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.”
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. That Cailleach might come along and drop a boulder from her creel on top of you while you sleep!
THE OLD ONES By Rowan Morrison
The first ancestor had watched over Morag since her grandmother had held her up to be blessed by the stars that shone above Ben Cruachan. The Cailleach had watched over all her blood kin since the beginning of time, but she favoured this one over all others. Perhaps it was because of her wild nature, for as a child she was more beast than mortal. Her soul was as unkempt as her wiry straw-like hair. Watching the girl run with her beloved mountain deer gave the old hag great pleasure.
Morag. A plain name for someone who was anything but ordinary. Almost a breed apart from other humans. Fully grown now, a lover of the land and the white bones that lay buried in the warm wet soil below.
On a Sunday, she would sit amongst the old stones in the kirk and talk to the long-time dead. This was something they looked forward to, for they had been forgotten by most and Morag knew all the best stories.
On a Monday, she would awaken before the sun rose to sing like a bird. This meant her feathered friends could have a long lie in their cosy nests. The cockerel was most appreciative of this, and the hens rewarded her with some freshly laid eggs.
On a Tuesday, she would visit an ailing apple tree in the woods at the foot of the mountain. Lay her hands upon it, whisper secret words to its roots, so it might once again flourish and bear fruit at the summer's end. The young woman did enjoy a juicy red apple.
On a Wednesday, she would pick herbs to leave on the doorstep of anyone who needed them. She always asked the plants for permission. They always gave, be it root, stem, leave, or flower. Everyone in the glen knew it was Morag, but none thanked her for the kindness.
In fact, she did something out of the ordinary every day of the week. As you might imagine, life was never dull but being born different isn’t easy. Not being afraid to be different, is even harder. Although she had many friends, none of them lived inside a human skin. Morag would never admit it, but she often felt the sharp sting of loneliness, especially so when the moon was ripe with light in the dark sky. Its fullness seemed to shine inside her and find all her secrets.
It saddened the Cailleach to see that Morag had no mortal mate of her own. One night as the old hag sat by the peat fire, she spoke to Bodach. The forefather was like most other old men, he smoked his pipe and rarely said a word. He just nodded his head every now and then to keep his wife happy. But he was also fond of wee Morag and had taken great pleasure in watching her strange ways.
Now, it rarely happened but the oldest of the old decided to intervene. Something that fate did not take kindly to. The queen of winter banged her huge hammer on the crags and did it nonetheless.
Exactly one week later, a stranger passed through the village. This was an unusual occurrence, especially since this man hailed from fisherfolk in the west and spent most of his days out at sea. I would like to say that he was handsome but that would be a lie. What I will say is that he was handsome on the inside and as all wise ones know, this is what matters most. The fisherman’s name was Calum. He had awoken a week ago, left his home, his boat, and unable to stop himself he headed inland. He had been walking without a destination ever since.
Now it was a Sunday; well, you know what happens on that day of the week. Morag was sitting amongst the graves telling her best tall tales to a captive audience of dead folk. By chance, or was it? That the fisherman passed by. When he heard her voice, he peered over the old stone wall. He should have been surprised to see that there was no one else there, but he wasn’t. The old ones knew that only a kindred soul would be able to love Morag o’ the deer.
Love her he did. Not straight away mind you, she was an acquired taste but then again so was he. Love first blossomed one Monday morning, when he heard her singing like a bird. She reminded him of a little bird that once sang at his window (in another lifetime). A time before Morag if that was possible. It seemed to him that they had always known each other. In turn, she knew she gave him her heart, on the day he happily sat amongst the headstones to listen to her stories. He even wrote her a short and sweet poem.
It said, “I was born on the day I first kissed you”.
It seemed that all was right in the world. That there really is someone for everyone. For that is the magic of love. They were both truly alive…….at least for a while.
I did mention that ‘fate’ did not take kindly to any interference in her affairs. Neither did her two sisters for that matter. For some people, life is just lonely and that is exactly how the spinning sisters liked it. They had each other, which meant they had little understanding of this painful human condition. They just sat and spun the threads of fate. They cared not; what fortunes befell mere mortals. All it took was a stitch here or there, to change the fabric of someone’s life forever.
Of course, it had been a mistake to take Calum from the sea, for some men can love the water deeper than they can love a woman. The sea was in his blood, just as the land was in Morag’s bones. But he was the only one that the old ancestors could find. The only one who could see past all the woman’s strange ways. The only one who could give her the human love she hungered for. But he missed his old life, the taste of the salt air on his tongue, the smell of a fresh catch, the vastness of the ocean.
Poor Morag, how could she compete with a watery mistress.
One morning in October, she awoke to find her arms empty. The bed was cold. Calum had left her, as swiftly as he came into her life. Not even a goodbye. The fates can be so cruel. Morag always knew he would leave her one day. That he would go back to the sea. Another of her strange gifts. It didn’t stop her from loving him or hoping otherwise. Even though you know something will happen, does not lessen the pain. The truth is nothing in this world or the next, can prepare you for heartbreak and the great storm it brings in its wake. If Calum had indeed been born on the day, they first kissed. Morag felt that she would die on the day he left her. Such was her grief at the loss of her lover.
Upon seeing what had happened, Bodach scolded Beira for interfering and warned her against more meddling. To which she replied, “If Morag dies o’ a broken hert, who will tell stories tae the deid or gie the birds a day aff”? The old man knew his wife’s mind was made up. He shook his head, took a long puff on his pipe, and said no more. A few days later when Morag finally gave into sleep, the Cailleach placed her tweed plaid over the young woman’s body and washed away all memories of the fisherman with water from the whirlpool of Corryvreckan. Something that was not without risk, for too much of the water can wash away the soul entirely if you are not careful.
The next morning Morag awoke and went to tend to her beasts. The eyes of the old ones watched from the top of the mountain. The young woman did all the strange things she would normally do on each day of the week…..but something was different. She seemed like her old self……yet something was definitely different. The old man told the old woman to stop fretting. I cannot tell you the Cailleach’s reply to this request but upon hearing it, he did not dare speak for another thousand years.
Nine months later Morag gave birth to a beautiful and very strange little boy. She called him Calum, after his father. At last, all was FINALLY right in the world!
Rowan is a fountain of knowledge, and this is evident in her teaching, she is authentic in all she does.