Tag Archives: cailleach bheur

Maclachlan and the Glaistig

Although the title of this tale refers to a glaistig, Maclachlan himself addresses her as a Chailleach, and the confusion between the two beings is common. This is a fascinating tale in some respects, clearly referencing the tradition of Fionn and how he came to possess his powers, as well as the common belief that such powers are gifted to people by the daoine sìth or other kinds of Otherworldly figures like the Cailleach.


The first of the MacLachlans of Ardnamurchan lived in Glenahurich. In his herd of horses he had a fine grey mare, whose first foal he wished to keep. But the Glastig frequenting the rocky sides of a neighbouring ravine or waterfall knew this; and because she hated him as an intruder in the place, she resolved to disappoint him.

As soon as the foal was born, she took it and thrust it into a hole opening over an underground stream, in which it was drowned. On the following day MacLachlan found the foal dead in the hole, but thought that it had fallen in accidentally. Next year the same thing happened, the second foal being found dead in the same hole, and in the same underground stream. His suspicion was now aroused, and so he resolved to watch the mare next summer at foaling time.

When the season arrived, he went one day to the hill to see the mare; but the Glastig was there before him, and was busy pushing the third foal through the hole into the stream underneath. He knew well how to defend himself from fairy influence; and, therefore, he seized the Glastig in his arms, and with a great effort succeeded at last in throwing her down.

“Your death is over you, Carlin,” said he, as he stood over her. ” My ransom is mine own,” she replied. “What ransom wilt thou give me?” said he.

“The vision of the two worlds to thyself and prosperity to thee and to thy descendants after thee.” On these terms he let her go.

Some time after, being in the Braes of Lochaber, he took his rod, and went to the river Spean to fish. With the first cast he hooked a fine fish, which he landed on the river bank. Being hungry, he kindled a fire at the river side, and placed the fish upon it.

Soon afterwards he happened to press with his finger a blister which rose on the upperside of the fish. The heat burnt his finger so badly that he put it into his mouth to cool. No sooner had he done this than he obtained the vision of the two worlds, or, in other words, the second sight. The first part of the Glastig’s promise was then fulfilled, and it is said that the other part was fulfilled afterwards.


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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Loch Awe (II)

This is just a short one, a different version of the origin story of Loch Awe at the hands of the Cailleach. In this tale, the Cailleach is the daughter of Griannan the sage – Griannan being a diminutive for the sun. Thus she is the daughter of the ‘little sun’ – as in the weaker winter sun, perhaps.

Bera the aged dwelt in the cave of the rock. She was the daughter of Griannan the sage. Long was the line of her fathers, and she was the last of her race. Large and fertile were her possessions; hers the beautiful vales below; and hers the cattle which roamed on the hills around. To Bera was committed the charge of that awful spring, which by the appointment of fate was to prove so fatal to the inheritance of her fathers, and her fathers race. Before the sun should withdraw his beams she was to cover the spring with a stone, on which sacred and mysterious characters were impressed. One night this was forgot by the unhappy Bera. Overcome with the heat and chase of the day, she was seized with sleep before the usual hour of rest. The confined waters of the mountain burst forth in the plain below, and covered the large expanse, now known by the lake of Awe. The third morning Bera awaked from her sleep. She went to remove the stone from the spring; but, behold! no stone was there. She looked to the inheritance of her tribe! She shrieked. The mountain shook from its base; her spirit retired to the ghosts of her fathers in their light airy halls.

Barbour, Unique Traditions Chiefly of the West and South of Scotland, 1886, p188.

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Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Sharp-Witted Wife, and other tales

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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The Cailleach and The Well of Youth

On the lands of Knock in Mull (an cnoc Muileach) at the point of Sròn na Crannalaich, near Loch Ba, there is a well, reputed to be ‘The Well of Youth.’ Thither Bera went regularly at ‘the dead of night,’ before bird tasted water or dog was heard to bark, and by then drinking from it kept herself always at sixteen years of age. At last, when making her way to the well on a calm morning (and such mornings are very beautiful in the West Highlands), she heard a dog barking. She exclaimed:

‘Little knows any living wight,
When mischance may befall him ;
For me early has the dog called,
In the calm morn above Loch Ba.
I had enough of spells
To serve the seed of Adam,
But when the mischance was ripe
It could not be warded off.’

Having said this, she fell, crumbling into dust. She lived so long that she had above five hundred children. These were buried by her in the ‘Burial Place of Hosts’ in Ireland, according to one version of the rhyme, and according to another in Cill-mo-Neacain in lona.

She buried Nine times nine by seven,
In the Burial Place of Hosts in Ireland.’

The latter place is said to be the same as the stony patch of ground, not far from the cathedral, called Cill-mo-ghobhlain or Cill-mo-ghobhannain.

