Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More than Winter’s Crone: The Cailleach in Scotland

"During the 19th Century some collectors, especially Donald A. MacKenzie, deliberately rewrote Cailleach tales and gave them a mythological element by adding Brighid as goddess of spring. Yet none of the orally transmitted tales make this conection. Brighid, the goddess of Imbolc is quite independent from the Cailleach. The Cailleach as winter goddess stands alone."

More than Winter’s Crone: The Cailleach in Scotland
sa Thierling

The above link is no longer working. When it was, I saved the article for my own use. 
I provide it in the comments section of this post.

The link between Brighid and the Cailleach is mentioned frequently in modern writings about Brigit in particular. For the whole article on the Cailleach see comments section of this post. (Comments section here includes some debate as well.) SEE ALSO Seren's post at her website Tairis: Bride and the Cailleach

"There’s no clear evidence of a Maiden/Mother/Crone goddess concept in Scottish folklore."


Mael Brigde said...

FULL TEXT: More than Winter’s Crone: The Cailleach in Scotland
by Insa Thierling

1st appeared in Tooth & Claw, the journal of the BDO, in May 2001.

Earlier this [20th] century, Scottish folktale collector J.G. MacKay referred to the Cailleach as “the most tremendous figure in Gaelic myth today.” And tremendous she is. The Crone and winter goddess is only one of her many aspects. But let’s start at the beginning: What does Cailleach actually mean?

The word Cailleach is not as ancient as one might think. It became part of the Gaelic language during the Dark Ages, being based on the Latin root pallium. During the P–K consonant shift in the northern Celtic languages, the initial p became a c. The ending was replaced by -ach, making it a personal descriptor. Pallium means “a veil” and initially Cailleach was “one who is wearing a veil.” During the last century, some used it for witch. Nowadays, in everyday usage, it mainly refers to an old woman. There have been other suggestions regarding the the etymology. Barbara G. Walker claims the name to be a cognate of Kali, brought into Britain by migrants whose origins lay in India. I do not hold with this interpretation. The similarities in character between the two are only superficial. Furthermore, Kali is a personal name and Cailleach is a generic term, preceded by an article unless accompanied by an epithet such as Cailleach Beinne Brice (see below). Back to the veil then — but only few Cailleachan wear anything on their heads! It is impossible to say when the word was first used to describe the goddess — most major folklore collections were put together during the 19th Century, during which old woman and witch had replaced the original meaning. But let us imagine her not as any witch or any old woman but as an ancient one, one with magical powers…

Of course, the Cailleach’s best known guise is that of the winter goddess, representing cold, darkness and death. In the winter months she rides through the air on the back of a wolf (the Gaelic word for January is Faoilleach, “wolf month”), bringing freezing cold, blizzards and ice. Highland tradition says that she has a magic wand which she uses to strike down the tiniest signs of spring growth — she acts as destroyer, bringing the frost that kills the first shoots of plants, the early lambs. Many sources say that her reign ends on 25 April, now a Christian festival to celebrate the Annunciation, centuries ago Là na Caillich, Cailleach Day, the beginning of spring in Scotland. Others say she remains active until beltane, and that the varying winter conditions in April represent her last fight against the arrival of spring.

Some stories tell of the Cailleach’s son who represents spring and who, in order to defeat winter, has to free a young girl held prisoner by his mother. The Cailleach escapes his fatal blow by becoming part of the landscape, turning into a rock or boulder (there’s a Cailleach Mountain in the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye, for example — one of her haunts).

cont'd next comment.

Mael Brigde said...

There’s no clear evidence of a Maiden/Mother/Crone goddess concept in Scottish folklore. Only a couple of tales contain an element of rejuvenation, with the Cailleach bathing in or drinking from a magical well. However, put in context, these tales don’t make very much sense and a re most likely influenced by themes from European folklore. Only one (dodgy!) source speaks of the Cailleach as Grìanag, Little Sun (i.e. the winter sun), and says that she has a daughter, Grìan, Sun or Big Sun (i.e. the summer sun), who replaces her in spring. The only point of reference in this context is the fact that there is an Irish goddess called Grìan. Yet there is little about her in the Irish myths, and there is no indication that she is associated with any particular season. During the 19th Century some collectors, especially Donald A. MacKenzie, deliberately rewrote Cailleach tales and gave them a mythological element by adding Brighid as goddess of spring. Yet none of the orally transmitted tales make this conection. Brighid, the goddess of Imbolc is quite independent from the Cailleach. The Cailleach as winter goddess stands alone.

