The Cailleach

StuartInformation on The Cailleach kindly provided by Stuart McHardy [pictured left].

For more information about this writer, storyteller, folklorist, historian lecturer, musician and poet, please see Stuart’s Website at

The Hag of Winter is known in Scotland and Ireland as The Cailleach, of which Cailich is variant, though there are many more stories and placenames associated with her in the latter, as was painted out by the great folklorist Katherine Briggs over fifty years ago.

The idea that The Cailleach was imported into Scotland from Ireland is another instance of reality contradicting accepted notions. If the Cailleach did in fact originate in Ireland why do we in Scotland have so many more stories of her?

Her name in Gaelic means the hooded, or veiled one and after Christianity arrived became the accepted term for a nun. This has led to an interesting situation where confusion arises between a figure who was part of ancient Mother Goddess belief and Christian nuns. In ancient belief she was particularly known for spreading the harsh weather of winter and for living on mountain tops.

Within oral tradition people told the stories of their mythology and legend within their own environment and thus there are Cailleach stories and placenames in much of Highland Scotland, and in many of the Hebridean islands. On the east of Scotland where the Scots language developed parallel to Gaelic she is known as the Carlin, who is sometimes known as the Queen of the Witches.

Kings Cave While the idea of Cailleach meaning nun is a simple reflection of the hooded wimples nuns wore in terms of the original Cailleach the idea of hooding or veiling has another meaning. A mountain top wreathed in cloud can be considered veiled. Local weather lore throughout Scotland, and still extant in some parts, is full of references to cloudy summits having a ‘cap’ on – and this would appear to contain the same idea.

Mountains on which she was said to have lived include Ben Nevis, Ben Wyvis, Ben Breac, Ben Cruachan, the Paps of Jura, Schiehallion and Lochnagar has its Allt-na-Cailleach, a burn, and Caistel Caillich, her castle. And there is of course Beinn na Caillich in Knoydart and another in Skye. These are all high prominent hills, particularly Ben Nevis, the highest point on the British Isles.

Such hills attract weather – clouds cluster round them before spreading out over surrounding countryside which could be interpreted as the Goddess spreading the weather out. Her role in bringing on winter includes a tale of her riding out from Ben Nevis with eight sister hags to hammer the frost into the ground. This grouping of nine mythological or legendary females is extremely widepsread both within and outside Scotland and I have looked atit in detail elsewhere (McHardy 2003). The Cailleach is also in many places credited with creating the landscape – hills, islands etc. This is one of the basic ideas of mythology – it explains the physical world in human terms and is therefore probably truly ancient indeed. Most of the Cailleach placenames in the Highlands are up high and some, like on Lochnagar are part of a cluster of significant placenames and specific physical markers – the massif has two clear breast shaped peaks, Meikle Pap and Little Pap, Such peaks appear to have been the focus for various kinds of spiritual or sacral belief and activity in the far past. We shall consider this later.

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The Corryvreckan Whirlpool

Earlier we looked at the story of the Cailleach washing her plaid in the Corryvreckan whirlpool between Jura and Scarba. Whirlpools are one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring sights in nature. These magnificent spinning cauldrons are formed where tides crash or sea water is forced into narrow vortices.

The Corryvreckan is one of only seven major whirlpools in the world. These magnificent examples of nature in the raw have long held a particular place in the human psyche, and have myths and legends associated with them that seem to come from the edge of time.

The Gulf of Corryvreckan is over 300 feet deep but when the whirlpool is at full power the depth of the water is less than a hundred feet. The particular cause of this awesome power is a subterranean spike, called An Cailleach, off the coast of Scarba which causes the great Atlantic waves to form into a giant vortex and create the Corryvreckan whirlpool.

It is a dangerous place and local fishermen and sailors have a wealth of stories of its dangers. Even on calm days the swell of the Corryvreckan can be several feet. The effect of the whirlpool is quite dramatic. For hour after hour when the Atlantitic comes in great spirals of water are thrown into the advancing tide.

