The Blue Men of the Minch and Mississippi

You probably know at least one variation of the tale of the Blue Men of the Minch. My favourite in these days of lockdown, when so many old men like me are reviewing our lives, is probably the simplest version.
The Minch, in case you don’t know it, is a stretch of water in the Hebrides and the tale of the Blue Men is most usually told of how there are Blue Men in the area near the Shiant Isles, although I have encountered them all over the world.
It is said there that when old men go fishing all alone and mournful on a soft summers evening, perhaps with a half bottle of whisky to fight off the demons of remorse , they are naturally surprised when a stark naked blue man suddenly swims over to their dingy , climbs aboard and starts to sing a song.
The content of the song is even more startling, for the Blue Man is singing of their lives and all the bad things the rower has done. Those years when he was drinking too much, that girl he let down at the altar, how he hadn’t really given enough time to the kids, his missed opportunities at work and the faults on his own spiritual journey.
After a few dozen of these irritating verses the Blue Man pauses and offers the astonished rower a contract.

If the rower can sing a better song telling in contrast of all the good things he has done that was good the blue man will get out of the boat and swim away. If not, and the Blue Man’s song is better than his the Blue Man will indeed swim away but this time dragging the rower with him by the hair, down down into the greeny-blue depths of remorse and despair to be his slave for eternity.*

I imagine such a visit can considerably lessen the pleasure taken from an evening’s fishing. Unless you have a good song to sing.
I often tell this tale when teaching story telling and legend in American Universities.. The course essay I usually then give is to ask the students, who are usually about twenty, to write the obituaries they would like written about them when they have died aged eighty.
If such a task is too irksome they can instead write me the song of the good deeds they might sing to a Blue Man, or indeed one that the blue man might sing back at them. They need not be too worried about the task, we are after all just talking story telling which is just a safe forum in which to play with the serious. Nonsense is welcome at this stage in their lives, it will all get properly serious quite soon enough.
I imagine across Scotland in these lockdown days there will many folk, with empty half bottles beside them, singing songs of their own glories, perhaps to their grandchildren and then listening to demons singing back at them in the night. I certainly am.
What was it that Napolean said about wanting to have Generals who were happy in their dreams..
A couple of years ago I was living in a tiny town in Mississippi called Starkville. I used to spend many of my afternoons trawling the town for stories to tell my students. It annoyed the hell out of me that they usually spent their days holed up in their bedrooms playing computer games when only a mile away lay Starkville where there were folk who could tell them tales about how their great grand parents had been the sons of slaves and what it was like to have cancer and not be able to afford to go to the doctors .
The best story I found in Starkville was of a fast food joint where an armed robbery had taken place the previous day. I naturally went down to find out what the story was, but the bored assistant at the counter told me that she had no idea what had happened as she had been on a different shift. and nobody had told her anything. Armed robberies were evidently so common in that area that they went largely unnoticed.
Guns are king in Mississippi and it’s hard to go a day without seeing one. People wear them in the street. The police are always armed, you can even buy guns with little more than proof of identity.
Actually that wasn’t the best story I was able to relay to my students about my wandering around Starkville.