The next aspect of the Cailleach is closely related to the above. She is also a weather goddess, a goddess of storms. The west coast of Scotland is her favourite haunt. In her guise as storm goddess she is usually known as Cailleach Bheur. Bheur means sharp and can apply to wind and weather as well as a person. The one place that is mentioned most frequently in connection with Cailleach Bheur is the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, just north of Jura. It is one of the spots most feared by sailors as its power can change very suddenly. West coast lore has it that the whirlpool is Cailleach Bheur’s washtub. In winter, she is said to wash her plaid, representing the whole of Scotland. When she has finished, the plaid is white and Scotland is covered in snow. At other times of the year, sailors need to look and listen. Are there little wavelets on whirlpool, foam gushing? Cailleach Bheur is treading her laundry. Is there a noise like thunder? It’s the Cailleach’s sneeze! Both are sure signs that it would be very dangerous to go near the whirlpool. Further inland, the Cailleach can control tidal lochs, causing storms so violent that boats can’t leave harbour. This could have had serious consequences in the days before roads and bridges were built.

But the Cailleach does not only act as destroyer. On the contrary: some attribute to her the creation of the whole of the Hebrides! There are lots of anecdotes about landscape creation, both deliberate and accidental. The Cailleach is said to walk about carrying stones in a basket or a creel occasionally dropping them, thus creating mountains and groups of islands such as the Garvellachs. A wonderful bawdy story features the giant Cailleach wading through the sea, apron full of rocks, near the Ayrshire coast when a French sailor moves his boat underneath her. As the storyteller quaintly puts it, “he tickles her where you would expect a Frenchman to tickle a woman” — she shrieks and drops one of her rocks (the Frenchman has a lucky escape!) which we now know as Ailsa Craig. Loch Awe came into being when the Cailleach of Cruachan failed to cover the well on Ben Cruachan in time, and the water gushed out down into the valley, flooding villages and drowning people. She was devastated and she turned to stone, became the boulder that can still be seenon top of the mountain. You can visit Cruachan Power Station near Oban and enjoy a tour into the mountain — the story is part of it!

article finishes in next comment.

Mael Brigde said...

Agriculture is another of the cailleach’s passions. If you find something on a Scottish map called Sgrìob na Caillich, or Cailleach’s Furrow — there’s one on Schiehallion, for example — you know she will have been there with her plough, causing the furrowed patterns in the rock. Sometimes, the Cailleach will keep cows or goats, travelling long distances across land and water to lead them to the best grazing grounds. She is said to take wild goats to the beaches of Skye where they feed on seaweed.

The Cailleach is very fond of animals, which leads on to the last aspect, that of the supernatural guardian. Many a Cailleach acts as a guardian of deer, looking after their welfare and making sure that there is a healthy population. The most famous of deer guardians is Cailleach Beinne Brice, the Cailleach of Beinn Bhreac (or Ben Breck) near Loch Treig in Lochaber. Local hunters were once familiar with her. Their relationship was one of mutual respect. The Cailleach was happy to speak to them, to tell them how the deer were doing, to tell them how many they could shoot and when. The hunters would always keep to her instructions, knowing that she had control over the balance between human and nature. People would notice if they did something wrong, such as the two young lads who went hunting on Stob Coire Claurgih in the Grampians. The Cailleach pointed them in the right direction to shoot a deer. The lads tied a rope around it and dragged the stag all the way home… or so they thought. When they arrived, only the rope was left. They told their father how they had found the stag, and their father asked, “Did you bless the meat?” When they denied it, their father explained: “Well, if you don’t bless the meat, then it’s the fairies who get their share!”

So, as you have seen, there is more to the Cailleach than her winter goddess aspect. You may have felt her presence on a cold January night — I have, and I’m sure she dropped those big snowflakes on my nose to nudge me into getting back to my research! — but don’t just look for her there… find her in Scotland’s mountains, by the lochs, in pastures and meadows, and in the forests… for she is in all of them, a mistress of the land.

Insa Thierling, Caer Clud. All rights reserved.

Erynn said...

Thanks for the research and the link. Obviously Barbara Walker's pseudo-etymology is full of crap, but nearly everything in her spirituality books is. I've never really gone with the Brigid & the Cailleach as a seasonal mythic cycle trope, but the CR FAQ was written by quite a few people of divergent opinions, so we don't all agree with everything in it. It's possible that there's a genuine connection in one place and none at all anywhere else, given the regional manifestations of mythology in Celtic countries.

Mael Brigde said...

From another Brigit/Cailleach conversation on Facebook:
Alyce Walker: If one sees Brighid as a triple Goddess, then the many names for the crone fit ~ Cailleach, Hag, or Bone Mother in her Winter form~ the destroyer aspect of the goddess. As Triple Goddess, she encompasses each shape and form of great mother and each turn of the wheel.
Brighid has come to me in many forms, as child, maiden, woman at the forge, battle maiden, tender mother, and as crone. All depends on what she had to teach, and what I needed to learn. My work with the crone, no matter how personally difficult to witness or experience has always come from a place of love. Even in her fierce tearing away, I felt the overwhelming presence of all encompassing love.
Strangely, I sometimes 'see' her as a daughter of the Tuatha de Dannan, without the mantle of triple goddess. But those times she seems more woman to me.

