“The Cailleach” of Scottish, Irish & Manx Lore

(❄️ This post was originally posted in wintertime as an FB post – I added the quotes & tidied it up a bit when publishing it here 🐍 I focus mainly on the Scottish Gaelic perspective, but mention Ireland & the Isle of Man as being Gaelic cultures they have Cailleach figures too 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿🇮🇪🇮🇲)

Many a mountain has its Cailleach.

F Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol I, Scottish Folklore and Folk-Belief, under ‘Traces of Animism’ p119

As happens around this time of year, there are posts going round making the false assertion that the term Cailleach traditionally refers to a single, overarching goddess figure, the “Celtic” goddess of winter. This is a modern idea from outwith Gaelic culture. They also often assert that she may be part of a “maiden, mother, crone” triple goddess which is just Wiccan nonsense (with regards to Scottish Gaelic beliefs anyway). Moreover these posts sometimes reference “Native American” beliefs, “the third eye” etc etc that have nothing to do with Scotland 🤦🏻‍♀️

In Scotland, the term Cailleach (plural: Cailleachan) is a Scottish Gaelic *title* which refers to a multitude of local spirits/entities & sometimes even human women – not a single goddess nor always associated with winter. Whether any of these local entities associated with creation of land features or other natural phenomena were considered to be deities in a polytheistic sense at one time is uncertain, though most evidence points towards a more animistic belief system surrounding them. Animistic ideas do feature heavily in Scottish folk beliefs after all as they are heavily tied to the land. (Sometimes these New Agey posts assert that these beliefs were forbidden to be spoken about by the Church which is rubbish, & also seems to completely ignore how syncretic Scottish, Irish & Manx folk beliefs are).

So many of these stories have survived into the modern day & are readily available to anyone researching authentic folklore from Scotland. These stories often name the Cailleach in question – such as Cailleach Bheur/Bheara – & some even have multiple Cailleachan in the same story. However, even for those that don’t & simply say “The Cailleach”, think of it as any other title such as The Queen, The Princess, The Wise Woman etc etc. For example, if you read/heard a story with a character referred to as “The Princess”, you wouldn’t assume that only one princess exists/existed or that all other stories mentioning a princess must be taking about the same one, right? You know she’s just the princess in that particular story/area📍It may also help to remember that many of these stories would have been originally told to Gaelic audiences who obviously would have been aware of multiple Cailleach entities, so the storyteller would have been free to use the singular form in their story without fear of confusion. Cultural context really is key when researching folk beliefs 🗝

I feel all this clearly illustrates the importance of getting source material from the countries/cultures the beliefs you’re researching actually come from. Look for genuine collections of folklore made up of a accounts given by people actually in Scotland. We even have fantastic resources online such as Tobar An Dualchais/Kist of Riches, The Calum I Maclean Project & The Carmichael-Watson Project where you can search for Cailleach stories, & sites like Tairis with endless reading recommendations (all based in Scotland of course 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿).

Thank you if you’ve read this all the way to the end 😊 I hope this will encourage people to look at things they seen online with a wee bit more of a critical eye before sharing what they think is traditional lore, consider the sources used etc (anything mentioning Wicca, triple goddesses, the neopagan lord & lady, beliefs from completely different cultures etc etc – *run*, don’t share lol 😂). I’ll finish off with another wee quote I really like as it offers an interesting alternative – less ancient – perspective on the potential origins of the Cailleach figure in Gaelic culture:

“Actually, in her determination to make the Cailleach into an ancient and enduring goddess, Dashu has missed a different, and even more exciting and radical, possibility. If this figure indeed developed in the Gaelic imagination in the post-medieval period, which is what the actual evidence suggests, then ordinary people were capable of continuing to conceive of, and spread wide inter­est in, new superhuman beings throughout the Christian period. Moreover, such beings needed to have no connections with elite cul­ture, let alone Christianity, and could represent another aspect of an enduring hunger for divine females within Christian societies, this time at a popular level.”

Hutton, R. (2016). Witches, pagans and historians: an extended review of Max Dashu, Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1000 . The Pomegranate, 18(2), 205-234. https://doi.org/10.1558/pome.v18i2.32246

🏷 See “The Cailleach” topic tag for more &/or scroll down for related posts ⬇️

📑 Link to the Hutton (2016) paper quoted above

📖 Scottish Gaelic dictionary

(📸 Featured Photo credit: Me)

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