Corn Dollies at Lammas & Lughnasadh/Lùnastal – “The Clyack” & “The Cailleach” 🌾

🌾Just a wee post to highlight a couple of contrasting beliefs about seasonal corn dolls (actually made of wheat or similar grain plants) in Scotland. I feel it’s interesting & is a good example of how there wasn’t, & isn’t, a singular pan-Scottish culture – cultural & linguistic influences vary by area 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

📖 I’ll start with “The Clyack” as at least in my personal experience she is less well known nowadays. The Dictionaries of the Scots Language is a wonderful resource for both language & culture – which should be no surprise given how closely they’re interlinked – so here’s an extract from an entry on making a “Clyack”, an old custom for Scots speakers at this time of year:

“…“The last sheaf of corn to be cut at the harvest” (e.Rs.1 1929; Mry.1 1912), gen. cut by the youngest person on the farm. It was dressed to represent a maiden, or decorated with ribbons and carried home in triumph. At “Aul' Eel Even” it was given to the oldest (or sometimes to the best) animal on the farm, or to a mare in foal. Usually in phr. to tak, get (Abd. 1863 G. Macdonald D. Elginbrod xi.) or hae clyack. In the south of Scot. this is called the kirn (see Kirn, n.2, 2), elsewhere the Maiden. Sometimes used attrib. with sheaf…”

To read the full entry plus examples of use in extracts from old books newspapers etc see the DSL website ⬅️

❄️ In Scottish Gaelic culture however this last sheaf wasn’t considered in such a positive light. It was referred to as a “Cailleach” (hag, the spirit of the harvest) & having to look after her all winter was undesirable as it was thought to be a bad sign. Folklorist John Gregorson Campbell asserted that no-one wanted to have to take in & feed this “Cailleach” over winter. I suppose a surprise extra mouth to feed, even symbolically, over the harshest time of year wasn’t a welcome thought. He also states that this harvest hag spirit is the same as the one being taunted in the New Year rhyme chanted by groups of boys as the went round the houses – there appear to be 3 Cailleachan mentioned in that rhyme, so I’m guessing it’s the one with sharp sticks in her eyes & stomach. You can read the rhyme & translation here in this article I wrote earlier this year, along with more info on Campbell’s indispensable writings on Scottish Gaelic culture, now put together in one book: The Gaelic Otherworld 📜

🔥 You can read more about Scottish Gaelic Lùnastal customs & see photos etc online at The Cailleach’s Herbarium – have a look at their great article on wheat weaving in general too ⬅️

🐍 Additionally you might want to have a look at the Language & Folklore, Folk Customs & Folk Magic sections of the Resource Pages, &/or related topic tags that can be found either the the bottom or on the right-hand side of any page depending on your device 🏷

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

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 –

🗓 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:

💭 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

Gillean Callaig/Hogmanay lads

Scotland has so many interesting, local folk traditions surrounding Hogmanay, which is a particularly special time for us compared to neighbouring countries for historical reasons. Some of these have fallen out of use over the years, but others have continued on in one form or another. In this wee post I’d like to look at one such custom and how it has changed to adapt to modern times 🗓

To introduce it, here’s a quote from Beating the Skin by Raghnall Mac Ille Dhuibh – originally published in the West Highland Free Press in 1988 & archived online on the wonderful The Quern-Dust Calendar website:

“There are a number of interesting aspects to the traditional
celebration of oidhche Challainn
(Hogmanay) in Gaelic Scotland,
but I would like to concentrate
here the one of the best remembered of them and ask - WHY?
At the centre of it, down to 1919
or so in Lewis was the dried skin of a bull or cow, in earlier limes a goat, or more recently a sheep. A party of gillean Callaig or balaich Callainn (Hogmanay lads - oidhche Challainn, unlike Hallowe’en, being strictly for the boys only) would go from house to house while others beat at the skin and the walls with sticks and clubs, chanting
a rhyme…”

➡️ Tap/click to read the rest of the article

Here’s an additional rhyme collected by folklorist John Gregorson Campbell in the mid-1800s – this relates to the above article from almost a century later mentioning the figure represented by the person wearing the skin sometimes being characterised as a Cailleach (old woman/hag):

“A Challainn a' bhuilg bhuidhe bhoicinn,
Buail an craiceann (air an tobhta) -
Cailleach sa chill,
Cailleach sa chùil,
Cailleach eile ‘n cùil an teine,
Bior 'na dà shùil,
Bior 'na goile
A' Challainn seo:
Leig a-staigh mi.”

“The Callainn of the yellow bag of hide,
Strike the skin (upon the wall) -
An old wife in the graveyard,
An old wife in the corner,
Another old wife beside the fire,
A pointed stick in her two eyes,
A pointed stick in her stomach
This Callainn:
Let me in, open this.”

