Macleod's Maidens, the best known sea stacks on the coast of Skye, lie some 7 kilometres south of Orbost, just west of Idrigill Point at the southern tip of the Duirinish peninsula. They are reached by a generally good path, first through woodlands, then emerging on to undulating moorland with stunning views across Loch Bracadale. The Maidens lie below 70 metre cliffs, the tallest of the three—also the tallest on Skye—rising 63 metres above the sea, flanked by two smaller pinnacles.
When you return to Orbost, it is worth initially skirting the clifftops for a kilometre or so, as far as Ard Beag, to view the fantastic cliffs and arches far below.
"The Maidens themselves are three great rocks rising up out of the sea, a mother and her two daughters. At their feet the mermaids sit and comb their hair: very few see them but many hear their soft, unforgettable singing. Once a man lay long on the cliff top, watching the kites circling overhead and listening to the hum of the bees. Slowly the hum changed to a mermaid's song and he looked down and saw a mermaid and three seals on the rocks below. Somehow he got down the cliff unseen and caught, not the mermaid but one seal, a half-grown calf; as he held it the water round him boiled as with fish and out of it rose the heads of many mermaids. The one whom he had seen on the rocks still had a comb in her hand. She called to him and bade him release the baby seal and she would reward him. He agreed and asked for her golden comb as a reward. This she refused, but offered him instead three wishes, which offer he accepted but got no good of the wishes. One never does.
The largest of the Maidens, in shape and general appearance, is not unlike the statues of Queen Victoria seated when seen from the sea. She is the Mother (Nic Cleosgeir Mhor) and is said to be perpetually weaving, while one daughter fulls or thickens and the other does nothing at all. Perhaps they are shadows of the old Norse Fates, the Nornir, two of whom spun the threads which are the lives of men, but the third did nothing except cut them when she chose, for she is blind."
- Otta F. Swire, Skye: The Island and its Legends, 1961, pp. 150-1.
Swire remarks that Sir Walter Scott referred to these mighty rock formations as "The Choosers of the Slain" and "The Riders on the Storm", and suggests that he may have been aware of a tradition connecting this region of Skye with the Norse Valkyries, or Choosers of the Slain:
"One night - it was the eve of that Good Friday upon which the Battle of Clontarff was fought in 1014 - a farmer who had been on the cliff top in search of a strayed beast found all the world suddenly dark and, looking up for the cause of the shadow, saw the twelve Valkyries hovering on their swans' wings over Healaval. They were weaving their dreadful web of death upon a loom of lances and the weights of the loom were men's heads. As they wove they sang (the translation by Gray is of a Caithness version of their song):
Horror covers all the heath
Clouds of carnage block the sun;
Sisters, weave the web of death,
Sisters, cease, the work is done.
The song ceased and the farmer saw the Valkyries tear the web into pieces and fly off with them, one half to the north, one half to the south, 'denoting the rending of the ancient faith'. There is no record of the Valkyries being ever seen again in Skye."
- Ibid., pp. 151-2.
A different tradition names the largest Maiden Ran, after:
"the wife of the Norse godling or Vanir called Hler or Ygg or Oegir. It was Oegir's custom to lift his hoary head from the waves when about to call up a storm, to the undoing of ships. When she saw this sign his wife, Ran, made ready and sat fishing for sailors, whose spirits she imprisoned, until for her evil practices she and her maidens were themselves imprisoned in these stones. But they are neither dead nor helpless, for always Macleod's Maidens have been known to contain evil spirits who are wreckers of ships and drowners of men."
- Ibid., p. 152.
The Maidens' reputation as ship-wreckers is, according to Swire, entirely justified, and many sailor's lives have been lost there, not least (yet not only) because of one Campbell of Ensor, a smuggler and wrecker who "used the 'Black Skerries' at the Maidens' feet for his false lights".