The Great Paw
A common story in the Highlands is recounted here by John Gregorson Campbell in his 1902 book ‘Witchcraft & Second Sight in the Highlands & Islands’. ‘In the big church of Beauly (Eaglais mhor na manachain, i.e. of the Monastery) mysterious and unearthly sights and sounds were seen and heard at night, and none who went to watch the churchyard or burial-places within the church ever came back alive. A courageous tailor made light of the matter and laid a wager that he would go any night, and sew a pair of hose in the haunted church. He went and began his task. The light of the full moon streamed in through the windows, and at first all was silent and natural. At the dead hour of midnight, however, a big ghastly head emerged from a tomb and said, “Look at the old grey cow that is without food, tailor.” The tailor answered, “I see that and I sew this,” and soon found that while he spoke the ghost was stationary, but when he drew breath it rose higher. The neck emerged and said, “A long grizzled weasand that is without food, tailor.” The tailor went on with his work in fear, but answered, “I see it, my son, I see it, my son, I see that and I sew this just now.” This he said drawling out his words to their utmost length. At last his voice failed and he inhaled a long breath. The ghost rose higher and said, “A long grey arm that is without flesh or food, tailor.” The trembling tailor went on with his work and answered, “I see it, my son, I see it, my son; I see that and I sew this just now.” Next breath the thigh came up and the ghastly apparition said, “A long, crooked shank that is without meat, tailor.” “I see it, my son, I see it, my son; I see that and I sew this just now.” The long foodless and fleshless arm was now stretched in the direction of the tailor. “A long grey paw without blood or flesh, or muscles, or meat, tailor.” The tailor was near done with his work and answered, “I see it, my son, I see it, my son; I see that and I sew this just now,” while with a trembling heart he proceeded with his work. At last he had to draw breath, and the ghost, spreading out its long and bony fingers and clutching the air in front of him, said, “A big grey claw that is without meat, tailor.” At that moment the last stitch was put in the hose, and the tailor gave one spring of horror to the door. The claw struck at him and the point of the fingers caught him by the bottom against the door-post and took away the piece. The mark of the hand remains on the door to this day. The tailor’s flesh shook and quivered with terror, and he could cut grass with his haunches as he flew home.
This is perhaps the most widely known and most popular story in the Highlands. Its incidents can be reproduced on a winter evening with frightful distinctness by means of a shadow on the wall. This gives it a wonderful attraction for children, and if fear can under any circumstances be called into healthy action (and dread, like any other power or capacity of the mind must have a proper and healthy action), it is in listening to this or similar stories. Their baneful effects, if such there be, soon disappear. There is hardly an old church in the Highlands, where the event has not been said to have occurred. A writer in the last statistical account (Argyleshire, p. 682 note) claims it for the old church of Glassary. In Skye it is placed in the Eaglais Uamhalta in Conasta near Duntulm. The old church of Beauly has the most popular claim, though to a youthful audience the truth of the story is much confirmed by putting the scene in some place that they know.
In the cathedral of Iona, there is a small nook pointed out, called “the tailor’s hole” (Toll an taìllear), where it is said the monks kept the tailor who made their clothes. They kept him too long, and too busy at his work, and at last “things” began to trouble him at night. The worst of these was a fleshless hand that used to show itself on the wall, and say, “a great grey paw that is without meat, tailor.”
Another form of the tale is that the tailor was at the aire chlaidh, i.e. watching the graveyard, of a friend, in a chapel (caibeal) when the foodless figure began to emerge from a tomb. The tailor did not run away till the figure had got up as far as the knees, and said: “Sliasaid liath reamhar,” etc.’