THE CAILLEACH

Her face was blue-black, of the lustre of coal

And her bone rusted tooth was like rusted bone

In her head was one deep pool-like eye

Swifter than a star in winter

Upon her head gnarled brushwood like the dead clawed wood of an aspen root.

Campbell - Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol


The Cailleach is one of the most significant figures in Scottish folklore (that is what I focus on) but also a figure that is almost forgotten about by the people of this land. It is beyond me to even try to do her justice but as she is the inspiration for my stories and the focus of my spiritual practice, I thought it only right that I share some beliefs to lift back her veil, so you can see her many beautiful blue faces.


What is in a name? The etymology of language is important in helping us understand the past. The word Cailleach came to the Gaelic language during the dark ages, its literal translation is ‘Veiled One’. The word has evolved over time and its meaning is commonly accepted as ‘old woman'. In Scotland the Cailleach is also known as, the Gyre Carling in the Northeast, the Gyros in Orkney and variations of Cailleach Bheur across the land. The word Bheur is commonly accepted as meaning 'quick witted/sharp spoken'. Valuable traits that are often found in old women of skin and bone.


The old woman of the otherworld, well that is what I like to call her. I know her in many forms, as a primordial being of land, sea and sky. As creator and ancestor, as the wise woman spirit who has watched over me all my life that has taught me many things. I don't worship her as a goddess, that is not my way, and I don't think she would like it. I have my own beliefs and folk magic practices that are carried out during the dark half of the year and also in the light half. For, are we not all shades of both?


Donald Mackenzie in his essay A Highland Goddess (1912) said, “The gods and goddesses were never worshipped in the sense that the term worship is understood by us. If they were not given offerings, they were charmed away by the performance of magical ceremonies.”


MYTHOLOGY

Some of her stories are as old as the landscapes and waters that bear her name. The first tale that specifically named the Cailleach, was the ninth century Lament of the Old Woman of Beara. As always, it is important to remember these were oral tales that were Christianised when they were transcribed into the written word. Her mythology tells us of a primal giantess who shaped the land with her staff, or hammer and by dropping large boulders from her apron, or creel to make the islands and mountains of Scotland. 


The most held characteristic is that of the winter goddess, who rules over the dark winter months, from Samhuinn to Imbolc. It is then that she washes her dun-coloured plaid in the Corryvreckan, a huge whirlpool just north of the Isle of Jura before she places it on the land, to cover Scotland in a blanket of snow. During her winter reign rides over the land on a large grey wolf and strikes the ground with her huge staff to crush any shoots that dare to grow.

She is connected to many wild animals but is mostly known in Scotland as the Cailleach Mhor Nam Fiadh, protector of the deer, particularly around the Grampian Mountains. Where is was said the local hunters were 'in right relationship' with the Cailleach, who ensured that there was always enough deer to provide them with food and pelts. In return, the hunters respected her wishes when it came to culling the herd. I wish this balance was kept today! 


In 1932 J.G. Mackay in his The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians, suggested that this ancient being was a sovereignty goddess that was worshipped by a priestess cult of giant old women. An intriguing hypothesis that is perhaps also backed up with her association to sacred wells, as places of worship.


Speaking of which, the oldest place of worship to the Cailleach can be found at Glen Lyon, situated near her namesake Glen Cailleach, a very small valley in remote Perthshire. In the middle of the Glen is a Sheilling called “Tiagh Nam Bodach”. A turfed shieling that has been a shrine to the goddess for thousands, of years. Where a twice-yearly ritual is enacted. At Beltane, the stones that seal the entrance of are removed, the roof is rethatched, and three ancient stones that symbolise, the Cailleach, the Bodach (old man), and the Nighean (daughter) are placed outside for the summer months. At Samhuinn, the symbolic stones are placed back inside the and the entrance to their house is once more blocked up until the following summer when the ritual is done again.


Indeed, the Cailleach is a powerful female figure who is more Neolithic in nature and origin. A giantess who mainly interacts with the land, water, weather, animals, and humanity. An supernatural shapeshifter, who some believe is a dual goddess who transforms into Bride, the benevolent goddess of summer at winters end. I believe the Cailleach figure is as old as time itself and was born from mans need to make sense of a primordial world. That these ancient stories are the seed and spirit of the landscape. That stories are the magical thread that binds the soul to the sacred three. That when we forget them, we disconnect from the otherworld and can no longer see the magic in this one.


I also think that we remember the most powerful female figure in our mythology, as an important part of our history and heritage. That we create new folktales that honour her. In that vein, I will share some one of my original Cailleach stories below and you can make up your own mind about the old woman of the otherworld. In case you didn't know, in some of the old myths, she is wife to Bodach which literally means old man. His name is also connected to the landscape, usually close by his wife but always in her shadow. A relationship that reminds me of my own maternal grandparents. I hope you enjoy it but do not share my story or use it without my permission. My ancestors are not as forgiving as I am!

WORKSHOP TESTIMONIAL

"Rowan is a fountain of knowledge and this is evident in her teaching, she is authentic in all she does" 

Isobel Addison