The name bodach, like elf and goblin, is used for specific fairy beings and is also a generic term for a type of a fairy. Bodachs are found in Scottish folklore where they are usually seen as a type of frightening nighttime fairy that may lead people astray or attack people; in some localized folklore the Bodach is an individual being while in other lore it is a general type of being which can create some confusion. As with so many named fairies we see that there is fluidity in the understanding of who and what Bodachs are.
In Gaidhlig the word bodach has a variety of meanings many of which apply to human men, including an old man, an unmarried man, and a rustic but it can also mean a specter or boogeyman (Bauer & MacDhonnchaidh, 2017). Campbell says that the name means 'a carle or old man' but he also defines them as night specters who are 'no living wight' (Campbell, 1900). From this we can perhaps gain a mental image of the Bodach, based on the other meanings of the word, but we can also most certainly conclude that it is an Otherworldly being that appears at night and is frightening. Bodachs are only ever referred to as male in folklore and the term for them is an exclusively male one as well.
Campbell describes a variety among Bodachs and lists them as both a type of Bòcan as well as a type of fairy being on their own. The Bòcan in Scotland are any type of terrifying night being which may include fairies and ghosts which frighten humans but don't necessarily cause any physical harm to them (Campbell, 1900). In some areas the term Bodach is used in the same general way that Bòcan is elsewhere, to mean any and all terrifying nighttime spirits while in others the Bodach is viewed as a distinct type of being (Campbell, 1900). When included as one type in the more generalized grouping the Bodach qualifies as one of the Bòcan because of its nighttime appearances and habit of frightening people it encounters, although Bodachs may or may not cause physical harm.
The Bodach was often used by parents to frighten children children into behaving and to keep them away from dangerous areas. Some Bodachs were described as haunting areas that would be particularly unsafe after dark, trying to lure a person into going where they shouldn't. Bodachs often appear to children, trying to lure them into the darkness or to scare them, sometimes harming them directly sometimes only frightening them. In some stories the Bodach would rush down the chimney and seize children who were misbehaving, taking them away (Briggs, 1976). They were also drawn to children who were being loud or crying after dark, as well as those who disobeyed their parents.
There is also a tradition of named Bodachs who have a distinct personality, locality and activity associated with them. One type of named Bodach, Bodach an Sméididh [Beckoning Old Man], would be seen standing near the corner of a house and beckoning with his hands for the viewer to follow him (Campbell, 1900). Another named bodach, MacGlumag na mais, oliath tarrang shìoda, burrach mòr [Son of Platter Pool from grey spike, silken spike, great caterpillar] sometimes just called Son of Platter Pool, appears to children at windows, gnashing his teeth loudly and flattening his face against the glass; if the child cries out the Bodach takes them away (Campbell, 1900). Another named Bodach is the Bodach Glas [Dark Man] who appeared as a death omen for a certain Scottish clan; he would appear three times and the third time singled doom (Briggs, 1976). In that case the Bodach seems to play a role similar to the Bean Sí in Irish folklore, being connected to a specific family and acting to foretell death within that family line. There is also at least one named Bodach with a friendly nature: normally described as a type of Brownie the Bodachan Sabhaill [Little Old Man of the Barn] was a helpful fairy who would come at night and thresh the crops in the darkness for tired, old farmers (Briggs, 1976).
While they can look and act frightening Bodachs can only enter a home if they are called or invited in (Campbell, 1900). They also rarely attack a person unless the person first puts themselves in the Bodachs power, be it by choosing to follow the fairy, by acknowledging its presence at the window, or by breaking cultural rules around behavior. They are known to take children but otherwise their reputation is ambivalent and focuses more on frightening than harming. In some modern Scottish anecdotal fairylore Bodach is the consort or partner of the Cailleach and in a wider sense modern lore places this fairy in the Unseelie court.
Bodachs are a fascinating type of Scottish fairy, running the gamut in folklore from helpful to harmful, consider in some cases Brownies and most often seen as Bòcans. These little old fairy men appear in the night to frighten children into good behavior, inhabiting the same darkness as ghosts and apparitions, and the safest way to avoid them is to refuse to acknowledge them. In many ways the folklore around the Bodach seems to blend together more common fairylore with other influences and certainly here we see the classic form of the Bogeyman looming large over naughty children in the Bodach's stories.
Campbell J., (1900) The Gaelic Otherworld
Bauer, M., and MacDhonnchaidh, U., (2017) Am Faclair Beag
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies