“The Sin-Eater”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Sin-Eater”, Fiona MacLeod, 1895.

I had not heard of Fiona MacLeod before or of the man lurking behind that pseudonym, Walter Sharp. Not that I’m any kind of expert or even informed amateur on Victorian writers, but this summer and fall I did read a few Scottish works of fantasy and horror from the period, and I did not come across either name even though both were associated with the Scottish branch of the late 19th century “Celtic Revival”.

MacLeod was interested in depicting the folk ways and life in Scotland, and this story’s main attraction is the strange custom of the sin-eater which mixed Catholicism and paganism. Our protagonist is Neil Ross. He’s walked thirty miles from Iona to return to his original home of Contullich.

Near Contullich, he meets an old woman, Sheen Macarthur. She recognizes him immediately but not vice versa.

We hear a tale of woe and poverty, a litany of a hard life from Sheen. All of Ross’ family is dead as is Sheen’s. She has a hovel and lives alone.

We also learn that Ross is a bastard, and he bears a great grudge against the man, Murtagh Ross, who didn’t marry his pregnant mother but instead wedded another woman who never produced a child. We also learn that the grandson of Murtagh’s brother, the man who talked his father out of marrying Ross’ mother, is recently dead.

Sheen suggests that, to earn the money to return home, the penniless Ross become a sin-eater at the dead man, Andrew Blair’s, funeral.

We then hear about the strange custom of sin eating which, I assume, MacLeod describes accurately. A living person will take the sins of the recently deceased upon themselves so the dead person’s soul can ascend to heaven. The sin-eater will leave (no one would have anything to do with them anyway), and the sins they ate will eventually be washed away by God’s grace.

But there is one condition of the rite that Ross’ doesn’t meet: he must be a stranger to the dead man and bear him no grudge. That is certainly not the case here. Ross came back to his home to curse his father and his family, and he sees the opportunity to get back at one of them. During the ceremony he curses the dead man.

And there is another possibility Ross has heard of for vengeance. If the sin-eater hates the dead man, the sins could be cast into the sea and turned into demons which will harry the dead man’s soul until Judgement Day. This requires an incantation which Ross learns from a woman at the funeral. (Many of the locals are more sympathetic to Ross than the not-much-loved Blair.)

And so Ross lays his plan which turns out nothing like he planned.

Spoilers Ahead

Returning to Iona, he is shunned by all except a semi-friend, Aulay Macneill from whom we hear reports. Ross, the “scape-goat”, can be seen swimming around a dangerous sea cave said to be visited by the “sea-bull” Mar-Tarbh. Living in his roofless cottage, Ross no longer will answer to his name but insists on being called “Judas”.

The last anyone sees of Ross is him lashed on two wooden spars in the sea, a floating crucifixion.

Why the claim he is Judas? Because Judas is a type of eternally cursed scapegoat? Or does it refer to his betrayal in taking part in the sin eating ritual when he shouldn’t have?

I found this this strange, moody story compelling with its depiction of Scottish folk ways and poverty, the curious and sometimes memorable turns of phrase the locals have and, of course, for all the details on the practice of sin eating. I would definitely be interested in reading more MacLeod.


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