I got that from the man who ran the antiques shop that didn’t sell antiques. It was a strange place, filled with the dusty old antiques that nobody of any sense would want as a gift. Nothing had a price on it and I never once saw a sale.
The owner was a tough looking guy in his mid sixties who quite obviously had no interest at all in antiques and always seemed to be on the phone. I must have visited that shop and walked around his ridiculous stock half a dozen times before he couldn’t stand it another moment and eventually fessed up the weird old guy in the skirt what was really going on.
The place was a front, a long narrow shop that ran half way down the street and like all the shops in that street it had a basement, and in the basement, I kid you not, he had built a shooting gallery and established a lathe for metal work, probably to balance rifle barrels to a hundredth of an inch. There was also at least twenty sniper rifles, many of them made by some legendary rifle maker who I had never heard of, though pretended I had. It was all perfectly legal and in many ways he was pleasant and well intentioned. I liked him.
Initially his talk was entirely of guns and having spent a bit of time around guns both in the highlands and the navy reserve I was able to respond to his bollocks with bollocks of my own.
But I am more of a Wuss than a Hunter more of a story teller than a shooter, the only meat I wanted to take back to feed my kids with was the real story of what he was doing in his bogus antique shop, and when it came it was worth the killing.
He never actually said that he worked for the army, but that was what he implied. He talked of the skill needed for really long distance shooting, shots so long that you had to make allowances for the curvature of the earth and whether the wind might shift a flying bullet half an inch in one direction as it flew over hundreds of yards and how you could prevent it.
And then of course he talked about the evidently heroic young men he trained. The brave kids who would spend hours crawling forward into no man’s land to take out a senior member of the enemy. It always intrigues me that when such people talk about killing enemies they never use that word. It’s always taking out, or neutralising, or, most repulsive of all, making safe.
But how, I asked, did he teach these youngsters the skill of holding a rifle rock steady and squeezing the trigger so delicately that the barrel of the rifle didn’t move the width of a human hair?
The trick evidently was to stop them breathing. Teaching them to lower their heart beat so that they could find a space between the thumps that was utterly serene.
I will never forget what he said next. I’m a story teller. I hunt for tales. For words, phrases, truths that fly accurately to targets.
He said that they had to weed out the snipers who fainted when their heart beats were lowered for too long .. and then he said it… “We call them the Blue Men.”
I have often thought of those kids, inching forward across sweaty plains to neutralise, take out, make safe. Lying in the long grass reducing their heart beats temporarily so that they could stop someone else’s permanently.
You do wonder when the time comes for them to be old and go fishing in small boats with a half bottle and a life to review whether they will sing of those days in their own songs of what they are proud of to the Blue Man who comes for us all.
Or maybe they will worry that the Blue Man will use those days as his own weapon as he seeks his slave.
Maybe we should always judge people by their intentions, and maybe they will judge themselves by their own. I hope so. It would be terrible if the Blue Men of Mississippi were dragged down into the green depths for eternity by the Blue Men of the Minch.

Now away write your own obituary. For I am your Blue Man.


Comments (19)

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  1. Blair says:

    “It annoyed the hell out of me that they usually spent their days holed up in their bedrooms playing computer games”

    Thats what children do these days, they are learning through play that death is not final for their on-line characters, just part of the game unless they are beset by their parents who really are on a different planet. You may believe in the blue man, they also believe in the Blue Screen of Death, when their machine dies.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Yep, I spent a good part of my childhood holed up in my bedroom playing with books, pencils, paper, Subbuteo, and bits of string. Thanks to technological change and the advent of digital platforms, children can now access, make, and share their content more independently, with much greater facility, and in infinitely greater variety than they have ever done before.

      These material changes in our relations of production are revolutionising human consciousness and its expressions; a fine example of historical materialism in action.

      Welcome to the revolution! Exciting times, indeed!

    2. maxwell macleod says:

      I am most encouraged. Here was I thinking that our kids were having their time wasted when they sat for hour after hour gazing at screens and shooting people when you tell me that they are really just coming to terms with the truth that for cartoon characters there is indeed life after death. Maybe I am being ruder than I mean to, if you have evidence that these games are doing good I would genuinely welcome it as it would put my mind at ease. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        As a liberal, I’d be more interested in seeing evidence of harm.

        When I was a lad, we used to ‘waste’ (‘spend’?) our time running around the woods shooting one another with sticks and resurrecting fallen comrades by contriving to ‘tig’ their corpses, usually while enacting some conflict narrative.

        This is exactly what my youngest son and his mates do now in their online gaming; only, their play is technologically facilitated and enriched in ways we could never even have dreamed of back in the day. And it serves exactly the same anthropological function that all games have; it bonds their communion.

  2. Wul says:

    Good story Maxwell.

    It is something I ponder on from time to time; the balance of my contribution to the common good. I do good stuff and bad stuff, like most humans; I plant trees, but I also burn petrol. I give to the poor, but my pension benefits in unearned income from share certificates.

    On deeds done, I feel fairly optimistic.

    However, I am told that God (or maybe a Blue Man?) will one reckoning day ask; “What did you do with the talents that I gave to you?” That feels to me like a more awkward conversation.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      Thanks Wul,
      Love it. Very moving.
      I have a sense that you share my sense that across the land many millions are reviewing their lives during The Pause. This is indeed a great opportunity for the radical change we need. Will our current leaders, on both sides of the border deliver it? I would hope so, but my cynical side says not a fat chance.