📚 These – quite sinister! – quotes were taken from The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell, edited by Robert Black. Just one of the many situations where the Scottish Gaelic title “Cailleach ” pops up throughout the year. This book of course has loads more info about Hogmanay customs and other Scottish Gaelic traditions. If you can’t get a hold of this particular, highly recommended, edition then the 2 books it’s mainly made up of – Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and the Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands – are often easier to find.

🎧 Tobar An Dualchais also has recordings of people talking about their memories of this tradition so have a search and listen there or through their Facebook page.

🔥 Lastly, I was lucky enough to attend the Winter’s Last (2021) online event at the beginning of the year, and one of the speakers did a presentation on oidhche Challainn (Hogmanay) traditions of Stoneybridge, South Uist, where he grew up. It was great to hear about efforts to keep customs like the above mentioned “Hogmanay boys” going by going round the doors with groups of kids that include anyone who wanted to join, not just boys. It was also fascinating to see a demonstration of the Casein Uchd, also mentioned in Beating the Skin, in action. For anyone interested the speaker’s name was Kenny Beaton, a native Gaelic speaker who has worked on projects such as Tobar an Dualchais, and he can be found on Twitter with @coinneachpeutan.

I hope this post was an enjoyable read and got you thinking about Hogmanay in your area – what did people used to do? What do people still do now? 💭

📸 Featured photo credit: Pexel

Cailleach Bheur & Mull

A’ Chailleach Bheur/the Cailleach Bheur is the arguably the most well-known of Scotland’s Cailleach entities. She has several locations associated with her, is associated with the creation of some landscape features such as Loch Awe & has stories regarding her activities in winter too ❄️

Mull is one such location Cailleach Bheur is associated with – I’d like to highlight a brilliant paper on place names associated with “The Cailleach” that focuses on Mull in particular: The Cailleach in Place-Names and Place-Lore, Whyte (2020) 📑

Quote from intro:

“The  principal  aim  of  this  article  is  to  refine  our  understanding  of  the  Gaelic place-name  element  cailleach.  This  will  be  done  primarily  through  analysis  of  a cluster  of  cailleach-names  and  associated  place-lore  from  one  area  of  the  island of  Muile/Mull  in  the  Inner  Hebrides. The  main  geographical  area  of  focus  is small  but  its  namescape  is  dynamic  and  the  analysis  has  implications  for  our understanding  of  this  place-name  element  furth  of  the  island  and,  indeed,  furth of  Scotland.  The  evidence  lies  in  a  range  of  published  and  unpublished  textual and  oral  sources;  in  place-names,  place-lore,  linguistics  and  song.  It  will  be argued  that,  when  considered  together,  these  sources  provide  evidence  of  a dynamic  namescape  which  has  been  shaped  by  its  associated  place-lore  and which  has,  in  turn,  fed  the  creative  imaginations  of  local  place-name  users.”

Quote regarding “The Cailleach” in Scotland:

“In folklore  studies  on  the  figure,  attention  has  been  drawn  to  the  relationship between  the  figure’s  complex  origins  and  the  complexity  manifest  in  the figure’s  known  localised  forms.  MacAonghuis  (2012)  refers  to  various  localised name-forms  within  a  Gaelic-language  context  in  Scotland;  for  example,  she  is Cailleach  Beinn  a’  Bhric  to  some  in  Loch  Abar/Lochaber  (see  also  MacPherson) and  Cailleach  Mhòr  Chlìbhric  to  some  in  Cataibh/Sutherland  (see  also Campbell 1860–62, 46). In Muile/Mull and in the wider area of Earra-Ghàidheal, the  figure  is  generally  known  as  A’  Chailleach  Bheur  (TAD  2743;  Stòrlann; Campbell  1915).”

Additionally on “The Cailleach” in Scotland:

“In  some  places  in  Scotland, the  figure  is  ‘spoken  of  in  the  plural  number,  as  staying  in  lochs  and  among rushes’  (Campbell 1915, 413).”

Hopefully the above wee quotes will make you want to go have a read of the whole article, which also includes photos & maps of some of the places mentioned 📸🗺

I’ll end this wee recommendation with a few further links related to Cailleach Bheur on Mull:

As always more info, stories, songs etc on our Cailleachan can be found by clicking/tapping “The Cailleach” topic tag 🏷

📸 Featured Photo credit: Me, Glencoe

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

A Selection of Cailleach Entities

(🌼Originally posted on 25th March, 2021)

For Là na Caillich I thought I’d make a wee blog post to try illustrate a bit of the variety of Cailleach entities we have in Scotland 😊 This is only a brief – as possible lol…- selection but hopefully it gives people the idea. You can also read more by clicking/tapping on the “The Cailleach” topic tag &/or the related articles at the end of this post 📚🌱

