exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

Older Than Time: The Myth of the Cailleach, The Great Mother

Reading Time: 9 minutes

In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, Donald Alexander McKenzie hails the Cailleach as the mother of all gods and goddesses in Scotland, and Scottish folk tale collector J.G MacKay refers to her as the most tremendous figure in Gaelic myth today. Although her name can be found throughout Scotland in folklore, customs, ancient monuments and the natural landscape, the Cailleach is one of the lesser-known figures of Celtic mythology and is often overlooked. Her true origins have been lost over time. She is vastly ancient and predates even the Celtic mythology of which she has become a part. One Highland folk tale states that she existed ‘from the long eternity of the world’.

Comparisons and claims to her beginnings are made in places as far-reaching as Spain and India. Some suggest that she was originally a Spanish princess named Beara, others that she is a bastardised version of the great Hindu mother goddess, Kali, brought to Britain by Indian immigrants.

The Cailleach is a crone goddess, usually depicted dressed entirely in grey with a dun-coloured plaid wrapped around her shoulders. Her face is wan and blue, like that of a corpse, and her hair is long and white and speckled with frost. She has a single eye in the centre of her forehead, a trait characteristic of deities who can see beyond this world and into the next.

Many stories describe the Cailleach as wearing an apron or as having a creel strapped to her back, and carrying a wooden staff. In a few sources the staff is replaced with a wand, and in others, a hammer, the crossover suggesting that this could be a shillelagh, a walking stick and club made from the wood of the blackthorn tree. The blackthorn has long been associated with witches, and with the crone aspect of the goddess.

It’s quite plausible that it’s the Cailleach’s distorted image that we imitate as the witch at Halloween – the old woman, dressed in dark robes and carrying a staff, or in more modern times, a broom.

It’s impossible to know if she was always the hag that she is now recognised as or if the Celts endowed her with the crone status in recognition of her great antiquity. The word Cailleach itself, however, is easier to trace – it came to the Gaelic language during the dark ages, based on the Latin root ‘pallium’, meaning ‘a veil’. ‘Cailleach’ as a word has evolved over time and its meaning is now commonly accepted as ‘Old Wife’, but its literal translation is ‘Veiled One’.

The Cailleach is known throughout the British Isles in varying guises. She is Cailleach Bheur, Beira and Carlin in Scotland, Cally Berry and Cailleach Bheara in Ireland, Black Annis in England and Cailleach ny Groamch or Cailleach Groarnagh on the Isle of Man. In addition to these area-specific titles, she assumes many other circumstantial labels: the Blue Hag of Winter, Bone Mother, Woman of Stones, Cailleach Nollaig (the Christmas old wife), Cailleach Mhor Nam Fiadh (the great old woman of the deer), and Cailleach Beinne Breac (old woman of the speckled mountain) amongst others.

Despite the many variations of her name and excepting a few area-specific tweaks to her story, the myths surrounding her consistently focus on her four main aspects: bringer of winter, weather witch, goddess of destruction, and goddess of creation.

Her most prominent characteristic is that of the winter goddess, ushering in the cold and dark winter months at Samhain, the Celtic festival from which our Halloween celebrations originate, and maintaining the cold until Imbolc, the Celtic festival of growth and renewal which is now widely marked in America as Groundhog Day.

In the dark hours of Samhain, the Cailleach washes her great plaid in the Corryvreckan, a huge whirlpool located just north of the Isle of Jura. When her plaid emerges from the tumultuous waters clean and shining white, the Cailleach uses it to cover Scotland in a blanket of snow. Throughout winter she walks the land, striking the ground and trees with her staff to crush any signs of growth that appear there. In some sources she is depicted as riding across the land on the back of a grey wolf rather than walking.

In one of the most common myths of the winter of the Cailleach, she imprisons the young and virginal Brid, the personification of spring, inside Ben Nevis on the night of Samhain. One of the Cailleach’s many sons, Angus, King of Summer, learns of Brid’s existence in a dream and consults the king of the Green Isle regarding her whereabouts. The king replies,

“The fair princess whom you saw is Brid, and in the days when you will be King of Summer, she will be your queen. Of this, your mother has full knowledge, and it is her wish to keep you away from Brid so that her own reign may be prolonged.”

Under instruction from the king, Angus seeks out his beloved and frees her from the confines of the mountain on the eve of Imbolc. The Cailleach, knowing the consequences of Brid’s release, immediately gives chase after the couple and a great fight ensues. The battle continues through the night until the Cailleach escapes her son’s potentially fatal blow by turning herself into a standing stone. She remains in that form until the following Samhain when she will once again return to usher in the winter and imprison Brid within Ben Nevis. In this eternal cycle of light and dark, the changing of the seasons and the fertility of the land are made certain. 

At the height of winter in Scotland, it was customary for the head of the household to find a piece of oak and carve into it the face of the Cailleach Nollaig or Christmas Old Wife. This log represented cold and death and would be thrown onto the fire on Christmas Eve where it had to burn until reduced to ashes. This symbolically ensured that the cold of winter would give way to spring and that death would bypass the house during the coming year. The custom continued into the early 1900s but has mostly died out since, presumably due to the dwindling numbers of people having fires in their homes.