  3. Keith MacKechnie says:

    That was a grand tale Max. Attie would have related to, and fully appreciated, that one.

    1. Maxwell Macleod says:

      Well what a genuine delight to have received that from you. As you probably know he was very much my hero.

  4. John S Warren says:

    Hat doffed.

  5. Charles Maclean says:

    A splendid article, Maxwell. I have known about the Blue Men of the Minch since childhood, being a West Coast sailor, but did not know about their melancholy purpose. I wonder when the legend was first recorded? It is remarkable that your informant should also call his sharp-shooters ‘blue men’, although was that term only applied to those who fainted, and thus failed the exam…?

    1. Maxwell Macleod says:

      My Lord,
      If you are a gaelic archivist I have probably committed Gaelic blasphemy by not adhering to the original text and merely repeating my favourite version, but provided the original is well documented and preserved I advocate using all such tales to contrive your own. In my many years of sitting at the feet of story tellers I have heard them both altering tales and also repeating others tales verbatim, even although they didn’t understand them. I have even heard senior gaelic scholars repeating words that they didn’t understand. Which rather reminded me of being in church. I hear that you haven’t let anyone over your doorstep since March and commend you for it.

  6. Meg says:

    I enjoyed your story.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    If you are an old man fantasising about being propositioned by a naked, wet, blue male stranger to become his slave I think letting a girl escape at the altar would be a benison. A fantasy which also manages to be patriarchal, self-pitying and camp. And includes clear health and safety violations which may endanger coastal rescue personnel. Do your students ever suggest a course of psychotherapy? It is also a rubbish magical contract story (if you want to see how master storytellers handle magical contracts, see Shrek Forever After for example).

    It is not just the majority of the poor bloody infantry who might disagree with the depiction of snipers as courageous. But to gush about USAmerican snipers, when snipers are among the worst war criminals being pardoned by USAmerican President Trump, and the USAmerican and UK special forces in Afghanistan were recently described as much worse than the atrocity-committing Australian special forces shows a depth of depravity that I had not expected to find on these pages.

    1. Maxwell Macleod says:

      Interesting. If I might take your points one at at time. 1) I am not an old man fantasising about being propositioned by a naked man, I am a story teller retelling one of the oldest stories in the gaelic culture, which describes how elderly men, particularly when a bit drunk, are inclined to seek accommodations with themselves about their lives. It’s a superb example of a great story, which is why it has lasted for so many hundreds of years. Your interpretation is remarkable. To say the least.
      Patriarchal? Possibly. It comes from a patriarchal culture and the past is another country in which we are all strangers., Self-pitying? Yes many elderly men when facing the bourne are indeed self pitying, particularly when drunk. Which is why the reference is included. Camp? An elderly man confronting his weaknesses is camp? No I think he is emotionally impressive. I enjoyed your use of the word benison which I hadn’t seen before when not associated with Anstruther. Thank you. Good joke about health and safety, although perhaps a little over laboured. You are perfectly entitled to find it not as good as Shrek forever., but it’s an opinion that is hardly an absolute truth and may well be disputed by others. I did not, as you imply say that I thought the snipers were courageous, I said that he thought them so, although if I had been asked I would probably regard any soldier who undertakes that duty as probably courageous, however unacceptable his or her mission . I did not gush my admiration for snipers. I have been shot at by snipers, an experience that greatly reduces your subsequent gushing. To imply that my article glorifies snipers, particularly those who have subsequently accused of war crimes indicates that I have not communicated my core sentiment, which is a horror at the human condition and our need for war . For this I apologise. No none of my students have indicated that I need psychotherapy, indeed they often ask for me to be invited to lecture them again. Keep warm and safe, and keep taking the tablets.

  8. Niemand says:

    Great story, really engaging, thanks. Do you know this version of the Blue Men tale Maxwell?

    I love parts of this film, so evocative. I put it on when I am feeling down.


    1. Wul says:

      Great film. Thanks for sharing it.

      It is so good to look upon the west coast waves and windy wildness whilst stuck inside yet another lockdown.

      1. Maxwell macleod says:

        Indeed,certainly it is very beautiful.many thanks for sharing

        1. Niemand says:

          The music is special too.

          (The cut is actually my own, culled from the best bits, but don’t tell anyone)

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