Mael Brigde said...

My response on Facebook to Alyce:
Casey: My apologies for being unclear. There are many aspects to Brigit, it's true, that can be gleaned from the old tales and the saint's Lives. There is also the relationship that we create with her in ourselves, the "unconfirmed personal gnosis" (UPG) that is valid for us but isn't confirmed by the literature and folklore. I was talking about the confirmable literature. Much of what is said about Brigit in Pagan circles these days is a blending of the old tales and Lives with a Wiccan thealogy that features the Maiden, Mother, & Crone as aspects of the goddess. This isn’t a Celtic, but a Neo-Pagan idea. I was attempting to figure out what the Celtic beliefs about her (and Celtic beliefs in general) were, as distinct from the Neo-Pagan offerings.
There's a great review of _The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer_, Gearóid Ó Crualaoich in the Celtic Studies Association Newsletter.
The author mentions a poet and saint (same person?) named Brigit, but there's no reference at all to the seasonal split or the goddess B having anything to do with Cailleach. The review is of interest for insight into the Cailleach as well as for important criticisms of Ó Crualaoich's arguments.
A couple of people on the LJ Celtic Reconstructionism forum made helpful comments, as well:
"As far as I've been able to find so far, MacKenzie really is the only one to reference any connection between the Cailleach and Bride - F Marian McNeill does as well, but she seems to be referencing MacKenzie's work on that, so can't be counted. I've recently got hold of a book that MacKenzie references a lot in his _Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life_, which details some lore from Argyll - it's called _Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll_ by K W Grant (1925). Grant refers to the Cailleach's transformative powers, but mentions nothing about Bride, although she does seem to make mention of a tale that's similar to the Coming of Angus and Bride (something about her son and his bride)."
"I can say from my previous reading and study on the subject that this particular idea always seemed a bit too schematic (and therefore "easy") to me. There were definite regional aspects to Cailleach traditions, which made them profoundly localized, and thus broad-brushing the whole of the "Cailleach" idea and considering all such figures with that name to be fundamentally the same is a mistake from the start. Then, the further problem of there being only one Brigid, or different regional Brigids, or what have you, sort of makes the whole schema a generalization plus a simplification slammed together into a cosmic schema that has a coherent end (in one location), but no beginning or middle. Which, in short, adds up to "Nice if it works for you; interesting interpretation; but, can't be said to be original or authentic premodern tradition in any comprehensive fashion."
None of which is to say that we shouldn't work with hag aspects of Brigit, at all. But it's very useful to straighten out the technical stuff -- where different ideas come from and which are traditional and which are modern. It seems this is a modern one.

Anonymous said...

In “The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit” by Patricia Monaghan (writing about Irish traditions) she tells that “Once cut, the Cailleach sheaf was treated reverently. Dressed as an old woman or plaited into a cross, it hung in house or barn until replaced by the next year’s sheaf. In many areas, the Cailleach sheaf provided material for spring’s Brigit crosses – the same hag-into-virgin motif we encounter in our tales of Niall visiting the well.”
If the tradition is true what is the meaning in transformations of the Cailleach sheaf into a symbol of Bride? The Cailleach giving way to Bride?
Also who is the Maiden who is opposite to the Cailleach? Such as then last sheaf of the harvest is called Maiden instead of the Cailleach or the Maiden rescued from the Cailleach?

Mael Brigde said...

I recommend you have a peek at Tairis's article "Bride and the Cailleach" at

In it she suggests that the Cailleach was once a sovereignty goddess, and says, "According to McNeill at least one tradition views Bride and the Cailleach as being one and the same, with the Cailleach drinking from the Well of Youth at the beginning of each spring, whereby she is transformed into the youthful Bride. While this fits neatly with the old woman of Beare's mention of her smock, ever renewed once upon a time, most traditions in Scotland have them firmly pitted against each other as two differing personalities. Just like the sovereignty goddesses of Irish literature, who appeared as old hags or transformed themselves into beautiful young maidens upon being recognised by kings, the Cailleach has obvious transformative abilities. Just as the Morrigan, Macha or Medb, for example, have more negative associations with war and death, the Cailleach does too."

Elsewhere she says that Donald MacKenzie, in his _Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life_, is the source of the notion that Bride was associated with the Cailleach. Insa Thierling, whose article I linked to has disappeared from the site (Lucky it's here!), also disputed the association between the Bride and the Cailleach.

Beyond that, I can only speculate on the answer to your question. No, there is something else I can do. Ask People Who May Know. I'll be back!