Cailleach Bheur/Bheara – one of Scottish folklore’s most famous Cailleach entities

❄️ Today is Latha na Caillich/Old Wife’s Day, & formerly New Years Day. So I thought I’d share some wee snippets of info on Cailleach Bheur/Bheara in Scotland taken from a paper covering both Ireland & Scotland. She is one of our many Cailleachan & is associated with winter, but she’s also associated with things such as creation & is present in some way or another all year-round. The source is a bit out-of-date but gives a good round-up of the folklore & further reading recommendations, so here’s the citation if anyone wants to try to read it in full: Hull, Eleanor “Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare” Folklore, Sep. 30, 1927, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1927), pp. 225-254 – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1256390

🗓 On Latha Na Caillich/Old Lady’s Day in Scotland & a legend about Cailleach Bheur:
“March 25th, now Lady Day, formerly, and up to 1599, New Year’s Day, is Latha na Caillich or Old Wife’s Day, the day on which, being defeated by the on-coming sunshine, she flung her mallet under the holly, and gave up the struggle to hold back the breath and green growth of the spring, retreating before it in jealousy and despair.”

⛈ Some weather legends associated with Cailleach Bheur:
“When an unusually heavy storm is coming on, the people say,-” The Cailleach is going to tramp her blankets to-night.” When the storms of the vernal equinox are passing away and the masses of cloud make snowy islets in the sky, they say,-” The Cailleach has thrown her mallet under the holly,” for the heavy pounding of the hammer has ceased and vegetation will revive again. But no grass will grow under a holly-tree. The association with the hammer would support the assertion of the author of the Statistical Account of the Parishes of Strachur and Stralachan that this ” gigantic female Cailleach Vear, who sends destructive tempests ” is an impersonation of thunder.”

⛰Some creation legends involving Cailleach Bheur:
“ In Scotland we have the same mountain-building traditions about her. All the hills of Ross-shire were built by her, and Ben Wyvis was formed of rocks carried by her all alone in her creel. She built them with her magic mallet or hammer, which, when lightly struck, made the soil as hard as iron; but when heavily, a valley was formed. But one day her foot stumbled and her creel upset, so that all the rocks she was carrying fell out in a heap, and they formed the mountain called Little Wyvis. Another legend says that the “Auld Wife” came from Norway, and brought with her the stones to make the Scottish mountains. The loose earth that fell through her pannier or ” cliath ” formed the Hebrides; and Ailsa Craig fell through her apron. The enormous standing stones on Craigmaddy Moor, near Glasgow, are called ” The Auld Wife’s Lifts.” She is especially connected with the Isle of Mull, where a quadrangular rock called by the people ” The Standing Walls or Ruins of Cailleach Bheur ” is said to mark the site of her house.”

✨Cailleach Bheur’s relationships with others:
“She had eight hags who followed her; they also carried creels, and she built the mountains as the dwellings of her giant sons, who were very quarrelsome and fought one another by throwing boulders at each other across the valleys. They were the Fooars, and some were horned like deer and some had many heads. Other legends say that Beara had only two sons, one of whom was black with a white spot on his breast; the other, a famous archer, was white. His bride is, according to a Spey-side legend, Face-of-Light, the spirit of the River Spey.” 📝My note – interestingly no mention of Brìde here at all, nor Angus

🌀 The whirlpool & Cailleach Bheur:
“Over her head the Cailleach wore a great grey hood, which was washed every year at the beginning of winter in the whirlpool of the Corry-vreckan, which lies between the islands of Jura and Scarva. Martin describes it as ” a dangerous gulf, in which the sea begins to ferment with the tide in flood, until it boils like a pot and rushes up in a spout as high as a vessel’s mast, making a loud report. The white waves run two leagues with the wind before they break, and the sea repeats these various motions from the beginning of the flood-tide till more than half-flood, and then it decreases gradually. This boiling of the sea, where the white waves meet and spout up, they call the Cailleach, and they say that, when she puts on her kerchief of the whitest waves, it is then fatal to approach her.” When she lifts her cloak or plaid, the hills are white with snow.”

🪞The appearance of Cailleach Bheur:
“The Scottish stories about the Cailleach are far more alive and more widely spread than those in Ireland. They make her a one-eyed hag, of great age…” 📝 My note – she’s also often said to have blue skin & ‘rust coloured teeth’

📖 Book recommendation & place names:
“In Scotland there are a very large number of place names connected with the Cailleach. A number of them have been collected in Mrs. K. W. Grant’s delightful Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyle (I925) gyle (I925), and I cannot do better than to repeat them from this source. On the western side of the island of Shuna, in Loch Linne, is the Cailleach Bheur’s staircase among the black rocks, from which she was wont to cross over to’ the opposite end of the staircase on Kingairloch. At the falls of Connel are her ” Clacharan ” or ” Stepping-stones,” by which her goats crossed Loch Etive. At Acha-na m-ba, ” the field of the cows,” in Benderloch, are her cheese-vats. They are deep hollows with a flat bottom, circular and covered with green ; trees growing on the sides appear like a brushwood above the rim of the vat. On the shore of Loch Etive, at Ben Duirinish, are the horse-hoofs of her steed when she was pursued by her enemies and leapt across from Ben Cruachan. At the head of Loch Etive is Creag-na-Caillich, or ” Old Wife’s Rock,” and several others.”
(📝Link to Scottish Gaelic book that contains these stories on Cailleach Bheur as English version doesn’t seem to be available online: https://digital.nls.uk/early-gaelic-book-collections/archive/76190427)

💭 General opinion of Ms Hull on Cailleach entities in general, in particular responding to the idea that they may be Scandinavian imports due to the lateness of the title coming into use:
“…There is, however, one argument for the comparatively late introduction of the myth of the Cailleach Bheara which she does not refer to. The traditions about her do not find any mention, so far as I know, in the earliest records of the old deities. She is not mentioned in Cormac’s glossary or in Cdir Anmann, which contain the most ancient Irish existing tradition gods, nor yet in the Dindshenchus or Agallamh na Senorach ; she is, as Professor Gwynn Jones informs me, quite unknown in Wales. But she belongs, like the story of Fionn mac Cumhall, to both sections of the Gaelic family, in Ireland and in Western Scotland. She belongs to a large class of Hags or Cailleacha, who are builders of dolmens and hills, and guardians of wells and mountains, and who are con nected with old age and winter. I do not believe, like Mrs. Grant, that the origin of the Scottish legend is to be found in Scandinavia. It is, to my mind, part of the purely Gaelic tradition, which is common to Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, and was not introduced from outside.”

📝 Thank you for reading if you made it to the end of these highlights. As one of the most well-known Scottish Cailleach entities Cailleach Bheur does tend to overshadow the rest a bit & may even have taken on some of their attributes over time. For example, there’s also some that claim she “rules over the four red divisions of the world” – not sure if this is the 4 seasons as divided by the fire festivals or this world plus the Otherworld, sometimes said to be divided into 3 – so if that’s the case why does she seem to feel so negatively about the end of winter in some stories? She’s definitely a complicated & fascinating figure~

🏷 For more Cailleach folklore, please have a look at “The Cailleach” topic tag, plus other sites like Tairis & The Cailleach’s Herbarium have great related articles too 📚

🎧 Lastly, if you like podcasts Stories of Scotland podcast has some episodes featuring Cailleach folklore, & Annie has been kind enough to chat with me about our Cailleachan in the past ☺️

📸 Featured photo credit: Me, Glencoe

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