Following on from last month’s article, David Lintern seeks a further audience with she who must be obeyed – the Cailleach.
The Cailleach, the Scottish spirit-feminine of wild nature, sometimes benevolent and sometimes malevolent, is an integral part of our placename culture. The mother of autumn stormy chaos, sister of frigid winter snows and daughter of regenerating spring bubbles up from our primeval consciousness everywhere we look – in coires, lochs, burns, moors and summits right across the country.
On the Isle of Lewis, a whole moonlit panorama is named after her. Viewed from the standing stones of Callanish, the reclining Cailich na Mointich or ‘old woman of the moors’ is as sacred a landscape as one could hope to find anywhere in the world.
A blue-faced hag was also regularly spotted on Schiehallion, also known as the faerie hill, an undeniably imposing and oddly symetrical mountain and one I definitely experienced as a ‘sacred’ landscape when I visited. Ben Nevis was reckoned to be sacred to the Cailleach, and Glen Nevis a place where they corralled their deer for milking and to protect them from earthly hunters.
There are a further two Munros named A’Chailleach, one above the village of Newtonmore in the Monadh Liath and another in the Fannich group. There’s a Beinn na Caillich in Skye, above Broadford and one more above Kinlochleven on the way to Mam na Gualainn. There’s a Cnoc nan Caileach, a (wooded) knoll of the old woman, just north of Fassfern on the shores of Loch Eil. Just in case all of this isn’t primordial enough for you, there’s even a Creag na Caillich just along from the Tarmachan Ridge that has a stone age axe factory on it!
In the Scots language, the Cailleach becomes a Carlin, but both are simultaneously and unfairly ‘old women’ and ‘witches’: Hence, we have Carlin’s Cairn, near the Corbett of Corserine in Galloway, and Carlin’s Loup in Carlops near the Pentlands, where the old ladies got their magical second wind and spent their evenings jumping between 2 rocks for fun.
In a more watery vein, there are ties to tidal races and winter storms for seafarers and fishermen. There’s a connection with the Falls of Lora at the mouth of Loch Etive, where many of us will have seen kayakers playing in her skirts, and the stepping stones were used by the old lady to cross the narrows with her goats. She also makes a star appearance at the gulf of Corryvreckan, stiring up a whirlpool of trouble to wash a plaid of wool and usher in autumn storms. Once the wool is snow white, she lays it out on the mountaintops to dry.
At the other end of the season, the Cailleach partaking of the ‘water of life’ from a spring or well was significant in the Celtic understanding of seasonal change. Spring comes around as the ‘bride’ drinks from these springs and is reborn from the rags of winter. There’s another story about Nevis, and the blue witch of winter – Beira, or Bheithir – keeping Bridget (the ‘bride’ of spring; see also Hebrides – the isles of brides) a prisoner until spring waters flow again.
Indeed, there are so many ‘springs of the old woman’ on the map it is difficult to know where to stop, so I’ll just mention a few. There’s a lovely walk alongside one to a waterfall in Glengarry, which interestingly lies close to one of Scotland’s 54 mountains called Beinn Bhreac; the speckled hill. On the other side of the drainage, there’s Ben Tee, likely to be a corruption of Beinn an t’sìthean – the fairy house. There was reputedly a fountain of youth near Loch Ba on Mull, and another – now long dried up – on Isle Maree, a centre of worship for successive religions. In a parallel story, she may also had her early residence on Inchcailloch on Loch Lomond challenged by later Christain arrivals – the name here could equally refer to a nun’s hood or cowl as well as our earlier Goddess.
One spring that still exists with some of its mythology intact is the Fuaran Cailleach, and drains another speckled hill, this once called Beinn a’ Bhric. It hides behind the bulk of Leum Uilleim, the Corbett closest to Corrour station and known to more film fans than hillwalkers as the venue for Renton’s potty-mouthed soliloquy about English colonialism in Trainspotting. It’s associated with a Bean-shìdhe, a camouflage expert who disguises herself in deer hides, cares for the pastures and milks the hinds around Loch Treig. Siren songs and laments are often sung by the Cailleach, as a means of her calling to her wild charges. In KW Grant’s 1925 Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, our ephemeral heroine is in a more benevolent mood and promises to help a stalker by striking down restless deer with her fetter (a plait of horse hair with a knob of wood at one end). There’s a particularly haunting traditional song associated with this myth, called the Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric Ho Rò, which you can listen to here.
Beinn a’ Ghlo also has links with this elemental deity – yet another Allt na Caillich flows into Glen Tilt from it’s northern slopes. In Days of Deer Stalking, author William Scrope details an account from the winter of 1773 when two men descended off the top to escape mean weather, and were met by a unearthly old woman who offered food and shelter before threatening them with a very grisly sounding end if they did not leave a deer sacrifice for her once a month:
“If you neglect this my bidding, foul will befall you, and the fate of Walter of Rhuairm shall overtake you; you shall surely perish on the waste; the raven shall croak your dirge; and your bones shall be picked by the eagle”.
Further afield, there are similarities between the Cailleach and other pre-christian nature deities, especially in the northern hemisphere. Given the Norse migrations to Scotland, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. As Edinburgh story teller and antiquarian William Young points out, the Sami people of Lapland also worshipped Akkas, which translates as ‘hags’ and served as creation figures and rulers of the underworld. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, contains numerous mentions of Louhi, the Mistress of Northland, “a female spirit who holds her power without reference to any accompanying male deity, and who is the ruler of the north and the cold”.
However, it’d be crude to caricature the cailleach as just another Scandi import – there’s way more to her than that. There are also similarities with Greek goddess of the deer, Artemis, the Britonic Black Annis and Arthurian Morgan le Fay, Abouriginal dreamtime and Indiginous American spirit animals… but none that are conclusive. It’s likely the Scottish Cailleach is a multicultural as well as a multidimensional hybrid, with as long and complex a lineage as the more earthly occupants of Scotland.
And again, depending on our own perspective, we can read her as a powerful feminist matriarch or just as easily, be frustrated by the inequity implicit in the linguistic confusion of ‘old woman’ and ‘hag’. Myths have a habit of confounding modern expectations, whatever they are. Perhaps what’s more important is that they illustrate that for our predessors, their home was as much a dreamscape as a landscape. The order of things was not explained by our modern ‘ologies, but rather in story form, knitted into the fabric of rock, peat, burn and heather. There’s a tendency for us as scientific rationalists to romanticise or dismiss this storytelling, but to do either is a gross and arrogant oversimplification. No system of thought is ever infallible… and there are lessons of history (more accurately herstory) and empathy to be learnt.
The past bleeds through to the present and is still relevant now, in the names and history of places. We may have abandoned belief in celtic spirit creatures – the Sidhe, yet the maps are still marked with the name of their dwellings – Sithean. So I’d encourage you to suspend disbelief and let go your rationalism, even just for a short while. Understanding just a fraction of how our ancestors understood where they lived, brings people and place, then and now, closer together.