The spirals start with waves shooting up form a relatively flat surface with a great booming sound. When the whirlpool is at its wildest at the beginning of winter the sounds can be heard twenty miles away and more. The spirals thrown into the advancing Atlantic tide are just like those we find carved on megalithic sites in many parts of Europe and it is not diffcult to imagine the awe that this wonder of nature aroused in the hearts and minds of our ancestors. The fact that the spike that creates the whirlpool is called An Cailleach is clearly linked it to the ancient mythological explanation of the first snow fall we considered earlier. And through the Cailleach and her plaid the story links to Ben Nevis.

Here we have the most dramatic geophysical event in Europe and Britian’s highest mountain linked in ancient story through the person of the Cailleach. As we shall see the mountain range to the south of Ben Nevis, the Mamores, part of the area said to be covered by her plaid, also carry a link to the old beliefs in a Mother Goddess.

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The Cailleach and Deer

Traditionally the red deer of the mountains were known as the cattle of the Cailleach. A story from as recently as 1773 occurs in Scrope’s Days of Deer-stalking, p198ff. In this two hunters set out south from Braemar in search of red deer. They headed over towards the forest of Atholl and were overtaken by a snowstorm coming from the north which soon cleared. They managed to find some deer and shot and wounded a hind. They were trailing her by the blood-drops in the snow when the snow returned, but this time much stronger. Luckily they had their plaids with them and managed to find a shelter in the lee of some rocks where they settled down to pass the night, eating the oatcakes and drinking the whisky they had brought with them. Come the morning things were little better and thoughts of deer were replaced by the need to concentrate on one thing, survival. The wind was still blowing from the north and with the visibility no more than a few yards they could do little other than keep the wind at their backs, as they struggled on. Unknown to them the wind began to veer to the east and keeping it at their backs meant they were heading west instead of south. There were no landmarks visible to help them at all.

By nightfall their provisions were running out and they were facing another night sheltering among rocks when they saw an old sheiling bothy ahead of them. These were the traditional summer dwellings for the lads and lasses who went to the high pastures with the cattle and they expected it to be deserted. It would provide them with much needed shelter.

Just as they came near, to their great surprise the door opened and there stood an old woman of wild and haggard appearance who beckoned them in, told them she had been expecting them and that their supper and beds were ready. They were astounded at this but went in to the bothy. There they sat as the old woman, crooning a song in a language they could not recognise poured out soup for them.

Cold and hungry as they were still they realised that something uncanny was happening and were reluctant to begin eating. She told them that she herself had the power over the weather as they sat there petrified. She held up a rope with three knots in it and these are the words she said as given by Scrope:

‘If I lowse the first [knot], there shall blaw a fair wind, such as the deer stalker may wish; if I lowse the second, a stronger blast shall sweep o’er the hills; and if I lowse the third, sic a storm will brak out, as neither man nor beast can thole; and the blast shall yowl down the corries and the glens, and the pines shall faw crashin into the torrents, and this bare arm shall guide the course o the storm, as I sit on my throne of Cairn-Gower, on the tap o Ben-y-Gloe. Weel did ye ken my pouer the day, when the wind was cauld and dedly, and all was dimmed in snaw – and ye see that ye was expectit here, and ye hae brought nae venison; but if ye mean to thrive, ye maun place a fat hart, or a yeld [barren] hind in the braes o’ Atholl, by Fraser’s cairn, at midnight, the first Monday in every month, while the season lasts. If ye neglect this my biddin, foul will befaw ye, and the fate of Walter o Rhuairm shall owertak ye; ye shall surely perish in the waste; the raven shall croak yer dirge; and yer bones shall be pickit by the eagle.’

The hunters gave their word to do as she asked , ate and fell asleep, waking in the morning in a deserted bothy with no sign of the old woman. The storm had ceased and they made their way off the hill.

