Myth Monday: Cat Sith, the Fairy Cat (Scottish Legend)
By Kara Newcastle
I’m sure a great many of you are somewhat familiar with fairies. They’re small (not
always), they’re beautiful (usually, but looks can be deceiving), they have gossamer wings (occasionally), and they have their fairy pets.
Aha! I see the surprise on your faces. “Pets?” you’re asking. “Fairies have pets?” Yes, they do. They have fairy horses, fairy cows, fairy dogs … and fairy cats, called the Cat Sith (pronounced cat shee, and no, not the character from Final Fantasy VII.) Fairy animals abound in various mythologies of Great Britain and Europe, but the Cat Sith is best known
in Scotland, as you’ll soon see why.
The Cat Sith was said to be huge, the size of a large hunting dog—or even bigger. It was solid black, save for a white patch on its chest, and had intense yellow eyes that held intelligence that seemed to go beyond the range of any ordinary cat, big or small. It was frequently seen with its back arched and fur bristling along its spine, its ears laid back and huge fangs bared. It was not a friendly kitty.
Unlike some fairy folk, the Cat Sith was always ferocious, and while it didn’t actively seek out humans to harass, it was known to go after humans who had hurt other cats. A Cat Sith will never give an offender a warning—it will launch immediately into a vicious attack as soon as it is provoked because it is always ready for a fight. This made it the perfect heraldic animal for many Scottish Highland clans, such as the MacBains and the Mackintoshes. Please, no Simpsons or Brave jokes here.
At Samhain (the original name for the festival we now call Halloween), the Cat Siths were known to roam the land at night (this is why black cats are associated with Halloween!) If a family wanted to make sure that they were on the Cat Sith’s good side, they would leave a bowl of milk out in front of their door on Samhain. Like all cats, fairy and otherwise, Cat Sith loves milk and will bless the family that left them the treat. If a family neglected to leave milk out, the Cat Sith would curse them so that all their cows would stop giving milk.
However, in the Scottish Highlands, Cat Sith was known particularly for stealing the souls of the recently dead and carrying them away to the fairylands. All the Cat Sith had to do was spring over the corpse and snatch the soul straight out of the air as it hovered there, waiting to move on to the Otherworld. To prevent their loved ones’ spirits from being forced to eternally serve the fairies, Highlanders would hold a wake called the Feill Fadalach, or Late Wake, to make sure the Cat Sith didn’t jump over the dead body. Unlike
other wakes where sad people gathered to mourn, the Feill Fadalach was held all day and night until the body was buried, and it was essentially a party. The Highlanders would try to divert the lurking Cat Sith with riddle contests, music, and dancing, wrestling, not lighting any fires because the Cat Sith (like all cats) loved warmth, and—get this—spreading catnip throughout the house.
Apparently, even fairy cats are not immune to the ‘nip.
As Christianity took hold in Britain and the isles, the Cat Sith’s identity began to change, especially when the savage witch hunts began. Instead of being a fairy cat, Cat Sith was now believed to be the form a witch could shapeshift into to either cause chaos in the community or escape pursuers. It was believed that a witch could transform into a black cat eight times, but if she turned into a cat for a ninth time, then she would be stuck in that form forever. This is partly where the myth that a cat has nine lives comes from (nine was considered the perfect number by many pagan/pre-Christian cultures, because,
once broken down, it was three equal groups of three, and three was associated with Triad goddesses—I could go into it more, but that would make this blog way longer) and why cats—especially black ones—are linked with witches.
Sightings of actual Cat Siths were reported in Scotland for years, but most people dismissed the reports out of hand—no way could there be that big of a black cat with a white chest patch roaming around the highlands and moors. There had never been any proof of anything larger than the native wildcat (sometimes called the Highland Tiger, with good reason) living in Scotland, and even then those cats looked like hefty striped tabby cats. Anything that was found had to be a hoax. The Cat Sith existed only in legends …
And then one was captured.
In 1985, Ronnie Douglas, a gamekeeper in Kellas, Moray, was stunned to find a large, black cat with a white chest patch in one of his snares. About a year later, a live one was caught by the Tomorrows World team. Soon, a total of seven additional specimens were collected by alien big cat (in this case, “alien” as in “not supposed to be from around here,” not as in, “extraterrestrials made a pit stop here so their pets could go to the bathroom”) researcher Di Francis, who gave them all to the National Museum of Scotland. There, studies revealed that some of the “Cat Siths” were actually a cross between a domestic cat and a Scottish wildcat. They were then named the Kellas cat by cryptozoologist Karl Shuker after the village where the first one had been found.
While the Kellas cat might not be supernatural, they are BIG. The snared Kellas cat measured fifteen inches tall at the shoulder and was forty-three freaking inches long! That cat was roughly the height of, and longer than, a typical cocker spaniel. Can you imagine a cat that big getting the zoomies in the middle of the night? Yeah, and whatever it howled for, you would give it without a second thought … and if you’re thinking about getting one as a pet, lemme put a stopper in that idea right now: just like its mythical counterpart, the Kellas cat is fierce, more than ready to attack, and can never be tamed. And I don’t think you want a four-foot-long wild cat getting pissed at you for any reason. Or no reason at all.
Now that it was proven that these cats were real, many researchers have gone back and reexamined depictions of the Cat Sith in legend and pagan art. One scholar, Charles Thomas, theorizes that the cat depicted standing triumphantly on a salmon in the 1,000-year-old Golpsie stone in Dunrobin Castle Museum actually depicts one of these hybrid cats. Elsewhere in England, where sightings of unusually large black cats sometimes pop up, it has been suggested that the Kellas cat might account for a few of the sightings.
With less than 400 Scottish wildcats remaining in the wild, conservation efforts are being made to limit crossbreeding with domestic cats to preserve the species. You might see a few Kellas cats in zoos now, but if the conservation is successful, the Kellas cats, like the Cat Sith, made fade away into legend once more.