A little bit about A’ Chailleach

This is the third post drawn from material for the book I began to write and didn’t finish.

I have previously written a little about Insa Theirling and why I honour her memory. Insa was the first to introduce me to the Cailleach and that began a relationship that is still growing.

To many in the pagan world, the Cailleach is a being to be wary of, a figure of the dark winter, of death and destruction. She is called the Hag of Winter, a crone goddess and people often focus on Her dark side.

The literal translation of the word cailleach is “veiled one”, a more colloquial Scottish meaning is an old woman while in modern Irish the word has come to mean witch. The word comes from the Latin word “pallium” meaning veil. As Christianity developed in Ireland more and more women “took the veil” or became nuns. They took on the title of cailleach. Most of those women were widows and older women and it is thought that gradually the title of veiled one came to mean “old woman” instead. I think it’s worth noting here that the name or title Cailleach is from the q-celtic family of languages (leading to modern Gaelic) which probably came into what is now Scotland from what is now Ireland. The previous common languages were almost certainly of the p-celtic family (Pictish and Brythonic), eventually the Brythonic languages were restricted into what is now Wales and Cornwall but would have been spoken much more widely.

There are a few different myths involving the Cailleach and several variations on them. Some are strongly linked with Ireland, others with Scotland. The focus here is on the Scottish Cailleach and so I also focus on the Scottish myths and stories. Perhaps the best known of these is from Donald A. Mackenzie’s “Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend”. This was first printed in 1917 and a re-print is available or you can access it online via the Sacred Text collection The first chapters of that book heavily involve the Cailleach by the name of Queen Beira. This may be an anglicised version of the title Cailleach Bheur. MacKenzie’s “Scottish folk lore and folk life” states that: “J. Gregorson Campbell gives the qualifying adjective as beura or bheura, meaning “shrill, sharp, cutting”.” (p137) and so this title may mean the sharp old woman.

The main features of the Cailleach or Queen Beira in these tales are that she is old and fierce; the mother of the gods; the creator of the land, mountains, rivers and lochs; that she is the queen of winter and that She carries a hammer or rod which She uses to strike the ground and bring the frosts.

In “Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend” the Cailleach learns of the beautiful Bride destined to be Queen of Summer with Angus as King so she imprisons Bride and makes her work as a servant. Angus, living on the green Isle of Summer, dreams of Bride, falls in love and decides to try and rescue her. He searches the land seeking Bride and when he finds her at the Cailleach’s stronghold he rescues her and flees with her. The Cailleach gives chase and summons different types of storms to impede their progress and return the land to the depths of winter as with Bride’s release spring has come to the land. Eventually the young lovers win free and the rule of summer begins. In disgust the Cailleach throws Her hammer under a tree and in some versions turns to stone and in others drinks from the well of youth and is restored to youth and beauty for the summer months.

In other collections of tales and folklore the Cailleach is described as a gigantic figure carrying a creel full of earth and stone to build up the mountains, some of which include stone falling out and creating another feature such as Ailsa Craig. As the Queen of Winter She washes Her mantle in the Corryvrekan whirlpool in autumn and lays the now white mantle over the hills to dry. There are also tales of Her getting water from a well or spring with a capstone and the capstone not being replaced properly causing floods which create lochs and rivers.

There are a number of stories where the Cailleach is met on mountains by hunters. If they treat Her with respect and follow Her rules they get to go home with the kills they make. If they don’t the lucky ones arrive home (minus their kills).

The Scottish Cailleach has a fearsome physical description and in some cases there are desciptions of beings have come to be associated with the Cailleach. One of these is of the Muireartach. According to K.W. Grant the Muireartach is described as follows:

“Her name was the bald, red-haired Muireartach. Her face was dark-blue-grey, of the complexion of coal. Her reddish jagged teeth protruded above wide gaping jaws. In her forehead was one goggled eye, its glance swift as the flash of the Northern Lights. Grizzled locks bristled on her head like a forest of aspen in hoar frost.”
(Grant p13)

Later Mrs Grant puts forward the argument that the Muireartach and the Cailleach are the same being and certainly there are other places that give the Cailleach a very similar description to the one above.

As the name Cailleach is derived from Latin the title itself is a relatively recent one and does not at first glance imply a pre-Christian deity. However, I believe it is probable that this title was given to a much older mother goddess figure.

Gearóid Ó Crualaoich writes:
The significance of Cailleach Bhearra in modern Irish and Scottish folklore has, thus, to be understood in relation to two separate, yet related, levels of tradition: the literary, learned traditions of the early middle ages in which the term Cailleach Bhearra is established as the name of a sovereignty queen in politics, in prose and in poetry; and the common, popular, unlearned level of Gaelic tradition (concerning which there is little direct evidence until modern times) which seems to have contained a range of manifestations of an ancient female divine with the general characteristics of the Old European Magna Mater.”
(Ó Crualaoich, p88)

In the Gaelic speaking islands such as Lewis the title Cailleach is one given to one of the oldest and strongest willed women of the community. It is a title used to give honour and these women are treated with great respect in their communities.

In Scotland I believe we had, and still have, an ancient being linked to the landscape and the well-being of the natural world as well as to weather, particularly storms. While some myths describe her fierceness, others do indicate a goddess that cares deeply for the land and those living on it especially the wildlife. I believe that as the Gaelic language and Gaels spread into Scotland so they shared stories with the Brythonic speaking people and naturally myths became merged or were translated by travelling oral storytellers and so ancient mother of what is now Scotland took on a new title, the Cailleach. Due to a quirk of politics the Brythonic languages fell out of favour and the Gaelic ones strengthened so the myths which have survived are those of the Gael.

In my next post I will share some of my personal experiences of A’ Chailleach and some of the things I have learnt along the way.

References and further reading

Gearóid Ó Crualaoich (2003) The Book of the Cailleach

D’Este, S. and Rankine, D. (2012) Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore and Legends of the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess

K.W Grant (1925) Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll

Mackenzie, D.A. (1917) Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend

Mackenzie, D. A. (1935) Scottish folk lore and folk life

Patterson, R. (2016) The Cailleach

Author: potiapitchford

Autistic mother with autistic kids. Hearth Druid and Heathen

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