This is clearly the Cailleach herself. And the knotted string links her to the various wise women the length and breadth of Scotland who used to sell winds to sailors into the nineteenth century. Scrope tells the story as if he believes it happened but it is reminiscent of ancient beliefs regarding the Cailleach. The are many locations throughout Scotland where she is closley associated with the red deer and it was suggested in the 1930s that there was a deer-goddess cult and that there might have been deer-priestesses.

Again this is something I have looked at elsewhere (McHardy 2003) and it is worth noting that many Pictish symbol stones have deer carved on them. Some are deer heads which look like masks and there are some grounds for thinking that there may indeed have been deer-priestesses in Scotland, perhaps performing rites like the one that still continues at Abbot’s Bromley in Staffordshire in England. It is thought by many to be a survival of pagan practice. The dressing in deer skins, antlers etc has been interpreted as being linked to shape-shifting, something which occurs amongst various female groups in traditional lore. Modern thinking is that this is further linked to the practices of shamanism in which the practitioner ‘becomes’ another being to undertake a spirit journey. This type of belief is widespread and also very ancient. The Paps of Jura have already been mentioned and on the side of one of them is the Sgriob na Caillich, her furrow or score which she made down the side of Ben an Oir. Jura is famous for its population of red deer and the island’s name means Deer Isle and comes from the Norse.

Another aspect of the importance of the deer motif appears in some of the stories of the great Gaelic hero Finn MacCoul, many stories of which have been found in Western Scotland. His original name was Demne, which some have interpreted as meaning little deer, his first wife, Sadv, was changed into a deer by a malevolent Druid and it was pursuing her in this form that Finn found his son Oisin, whose name means fawn. Given the number and spread of the Finn MacCoul stories they were clearly important to all the Gaelic-speaking people and this deer symbolism at their very heart underlines the importance of the deer as a symbol in ancient belief in Scotland.

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From Quest for the Nine Maidens

The Cailleach is strongly associated with mountains. Bear in mind that before the growth of major cities people were more aware of their natural environment. They would have observed mountains as the points around which changes in the weather originated. An early meaning of Cailleach means the veiled one. This meaning of veiled led to the term becoming the word for a nun in modern Gaelic. If you watch the clouds gather around Scottish mountains at almost any time of the year you will see this idea made remarkably explicit in the landscape. And not just Scottish mountains …

img title=”Corryvreckan Whirlpool Pictures, Argyll, Scotland – ‘Airb’ Illustration by Rebecca Barnett” src=”” alt=”Corryvreckan Whirlpool Pictures, Argyll, Scotland – ‘Airb’ Illustration by Rebecca Barnett” />
‘Airb’ Illustration Copyright:
Rebecca Barnett

… Just as the Cailleach is veiled so is the mountain she inhabits. The Cailleach is strongly associated with Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles and notable for its dramatic and ever-changing weather patterns.

The Corryvreckan, the remarkable whirlpool on the west coast of Scotland between the islands of Scarba and Jura, is said to be where the Cailleach washed her plaid (traditional garment of the Highlands, generally tartan) in late autumn and then spread it out over the mountains to dry.

As she was the oldest creature her plaid was pure white: so the story explains both the period of heaviest activity of the whirlpool and the first serious snow fall of the year. The Cailleach is also said to have created Scotland by dropping a creel full of peat and rocks. F. Marian McNeill tells us in The SilverBough:

‘The Cailleach is the genius of winter and the enemy of growth. Her chief seat is Ben Nevis. She ushers in winter by washing her great plaid in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan [Coire Bhreacain = the Cauldron of the Plaid]. Before the washing, it is said, the roar of a coming tempest is heard by people on the coast for a distance of twenty miles, for a period of three days until the cauldron boils. When the washing is over, the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white.’ [2 p.20]

