Evidence suggests that the Gaelic gods are very much associated with the land, and certain places in particular. Some deities are known more widely than others, and perhaps one of the best known and most widely spread is the Cailleach. The name comes from the Latin word pallium, meaning ‘veil’, and in a Gaelic context it originally referred to the veil of a married woman. This included nuns, who married Christ, but over time cailleach evolved to mean many different things, including ‘hag’ and ‘witch’.1
Tales concerning the Cailleach can be found in various places across Ireland, Man and Scotland, and they often describe how a place came to be. She might also be associated with tempests and storms, and while she rules the winter with an iron fist she inevitably loses her grip to the onslaught of Spring. The day the Cailleach gives up her fight against the spring is known as Là na Cailliche in Scotland (mentioned below), and it falls on March 25th, which used to be the first day of the New Year as well. The wee snapshots of lore given below mainly concentrate on the Argyll area of Scotland, so this is only a small glimpse into her associations:
Her haunts are many. On the western side of the Island of Shuna, in Loch Linnhe, Cailleach Bheur’s staircase is to be seen among the black rocks. The steps are of black rock, edged on each side with a narrow band of white quartz. The opposite end of the staircase in Kingairloch. The Cailleach was wont to cross from one shore to another by means of a subaqueous tunnel.
There are three hills above the Strath of Appin whence “rhymes were shouted” in connection with Latha na Caillich, in commemoration of her defeat. They are, the peak of Portnacrois hill; Ben Donn, above Glenstockdale; and the high peak of the east of that, looking down on Glean-na-h-Oighle.
The rocks at the Falls of Connel are Cailleach Bheur’s “Clacharan” – Stepping Stones – by which her goats crossed Loch Etive.
At “Acha-nam-bà” – Cowfield – in Benderloch, are Cailleach Bheur’s Cheese-vats. They are circular green hollows with a flat bottom. One is a good deal larger than the other. The bottom of the larger is ploughed and sown with oats. It is so deep that the trees growing on the sides appear like a brush-wood coppice above the rim of the vat.
On the shore of Loch Etive, at Ben Duirinish, there is a place called “Cruidhean” – (Horse) Hoofs. The Cailleach, when hotly pursued by her enemies, urged her steed to leap across from Ben Cruachan. On alighting, the forefeet of the horse left an impress on the rock, which may still be seen. Hence the name of the spot.
There is “Creag-na-Cailleach” – Old Wife’s Rock – at the head of Loch Etive. She sits, “turned into stone,” at the Pass of Brander, but the story connected with that turning (8)into stones belongs to an Autumn myht, and must be dealt with separately.
The ruins of her palace are found in Tiree. They stand in “Loch-a-phuil” – Mud-lake – and bear the name of “Totacha Cailleach a Bheur” – Old Wife Bheur’s Roofless Walls.”
On the Ross of Mull, at the South-west, rise huge masses of red granite. They are called Tota Cailleach a Beur; words of the same signification as the Tiree name. These rocks face the favourite pastures of the Cailleach’s herds of deer, that roam in the stormy part of the Atlantic between the Torrin Rocks – “Na Torinne” – and the lighthouse of Dhuheartach.
On Ben Hynish in Tiree there is a rocky chasm called “Leum-an-eich” – The Horses Leap. Over it Cailleach Bheur’s son fled from her on horseback with his bride. The Cailleach pursued him; and on leaping across, the forefeet of his steed, on alighting on the opposite brink of the fissure struck a piece out of the rock; hence the name by which the gap is still known.
The milking-fold of the Cailleach’s sheep and goats – Buaile nan drògh – is a cave at Cailleach Point, that stormiest of headlands on the coast of Mull. There she sits among the rocks, ever gazing seaward. When she sneezes she is heard at the Island of Coll.
The tub in which the Cailleach tramps her blankets is the whirlpool of “Coire-bhreacain” (Scotswomen wash their blankets by tramping them). Coire Bhrecain may either be translated Breacan’s Cauldron, or the Cauldron of Plaid. Before the washing, the roar of a coming tempest is heard by people on the coast for a distance of twenty miles, and for a period of three days before the cauldron boils. When the washing is over the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white.
All the above-mentioned resorts of the Cailleach are in Argyllshire, in the Land of Lorn, and the neighbouring districts; but she is known all over Scotland. The enormous standing stones on Craignaddy Moor, between Milngavie and Glasgow, are called “The Auld Wife’s Lifts.”
On the rugged side of Shiehallion, in the Perthshire Highlands, there is “Sgrìob na Caillich” – the Old Wife’s Furrow – where she unearthed huge masses of loose stones in her ploughing.
The ruins of her palace are to be found in the Forest of Mar, Aberdeenshire. When she sat down to rest in Ross-shire, her creel fell asunder, and the contents falling out formed Ben Vaichard.
“Bogha na Cailleach” – “bogha,” a rock beneath the tide – is the most dangerous sunken rock on the Inverness-shire island coast. Indeed, there are few districts from the Orkneys southward, along the West of Scotland more especially, where the Cailleach is not kept in remembrance among the place names.
From K.W. Grant’s Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, pp7-8.
1 See Bride and the Cailleach for more information.