John Gregorson Campbell, The Sharp-Witted Wife, in The Scottish Historical Review Volume XII, 1915, p413-414.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Loch Awe (II)

And another for Loch Awe:

The occasion of the making of Loch Awe (Gaelic, Loch Odha) was the dun-coloured cow possessed by the Cailleach Bheur.

“This cow was so much thought of by the Cailleach, that there was never a grassy meadow or flowery dell better than another but was reserved for the animal, even if the place were a hundred miles away.

“And as for drinking water, there was no well or mountain spring on the surface of the earth that was good enough for the dun cow, but the well of virtues on the top of Ben Cruachan.

“Even if the animal had been pasturing in the Mull of Kintyre, and it was not seldom that that happened, the Auld Wife would come every step of the way with her to the top of Cruachan to give her to drink.”

It was on a hot day that, tired with following her cow, she had just managed to tether her beside this well and stretched herself out to rest beside it, when, falling asleep, the waters burst forth, and thundered down the rocks, never stopping till they had filled the hollow valley of Loch Awe.

Hull, Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare, in Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1927), p252-253.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Loch Awe and Loch Ness

The creation of Loch Awe and Loch Ness were mentioned in the previous post, so here’s a bit more: 

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, who reigned over the Four Red Divisions of the World. She let loose the rivers, and formed many lochs. Loch Awe was formed through her forgetfulness; for she drew water daily from a well on Ben Cruachan in Argyle, lifting the slab off it in the morning and re-covering it at night. But one evening she forgot to cover the well, and, furious at being forgotten, the waters rose and poured down the mountain side, roaring like a torrent. In the morning the valley was filled with water, and Loch Awe was formed. This story is told of the origin of many rivers and lakes. The River Boyne was so formed in Ireland, by the recklessness of its attendant nymph, who in defiance of all the laws of folk belief dared to walk thrice ‘withershins’ round the well. It rose furiously upon her, and drove her before it to the sea.

All she left behind her was her name, which she gave to the river. So also it is told of the Cailleach that she had another well in Inverness which had to be kept covered from sunset to sunrise. It was in charge of her maid Nessa. But one evening she went late to the well, and, when she drew near, water was pouring out of the well after her. She turned and fled, but Beira, who was watching her from the top of Ben Nevis, cried aloud,-“You will run for ever and ever, for you have neglected your duty, and will never leave the water.” The girl changed into a river, and after her the Loch and River Ness are named. Once a year, on the date of her transformation, Ness rises from her river and re-assumes her form as a girl, singing a sad sweet song in the moonlight.

Hull, Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare, in Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1927), p249-250.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Beira, Queen of Winter

MacKenzie gives an excellent overview of the Cailleach’s associations and lore, and in spite of the fact that his Wonder Tales from Scotland is readily available over at I think think the first chapter is worth posting here with some additional commentary.

The following excerpt does a good job of showing the many different areas that fall under the Cailleach’s purview; she has power over the weather and has a reputation for causing storms and bad weather; her associations with bad weather make perfect sense when you consider the fact that she is also seen as ruling over the winter seasons, when the biting winds and storms are most common; likewise, her fierce temper matches her wintry associations, and the bad weather that comes with it; she is of incredible old age, and (according to some legends) is able to renew her youth by drinking from a well – usually with specific conditions attached to ensure success; she is responsible for the shaping of the land and seas in which she is inextricably linked…The list goes on…

Dark Beira was the mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland. She was of great height and very old, and everyone feared her. When roused to anger she was as fierce as the biting north wind and harsh as the tempest-stricken sea. Each winter she reigned as Queen of the Four Red Divisions of the world, and none disputed her sway. But when the sweet spring season drew nigh, her subjects began to rebel against her and to long for the coming of the Summer King, Angus of the White Steed, and Bride, his beautiful queen, who were loved by all, for they were the bringers of plenty and of bright and happy days.1 It enraged Beira greatly to find her power passing away, and she tried her utmost to prolong the winter season by raising spring storms and sending blighting frost to kill early flowers and keep the grass from growing.2

Beira lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. The reason she did not die of old age was because, at the beginning of every spring, she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth which bubbles up in the Green Island of the West. This was a floating island where summer was the only season, and the trees were always bright with blossom and laden with fruit. It drifted about on the silver tides of the blue Atlantic, and sometimes appeared off the western coasts of Ireland and sometimes close to the Hebrides. Many bold mariners have steered their galleys up and down the ocean, searching for Green Island in vain. On a calm morning they might sail past its shores and yet never know it was near at hand, for oft-times it lay hidden in a twinkling mist. Men have caught glimpses of it from the shore, but while they gazed on its beauties with eyes of wonder, it vanished suddenly from sight by sinking beneath the waves like the setting sun. Beira, however, always knew where to find Green Island when the time came for her to visit it.

