The Witch of Keil

Entrance to one of the caves at Keil, Southend, Kintyre.
Entrance to one of the caves at Keil, Southend, Kintyre.

This old lady is introduced to us by Mr. F. A. Mackay, in his poem of “The Heir of Lorn.” Moila was her name, and she lived at the beginning of the thirteenth century, though she was popularly supposed to have seen Fingal in his prime, and her wrinkled and tremendously aged face seemed, literally, to give utterance to such an idea. She claimed kindred with the Clan Donald, to one of whom she had been a sort of foster-mother, and she lived near to St. Columba’s church, in one of those mysterious caverns of which there are so many in the district of Keil. When the visitor was admitted to her presence, this was the species of old lady on which his gaze fell :—

. . . . a hideous form
Like to the monster of the midnight storm;
Skins of the beasts of prey are loosely thrown
Across a shape whose shrivell’d limbs are shown;
Fierce, wild, and ruthless; long her matted hair,
Which ill protects a bosom dark and bare.
A rod of iron fills her skinny hand,
With which anon she stirs the blazing brand;
A crown of bramble decks her wrinkled brow;
Coarse is the fringe which shades her eye below ;
Out from its hairy covered cell it stares,
As lightning through the gathered rain-cloud glares.
A smoking cauldron hangs above the fire,
Whose fitful blazes flare and then expire;
A wild succession of unearthly shapes,
Glides down the throat where gloomy darkness gapes;
Before the fire, on back of hard tortoise,
An old sly cat his one-eyed sleep enjoys;
Heaped in a corner lie, not far apart,
The mystic books of her divining art;—
Toads, asps, and adders crawl along the ground,
Whilst slimy snails coat all the rocks around.

She is further described as having “Her hands like toads, each finger like an asp;” but her repulsiveness is atoned for by her magic powers. She weaves her spell, and summons her kindred spirits, which come trooping to her cave to do her bidding.

See how she stirs the cauldron, smoking white!
Around her dance fantastic spirits bright;
Some green, some red, some yellow, others blue—
A fiend-like mocking of the rainbow’s hue;
With maddening swiftness round and round they wheel,
Like fiery belt which makes the vision reel.
Slow through the smoke appears a lurid hand,
Which drops some charm at Moila’s stern command;
The hissing pot gives forth a lurid gleam,
The witch chants out, the spirits dance and scream.
‘Tis seven times done ! loud bursts a joyous shout,
Away! away! dread darkness ends the rout.

Such were the incantations of Moila, the witch of Keil.

— Bede Cuthbert, Argyll’s Highlands, Glasgow, 1902.

Author: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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