The Sharp-Witted Wife, and other tales

18 Feb

More on the Cailleach and her associations with creation, amongst other things. How could I resist a creation story that involves a goddess accidentally making a feature in the landscape by creating a furrow with her arse? 

She expressed an earnest desire to have a drink from the well of Creagaig, on the farm of Mannal, in Tiree. On the west margin of Loch Phuill there is a bare and stony rising in the ground, which becomes an island when the loch is flooded. It is called the ‘Roofless Walls of the Bera Wives’ (Totachun na Cailleacha Beura). On the south side of the Ross of Mull there is a natural enclosure in the rocks that goes by the same name. Here Bera folded her goats at night. In the daytime she drove them to pasture, where there is now no trace of land, beyond the dangerous Torrin Rocks, stretching away to the south-west of Iona (Na Torrainnean Itheach). At Sword Point (Rutha Chlaidheamth) on the north side of the same peninsula, there is a round mark in the face of the granite rocks, called ‘Bera’s Cake’ (Bonnach Chailleach Bheur) produced by a cake thrown by her. So also a natural enclosure in the rocks above Gorten, in Ardnamurchan, is called ‘ The Old Wife’s Byre ‘ (Bàthaich na Caillich) it being said that she folded her cattle there.

Curious natural appearances of another kind have suggested other fancies in connection with her. She set about building a bridge across the Sound of Mull, commencing at the Morvern side, and was on her way, with a creelful of stones on her back for the purpose, when the creel strap (iris mhuineil) broke, and the burden fell to the ground. The stones with which the basket was filled (and it must have been one of no small capacity) form the remarkable cairn called Cam na Caillich (the old wife’s heap of stones). She intended to put a chain across the Sound of Islay, to prevent the passage of ships that way, and the stones are pointed out on the Jura side to which the chains were to be secured. Beinn na Caillich a hill in Kildalton parish, Islay, is called after her, and a furrow down its side, called Sgrìob na Caillich) was made by her, as she slid down in a sitting posture. In the parish of Stralachlan and Strachur, in Cowal, Argyllshire, there is also a hill called after her, Beinn Chaillach Bheur (the Cailleach Bear or Bera of the Statistical Account, p. 105). The writer in the Statistical Account renders her name ‘The Old Wife of Thunder,’ having evidently mistaken beur, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted, for beithir (pron. beìr) a thunder-bolt. He adds: “She could (according to popular stories) with ease and incredible agility transfer herself from one hill to another, command terrific thunder and desolating deluges at pleasure; and hence the dreadful apprehensions of incurring her ire that generally prevailed.”

She is ‘the aged Bera’ (Beura aosmohr), daughter of ‘Crabbed the Wise’ (Greannan Glic), referred to in legend. She had charge of a well in a valley on the top of Ben Cruachan (Coire Chruachain) and was to cover it every evening at sunset with a flagstone. She failed one night to do so, the well overflowed all night, and before morning Loch Awe was formed.

It is told that a man once went to see her (it is not said where) and test her wit. She had the reputation of being inhospitable and sullen. He said he would make her give him meat and lodgings for a night. He found her a very old woman, in an empty house, with nothing to sit upon, a bare floor, not overly clean, and full of holes. At first she was churlish and uncivil, but after an exchange of witticisms became more hospitable, and gave him a sheep’s head to singe. The following version of the conversation bears repeating:

She. Whence has come the man with the flowing plaid and the flaunting kilt at the evening’s close?
He. I came from the flag-stones near the narrow Sound, to see my lady-love at the evening’s close.
She. What is your name?
He. William Sit-down.
She (in amazement). William Sit-down!
He. Why should I not sit down, when the mistress of the house asks it? (Sits down.)
She. Though you sit, it will not be to your benefit.
He. What should suffice for yourself during your life-time, will not that suffice for me for a night?
She. There is nothing here but bare floor, earth full of holes, and fleas sharp ground fleas, that will bite your two haunches most uneasily.
He. (when he gets the sheep’s head to singe). What is the portion of the man who singes the head?
She. As much as he can take with him in one verse.

Ear from the root is mine,
The loud babbler of the head,
The jaws and two cheeks,
Eye, and snout, and brain.

Having thus secured the whole head, he made minced meat of it, to which he helped himself in large spoonfuls.

She. The load is heavy for the weakly neck.
He. The road is but a short one.
She. Though short, it is ascent.
He. Ascent is not quicker than descent.

Having said this, he swallowed his last spoonful and went away.

John Gregorson Campbell, The Sharp-Witted Wife, in The Scottish Historical Review Volume XII, 1915, p415-416.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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