The waters of the Well of Youth are most potent when the days begin to grow longer, and most potent of all on the first of the lengthening days of spring. Beira always visited the island on the night before the first lengthening day–that is, on the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter. All alone in the darkness she sat beside the Well of Youth, waiting for the dawn. When the first faint beam of light appeared in the eastern sky, she drank the water as it bubbled fresh from a crevice in the rock. It was necessary that she should drink of this magic water before any bird visited the well and before any dog barked. If a bird drank first, or a dog barked ere she began to drink, dark old Beira would crumble into dust.3

As soon as Beira tasted the magic water, in silence and alone, she began to grow young again. She left the island and, returning to Scotland, fell into a magic sleep. When, at length, she awoke, in bright sunshine, she rose up as a beautiful girl with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues. No fairer goddess was to be found in all the land, save Bride, the peerless Queen of Summer.4

As each month went past, however, Beira aged quickly. She reached full womanhood in midsummer, and when autumn came on her brows wrinkled and her beauty began to fade. When the season of winter returned once again, she became an old and withered hag, and began to reign as the fierce Queen Beira.

Often on stormy nights in early winter she wandered about, singing this sorrowful song:–

O life that ebbs like the seal
I am weary and old, I am weary and old–
Oh! how can I happy be
All alone in the dark and the cold.

I’m the old Beira again,
My mantle no longer is green,
I think of my beauty with pain
And the days when another was queen.

My arms are withered and thin,
My hair once golden is grey;
’Tis winter–my reign doth begin–
Youth’s summer has faded away.

Youth’s summer and autumn have fled–
I am weary and old, I am weary and old.
Every flower must fade and fall dead
When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.

The aged Beira was fearsome to look upon. She had only one eye, but the sight of it was keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean. Her complexion was a dull, dark blue, and this is how she sang about it:–

Why is my face so dark, so dark?
So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
In the mire, in the cold, ah me!

Her teeth were red as rust, and her locks, which lay heavily on her shoulders, were white as an aspen covered with hoar frost. On her head she wore a spotted mutch. All her clothing was grey, and she was never seen without her great dun-coloured shawl, which was drawn closely round her shoulders.

It is told that in the days when the world was young Beira saw land where there is now water and water where there is now land.

Once a wizard spoke to her and said: “Tell me your age, O sharp old woman.”

Beira answered: “I have long ceased to count the years. But I shall tell you what I have seen. Yonder is the seal-haunted rock of Skerryvore in the midst of the sea. I remember when it was a mountain surrounded by fields. I saw the fields ploughed, and the barley that grew upon them was sharp and juicy. Yonder is a loch. I remember when it was a small round well. In these days I was a fair young girl, and now I am very old and frail and dark and miserable.”

It is told also that Beira let loose many rivers and formed many lochs, sometimes willingly and sometimes against her will, and that she also shaped many bens and glens. All the hills in Ross-shire are said to have been made by Beira.

There was once a well on Ben Cruachan, in Argyll, from which Beira drew water daily. Each morning at sunrise she lifted off the slab that covered it, and each evening at sunset she laid it above the well again. It happened that one evening she forgot to cover the well. Then the proper order of things was disturbed. As soon as the sun went down the water rose in great volume and streamed down the mountain side, roaring like a tempest-swollen sea. When day dawned, Beira found that the valley beneath was filled with water. It was in this way that Loch Awe came to be.

Beira had another well in Inverness-shire which had to be kept covered in like manner from sunset till sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. It happened that one evening the maid was late in going to the well to cover it. When she drew near she beheld the water flowing so fast from it that she turned away and. ran for her life. Beira watched her from the top of Ben Nevis, which was her mountain throne, and cried: “You have neglected your duty. Now you will run for ever and never leave water.”

The maiden was at once changed into a river, and the loch and the river which runs from it towards the sea were named after her. That is why the loch is called Loch Ness and the river the river Ness.5

Once a year, when the night on which she was transformed comes round, Ness (Nessa) arises out of the river in her girl form, and sings a sad sweet song in the pale moonlight. It is said that her voice is clearer and more beautiful than that of any bird, and her music more melodious than the golden harps and silvern pipes of fairyland.

In the days when rivers broke loose and lochs were made, Beira set herself to build the mountains of Scotland. When at work she carried on her back a great creel filled with rocks and earth. Sometimes as she leapt from hill to hill her creel tilted sideways, and rocks and earth fell from it into lochs and formed islands. Many islands are spoken of as “spillings from the creel of the big old woman”.

Beira had eight hags who were her servants. They also carried creels, and one after the other they emptied out their creels until a mountain was piled up nigh to the clouds.