Here the Cailleach’s cauldron is the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan. The cauldron is associated with other Nine Maidens groups in other areas. Surviving folklore also refers to this whirlpool as being the breath of the Goddess beneath the waves. Only since humans have achieved space flight has it become known that the oceans contain eddies, up to 20 kilometres across, which circulate warm surface water into the depths thus releasing life-sustaining nutrients. This gives the motif of the whirlpool as the cauldron of the Mother Goddess a whole new level of meaning. Mythology explains the physical universe and its attributes in human terms. Such material can often contain sophisticated observations and insights. In order to give lore and tradition the strongest possibility of being remembered, and ensuring the moral lessons as well as its practical applications would be appreciated, tradition bearers would present their material within the environment familiar to their listeners. This accounts for the widespread instances of names in the Scottish landscape like Allt na Cailleach (Stream of the Old Woman), a name that can be interpreted as originally meaning the stream of the Goddess. The Cailleach’s relation to the physical world, to seasonal change and to weather, shows we are dealing with a fundamental mythological statement.

The figure of the Cailleach in Gaelic tradition is paralleled in Scots tradition by the Gyre Carlin, also often portrayed as a winter hag and linked to the traditions of the witches which survive in many areas. Donald Mackenzie in Egyptian Myth and Legend writes:

One of the many versions of the Scottish Hag story makes her the chief of eight big old women or witches. This group of nine suggests Ptah and his eight earth gnomes, the nine mothers of Heimdal the Norse god and the Ennead of Heliopolis. [xxxviii]

In this association of the Cailleach with a group of nine she is one of the nine whereas most of our Bride references are to Bride and nine others. Mackenzie goes further and compares this group to the nine mothers of Heimdall in Norse myth and the Ennead of Heliopolis in Egypt. He makes the point, ‘ A people seldom remember their early history, but they rarely forget their tribal beliefs … ‘. This is a particularly relevant statement for Scotland where Celtic-speaking warrior tribes were in existence till 250 years ago and had in many ways retained many of the characteristics of Iron Age society.

More support for the Scottish provenance of Bride in Scotland comes from John Leslie who writes in his 16th Century Historie of Scotland:

The Scottis, Peychtes, Britanis, Inglismen & Irishmen with sik veneratione in ilk place have honoured S Brigida, that innumerable kirkes erected to God, amang them ale, to her, ye sal se; yie and mae to her than to ony of the rest: the Irland men contendes that her haly body thay have with thame in that toune quhilke thay cal Dun, in quhilke place the body of thair Apostle S. Patrik is keipet. our cuntrey men ascrynes the same Glore unto thame, quha thinkes, that hitherto thay have honouret it in the Chanrie of Abernethie, & richtlie have done thay think. [1p.229]

The Scots, Picts, Britons, Englishmen and Irishmen with such veneration in every place have honoured St Brigid, that innumerable churches erected to God, among them all, to her, you shall see; yes and more to her than to any of the rest The Irish people contend that her holy body they have with them in that town which they call Dun, in which place the body of their Apostle St Patrick is kept. Our countrymen ascribe the same Glory unto themselves, who think, that hitherto they have honoured it in the Chanadry of Abernethy and have done so rightly to their own thinking.[translation]

In referring to the different tribal confederations/kingdoms of Dark Age Northern Britain, he is differentiating between Britons and Englishmen. By Britons he appears to mean the P-Celtic people of the kingdom of Strathclyde, and possibly the people of Manau Gododdin, known to the Romans as the VotCeini and inhabiting the lands from East Lothian to possibly as far as the headwaters of the Forth. He is making it clear that St Brigid was known to both the P and Q-Celtic tribes and to the Germanic speaking peoples in what we now call Scotland. This supports of the idea of Bride being indigenous to Scotland and clearly points to a cult of St Bridget among Christians in Scotland in the pre-Reformation period. The belief that Brigid is buried at Abernethy in no way precludes the her Irish provenance, but, taken together with the other evidence, this appears to be part of a continuum of belief which was indigenous to Scotland.

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