The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Sin-Eater" (1895)    

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Sin-Eater” was written by “Fiona Macleod” and appeared in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales (1895). “Fiona Macleod” was the pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), an English novelist. Sharp created “Fiona Macleod” to write Celtic-infused stories, but soon began to insist that (and act like) “Macleod” really existed; “Fiona Macleod is plausibly considered to be a more vital, creative artist than her prim creator.”1 

A poor, tired man named Neil Ross slowly trudges along the wild western shore of Ireland. He sees a tired, wet old woman who he does not know but who recognizes him and calls him by name. She is Sheen Macarthur, who was friends with his mother. Neil tells her that he is returning to the remains of his family home in Ballyrona, on the isle of Iona, although all of his family are “under grey stone or running wave.”2 Sheen tells him that her family, too, is all gone, and they walk together in sadness and companionship. Neil tells her that his real reason for coming home is to go to the steading of Adam Blair and “curse him between the eyes.”3 Sheen tells Neil that he is too late, “it is not yet the third hour since he went into the silence,”4 news which angers and disappoints Neil. Sheen lets Neil stay in her hut that night while she goes to the Blair’s house and helps tend to the corpse. It is widely known that Adam Blair was a bad man, and one of the maids tells Sheen that the mice have all left the house, which means that Blair’s soul, fearful of what lies in wait for it, is trying to hide in the secret places of its house. Sheen returns home and feeds Neil what porridge she has, and then, finding out that he has no money for the ferry across the Sound to Iona, tells him that he could make money by becoming Blair’s Sin-Eater. A Sin-Eater is a person who carries the sins of the dead “on himself, and one by one the air of heaven washes them away till he, the Sin-Eater, is clean and whole as before.”5 Sin-Eaters allow the dead to escape being punished for their sins.

Neil is resistant to the idea, since he has good reason to hate Blair, but he is poor and reluctantly agrees to become Blair’s Sin-Eater. Neil goes to the Blairs’ house and meets with a friend of Sheen, Maisie Macdonald, and then with Andrew, Blair’s unlikable son. Neil pretends to be a stranger, which is a good thing, since Andrew mentions that the Sin-Eater cannot be someone who bore the dead man a grudge: “if the Sin-Eater was hating the dead man he could take the sins and fling them into the sea, and they would be changed into demons of the air that would harry the flying soul till Judgment Day.”6 Neil asks how that would be accomplished, which makes Andrew suspicious of him. But Andrew agrees to Neil’s demands for payment, and Neil performs the ritual and becomes Blair’s Sin-Eater. Once the ritual is finished Andrew rudely tells Neil to leave, calling him “scape-goat.” Neil agrees with this assessment: “Was he not, too, another Judas, to have sold for silver that which was not for the selling?”Neil curses Andrew (“When you fare abroad, may a bad moan be on you! And when you go upon the water, may you drift to your drowning! God against thee and in thy face...and may a death of woe be yours...evil and sorrow to thee and thine!”8) and then leaves. For the first three miles Neil is happy at what he has done, but then he slows down and sits on a granite heap and begins brooding over what has happened. A passing shepherd greets him and tells him, among other things, that as he left Andrew Blair and his wife laughed at him for being the scapegoat, and then the corpse of Adam Blair turned its head, looked at Neil’s departing figure, and “Adam Blair that was dead put up his white face against the sky, and laughed.”9 Neil Ross returns to Iona, but he becomes gloomy and silent. He talks to no one, and everyone avoids him, aware of what he has done and referring to him only as “The Sin-Eater.” He becomes increasingly haunted and pale. He takes to running along the seaside, shouting at the waves. He tries several times to cast away the sins of Adam Blair, but each time he fails. Neil eventually goes mad and begins referring to himself as Judas. Neil only ever talks, and that briefly, to a fisherman, and the last time Neil is seen is when the fisherman see Neil being washed out to sea, having lashed himself to a cross “in ransom for my soul.”10 

“The Sin-Eater” is a splendid piece of mock Irish folklore. It has the rhythm and pacing of traditional Irish oral folklore, with lines like “It was a slow, weary walk that of the man Neil Ross,”11 and substantial Gaelic vocabulary and idiosyncratic Irish phrases translated into English. But the Gaelic words and phrases are clear in context or explained in footnotes, and the reader soon adapts to the different language and simply enjoys the reading experience. The tone of the story is consistent throughout, and Sharp does a superb job of evoking the sad, storm-thrashed, haunted Irish landscape and of the sadness of the grinding poverty which the Irish peasants suffer from. He also wonderfully makes use of Irish folklore, from the Sin-Eater to corpse lights to the injunction not to wash clothes next to a newly dead corpse, to create a sad and memorable story. “The Sin-Eater” is not frightening; the supernatural is such an accepted part of the landscape (when Sheen sees corpse lights moving across the moors she simply accepts it as a matter of course) that Neil’s fate does not come as a ghastly surprise but simply seems predestined. But the story is striking, and not soon forgotten. 

“The Sin-Eater,” and indeed The Sin-Eater and Other Tales, were seen as part of what William Sharp’s wife called the “Scoto-Celtic movement,”12 or the combined Scottish Renaissance and Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Sharp was seen as the only Scottish novelist of note in the 1890s and 1910s. After Sharp came a number of different “voices of distinction” who “discarded their predecessors, like Sharp, as mystical and irrelevant.”13 It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that Sharp began to regain any kind of critical stature, and that mostly because of his decision to adopt a female pen-name.

Recommended Edition

Print: S.T. Joshi, ed., Great Weird Tales. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998.



1 Sutherland, Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, 569.

2 Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales (Edinburgh: P. Geddes & Colleagues, 1895), 20.

3 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 23.

4 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 23.

5 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 35.

6 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 38.

7 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 45.

8 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 46.

9 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 54.

10 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 66.

11 Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” 18.

12 Elizabeth A. Sharp, William Sharp (Fiona Macleod): A Memoir Compiled By His Wife, Elizabeth A. Sharp (London: Heinemann, 1910), 256.

13 Jason Marc Harris, Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 164.