One of the reasons why Beira made the mountains was to use them as stepping stones; another was to provide houses for her giant sons. Many of her sons were very quarrelsome; they fought continually one against another. To punish those of them who disobeyed her, Beira shut the offenders up in mountain houses, and from these they could not escape without her permission. But this did not keep them from fighting. Every morning they climbed to the tops of their mountain houses and threw great boulders at one another. That is why so many big grey boulders now lie on steep slopes and are scattered through the valleys. Other giant sons of Beira dwelt in deep caves. Some were horned like deer, and others had many heads. So strong were they that they could pick up cattle and, throwing them over their shoulders, carry them away to roast them for their meals. Each giant son of Beira was called a Fooar.6

It was Beira who built Ben Wyvis. She found it a hard task, for she had to do all the work alone, her hag servants being busy elsewhere. One day, when she had grown very weary, she stumbled and upset her creel. All the rocks and earth it contained fell out in a heap, and formed the mountain which is called Little Wyvis.

The only tool that Beira used was a magic hammer. When she struck it lightly on the ground the soil became as hard as iron; when she struck it heavily on the ground a valley was formed. After she had built up a mountain, she gave it its special form by splintering the rocks with her hammer. If she had made all the hills of the same shape, she would not have been able to recognize one from another.

After the mountains were all formed, Beira took great delight in wandering between them and over them. She was always followed by wild animals. The foxes barked with delight when they beheld her, wolves howled to greet her, and eagles shrieked with joy in mid-air. Beira had great herds and flocks to which she gave her protection-nimble-footed deer, high-horned cattle, shaggy grey goats, black swine, and sheep that had snow-white fleeces. She charmed her deer against the huntsmen, and when she visited a deer forest she helped them to escape from the hunters. During early winter she milked the hinds on the tops of mountains, but when the winds rose so high that the froth was blown from the milking pails, she drove the hinds down to the valleys. The froth was frozen on the crests of high hills, and lay there snow-white and beautiful. When the winter torrents began to pour down the mountain sides, leaping from ledge to ledge, the people said: “Beira is milking her shaggy goats, and streams of milk are pouring down over high rocks.”

Beira washed her great shawl in the sea, for there was no lake big enough for the purpose. The part she chose for her washing is the strait between the western islands of Jura and Scarba. Beira’s “washing-pot” is the whirlpool, there called Corry-vreckan. It was so named because the son of a Scottish king, named Breckan, was drowned in it, his boat having been upset by the waves raised by Beira.

Three days before the Queen of Winter began her work her hag servants made ready the water for her, and the Corry could then be heard snorting and fuming for twenty miles around. On the fourth day Beira threw her shawl into the whirlpool, and tramped it with her feet until the edge of the Corry overflowed with foam. When she had finished her washing she laid her shawl on the mountains to dry, and as soon as she lifted it up, all the mountains of Scotland were white with snow to signify that the great Queen had begun her reign.

Now, the meaning of this story is that Beira is the spirit of winter. She grows older and fiercer as the weeks go past, until at length her strength is spent. Then she renews her youth, so that she may live through the summer and autumn and begin to reign once again. The ancient people of Scotland saw that during early winter torrents poured down from the hills, and in this Beira fable they expressed their belief that the torrents were let loose by the Winter Queen, and that the lochs were, at the beginning, formed by the torrents that sprang from magic wells. They saw great boulders lying on hillsides and in valleys, and accounted for their presence in these places by telling how they were flung from mountain tops by the giant sons of Beira.

1 The tale is told in the following chapter, The Coming of Angus and Bride; as mentioned before, however, it seems that MacKenzie is the only source for this tale.
2 The Cailleach’s battle against the onslaught of spring has already been told here; her struggle ends on Là na Cailliche, when she gives up and throws her mallet down in disgust.
3 A tale of this kind has already been posted here. The motif of approaching the well in silence reflects a common practice in healing rites where the well should be approached before sunrise on a certain day, in absolute silence. Breaking the silence breaks the spell.
4 Once again, MacKenzie seems to be the only source for this, but F. Marian McNeill echoes this in The Silver Bough. Neither give any references for where they got this from, so it’s a little suspect.
5 Campbell also gives a version of Ness’s creation story.
6 MacKenzie notes: “Pronounced Foo’ar. The Anglo-Irish rendering is “Fomorian”, but the Irish Fomorians are different from the Scottish.” But ‘Fooar’ could equally be an anglicised rendering of the Gàidhlig word ‘fuar’, meaning ‘cold.’ This fits with their mountain location and the Cailleach’s association with bitter weather and the winter season itself, suggesting they might actually be considered to be personifications of the Cailleach’s power over the seasons.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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