your household will sour.
The Cat Behind the Myth?
Like so many myths, the mythos of the Cat Sìth has far reaching fingers and some roots in the real world.
Consider the tale 'The King of the Cats'. This is listed as a British folk tale and so there is no certainty that it refers to a Cat Sìth, however, there are deep links between Scottish, English, Irish, and Welsh folklore in many ways.
In this tale, a man comes home after a long day at work and tells his wife, who is sitting by the fire with their cat Old Tom, that he saw nine black cats with white spots on their chests on the road. The cats were carrying a coffin, he said, with a crown on top of it. One cat said to him,
"Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead."
Upon hearing this, their cat Old Tom stands on his hind legs and exclaims,
"What? Old Tim is Dead? Then I'm the King O' the Cats!"
Old Tom then climbs up the chimney, leaving the home, and is never seen again.
In a more real-world sense, however, it is highly likely that the legend of the Cat Sìth is connected to the existence of Kellas cats. These very large cats are the result of interbreeding between Scottish Wildcats and domestic house cats. Kellas cats look very likehouse cats, despite their size, which cannot be said of wildcats. So, its easy to understand why people may have been alarmed at the sight of them on a dark night.
If you want to read more about Scottish folklore, consider the other instalments in this series:
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