Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric (The Hag/Carlin of Ben Breck)

This Cailleach/Hag entity is usually described as a Ban-Sìthe/Banshee/Fairy Woman who looks after the deer of Ben Breck in Lochaber, the hill she’s named after, though in at least one version of her story she’s a human woman. She often appears as an old woman, hence her Cailleach title, but sometimes she’s younger and sometimes she even shapeshifts into a deer. Stories about Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric are told throughout the Highlands and Islands – as such there are spelling variations but I’ve chosen to stick to the same one throughout this article 🦌

Tobar An Dulchais has several recordings of songs about Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric, some of which are said to be the very same she was heard singing herself. For example, Mary Ross in Skye (1953) sings a song this Cailleach would sing while she roamed the glens as a spirit, protecting the deer and finding the best among them – listen/read here. Another recording of a story told by John MacMillan from Perthshire (1963) is an interesting one as it contains elements found in other stories associated with different Mnathan-Sìthe/Banshees, but in this case are attributed to Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric. In it she appears as a hind, but changes into a woman whenever the hunter raises his gun to try to shoot her. When he manages to catch her she then tells him off for killing too many of her hinds – listen/read here. You can also listen to a wee rhyme about the same Cailleach, also from John, here. (It’s likely he’s speaking Perthshire Gaelic, the last known speaker of which sadly died in 1991) 🎧

A story told by Mary Mcrae, a Dairywoman on Harris (1866), featuring Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric as human was recorded in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica. According to Mary, she was actually a human woman who ran away to live with the deer after her mental health was severely affected by childbirth. This is interesting because childbirth was thought to be a very dangerous time in terms of being attacked or even taken away by the Sìth/Fairies. The hunter featured in this story manages to catch her and bring her back to live among people again. Read the whole story plus background details on Mary Mcrae’s fascinating life here on the Carmichael-Watson Blog. You can read a full transcription (including English translation) of the song mentioned in the story too here 🎶

A story collected by Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell and featured in The Gaelic Otherworld (Black, 2005) also has Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric as a Ban-Sìthe looking after a herd of deer. One day she’s milking one – a common Fairy activity – but it kicks her so she angrily hopes it gets shot by a hunter, which happens soon after. Another story has her trying to harm a group of hunters staying overnight in a bothy on Ben Breck, but she’s unsuccessful because they refuse to tie up their dogs. This is similar to many stories associated with both Fairies and other Cailleach entities – indeed there’s another local story about a Cailleach prevented from attacking a hunter in a bothy by his dogs that’s sometimes attributed to Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric, but other times to Cailleach Féith Chiarain. Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric is described in earlier tales as being a tall and imposing figure, but a local reported that when she was last sighted in the Lochaber area around the mid-1800s she appeared as a tiny old woman wearing grey clothing 🌫

The Gaelic Otherworld book also mentions an example of a story about another Ban-Sìthe able to shapeshift in connection with deer – a hunter tries to shoot a Royal stag but whenever he raises his gun it changes into a beautiful woman. Eventually he gets close enough to catch her and demands she marry him, despite her warnings against it. The Ban-Sìthe almost eats the hunter out of house and home until the he finally finds someone able to chase her away. This is an extremely basic summary of the story so highly recommend reading it yourself if you can 📖

The above examples are just a few of the several stories relating to this very well-known Cailleach. I’ll finish with a link to an additional similar account collected by another notable Scottish folklorist, Calum I MacLean, in Nether Lochaber telling of her connection with local deer and mentioning Cailleach entities in other locations – Cailleach Bheur, Cailleach a’ Bheinn Mhòir and Cailleach Chì Bhric: Calum I MacLean Project Blog 🗺

⭐️ For even more stories about Cailleachan/Hags & info click/tap the “The Cailleach” topic tag 🏷

📸 Featured Photo credit: Me, Glencoe

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