📖 Firstly here’s couple of quotes from an article Donald MacKenzie wrote for The Celtic Review (1912, so pre-Wonder Tales lol). This was edited by Ella Carmichael, daughter of Alexander Carmichael, who was known as Mrs W J Watson after she married, so I’m going to start with some of her words on the first week in April:

" ' Cailleach ' as a period of time is the first week of April, and 
is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper hurrying
about with a magic wand in her, withered hand switching the grass
and keeping down vegetation to the detriment of man and beast.
When, however, the grass, upborne by the warm sun, the gentle
dew, and the fragrant rain, overcomes the ' Cailleach ' she flies
into a terrible temper, and, throwing away her wand into the root
of a whin bush, she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion,
saying as she goes...”

📖 Now, some quotes from MacKenzie featuring various Cailleachan. The article is actually mainly about ‘Gentle Annie’ in Cromarty, but he mentions several Gaelic entities in passing:

“In the History of Glenurquhart, Mr. William Mackay tells that 
a hag sits on a rock and snatches off the caps of way-farers.
These she rubs on a rock until holes are worn through ; then
the unfortunate men fall dead.”

“Other Hags are engaged making mountains. Two Hags
went from Knockfarrel with great creels on their back.
The bottom fell out of one of the creels, and the earth which
was let loose formed Little Wyvis.”

“...she throws
boulders like the hag of Beinn na Caillich in Skye, who combats against another hag in Raasay.”

📚 Here’s the link for anyone who wants to read the whole thing, though I wouldn’t pay too much attention to some of the historical conclusions drawn about Picts etc. His article “A Highland Goddess” starts p344 onwards:

📖 Next, a mention of a different Cailleach in Ross by Ella’s husband, William J Watson in his “Celtic Place-Names of Scotland” (2011 edition, p427):

“In Ross ‘Cailleach na h-abhann’, the river hag, was dreaded at the fords of the river Orrin.” (MacKenzie states in Scottish Folk Lore & Folk Life, 1935, p159 that Watson told him She is dreaded because she “drowned unwary people”)

🎧 Lastly, here are some recordings from the ever useful Tobar an Dualchais ~ Kist o Riches:

🎙 The Death of Cailleach Bheur:

🎙 Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric (local spirit who protected deer):’ve written more about this particular Cailleach here

🎙 Finn McCool meets the Hag of Russet stream:

🎙 Cailleach of the Golden Mountain:

🎙 Violent story about Hag spirit who murders a woman while the other survives by staying in a circle with a cross:

🎙 Cailleach spirit attacks people in cave:

Thanks for reading/listening if you made it to the end lol 😊

(📸 Featured Photo credit: Me)

“Traditional journey of the swelling hag”

An interesting article about how folklore can travel & change over time depending on who is telling the story, as well as reasons why this happens 😊

I’d say the example story is a folk horror featuring a Cailleach/Hag character 🔥 I love that they chose this example as “Cailleach” is a title (not a name) given to various local spirits, entities & sometimes even human women throughout Scotland & Ireland in traditional folklore. They’re often associated with a particular loch, river or glen etc; so again usually very local but occasionally you’ll find one such as Cailleach Bheur who is associated with multiple locations in Scotland ⛰

(So, if it’s traditional folklore you’re looking for, steer well clear of the modern “The Cailleach: Pan-Celtic Winter Goddess” stuff lol ⚠️)

📰 Read the article in the West Highland Free Press online.

➕Additional comment in response to someone asking if the New Agey Winter Goddess stories about “The Cailleach” could also been seen as part of traveling, changing folklore & if She may have been a Celtic deity originally:

I understand where you’re coming from 🙂 The main thing for me is that these changes over time should be coming from people within the culture – the New Agey stuff involves taking things from other cultures & changing them, which is my issue with it, alongside this stuff being so popular that it drowns out stories coming from their respective cultures (which can ultimately lead to their erasure).

Being from Scotland I fully admit that I’m quite protective of our various Cailleach figures for this reason – from most posts etc you see online (the vast majority made by people outwith Scotland too) – you’d have no idea that this term applies to several entities & not just one Goddess. (Plus, the term Celtic is very broad & applies to many countries with different beliefs, deities, entities etc, so that’s another issue lol – the New Agey stuff distorts history, claims it’s “ancient” etc).

Re: the deity from a title thing – some of these spirits may have potentially originally been local deities with their own names that have been lost to time. However, that doesn’t change the fact that there are multiple of these, not only one. Plus, even if deities they’re very unlikely to have fitted the “classical” polytheistic deity mold (such as Greek or Roman) that’s so popular with Neopagans given how animist Scottish – & afaik Irish – traditional beliefs are.

(📸 Featured Photo credit: Me)

“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.

🏷 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)