As the weather witch, the Cailleach is the sharp and biting wind. ‘Bheur’, one of the additions to her name in Scotland, means ‘sharp’. She is the bearer of storms and, of course, the bringer of snow and frost. It is thought that her title of weather witch originated in the Firth of Cromarty area in the west coast of Scotland where people say that when the winter storms rage, the Cailleach is tramping her blankets.

In the story of the battle between the Cailleach and Brid and Angus, she raises many storms to try to influence the outcome of the fight and harnesses the power of the four winds: ‘The Whistle’, which blew high and shrill, the ‘Sharp Billed Wind’, which pierced the land like a sharp-billed bird, ‘The Sweeper’ whose whirling gusts tore branches from the trees, and ‘The Gales of Complaint’, which scattered food and crops.

In the second volume of his Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael refers to the Cailleach as a period of time:

‘Cailleach’ 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 till the beginning of April comes again.

Whilst it is easy to automatically label the Cailleach purely as a goddess of destruction and death, one should also consider her aspects of transformation and guardianship. Without her necessary culling of new growth in winter, no life would survive the harsh weather through to the following spring. She is said to have been so fearful in appearance that she scared animals into hiding throughout the cold season, guaranteeing their survival, and also protected all of Scotland’s deer by ensuring that enough ground was left untouched by frost for them to graze on. She is the keeper of the seed; the guardian of the essential life force.

Her guardian aspect has been connected to many wild animals, including wolves and boar, but the most widely known is that of the Cailleach Mhor Nam Fiadh, protector of the deer. She assumes this title throughout the Scottish Highlands, particularly around Loch Treig in the Grampian Mountains. In this area, the local hunters were said to have had a relationship of mutual respect with the Cailleach who ensured that there was always a healthy population of deer to provide them with food and pelts. In return she expected the hunters to keep to her instructions regarding which deer to cull and when, controlling the balance between humans and nature. If her instructions were not followed, there were serious consequences.

One story tells of two boys who were sent out by their father to Stob Choire Claurigh to bring home a deer for their evening meal. Without first consulting the Cailleach, the boys killed a stag, tied a rope around its neck and dragged it for many miles back home, only to discover upon their arrival that the stag had disappeared and the rope alone remained. Their irate father explained to them that if you show no respect to the Cailleach, you receive nothing in return.

In direct contrast to her destructive aspect, the Cailleach is also a great creator goddess. Many sources go so far as to credit her with the creation of Scotland itself. She is portrayed as wading through the surrounding waters up and down the length of the country, dropping large boulders from her creel or apron to make the islands and scattering smaller rocks and stones in the process to make great mountains, Beinn na Caillich on the Isle of Skye amongst them. A scarred path down the side of Schiehallion bears her name, Sgriob na Calliach, literally furrow of the Cailleach, and is said to have been made when she lost her footing and slid down the mountain.

One myth tells how, whilst treading through the waters off the west coast of Scotland, a fisherman in his boat sailed underneath the Cailleach and the sail of his boat brushed the inside of her thigh. She got such a fright that she dropped the boulder she was holding, and it became the island we know today as Ailsa Craig.

On a smaller scale, cairns and standing stones throughout Scotland are dedicated to her. There’s a Cailleach stone on Gigha, for example, and many of the Callanais stones on the Isle of Lewis are said to be the outcome of her creative exploits.

Loch Awe on the banks of Ben Cruachan is another of her masterpieces and probably the most widely known thanks to the retelling of the myth of its creation being featured in the tour of Cruachan Power Station inside the mountain itself. As the story goes, there was once a great well on the summit of Ben Cruachan from which the Cailleach drew her water every day. The well was covered by a heavy stone slab, which it was essential to replace by sunset or the water contained inside the well would spill out and flood the world. One particularly tiring evening, the Cailleach removed the stone slab to draw her water and sat down for a rest before the walk home. Exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep on the hillside, and as soon as the sun disappeared under the horizon, water tumbled from the well in vast torrents and streamed down the mountainside. The roar of the water woke the Cailleach and she quickly replaced the slab atop the well. Whilst she replaced the covering in time to stop the world being flooded, the once fertile Vale of Tempe was entirely covered in water – the Loch Awe we know today.

The House of the Cailleach, Taigh na Cailleach, can be found at the head of Glen Lyon, itself situated near another of her namesakes, Glen Cailleach. This remote turfed shieling has been regarded as a shrine to the goddess for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, and twice a year a simple and unique ritual is enacted.

At Beltane, the Celtic festival marking the beginning of summer, the stacked stones that seal the entrance of Taigh Na Cailleach are removed, the roof is freshly thatched, and a family of water-worn stones resembling figures – the Cailleach, the Bodach (old man), and the Nighean (daughter) – are brought outside, where they remain throughout the summer months. At Samhain, the beginning of winter, the symbolic stones are placed back inside the House before it’s entrance is blocked up, and it remains this way until the following summer when the cycle begins again. 

Note: This post was first published on 20th July 2007 at Mythmaking.