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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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Some Scottish places associated with the Cailleach

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.

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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Cailleach’s lament

The following piece of lore described here by the daughter of Alexander Carmichael, Elizabeth (Ella) Watson, gives a brief account of the legendary Cailleach Bheur, who did battle to hold back the onslaught of spring for as long as possible. This battle resulted in the Cailleach lending her name to a period of stormy weather in many parts of Scotland, the timing of which appears to have varied according to region. In general, her final admittance of defeat coincides with the time of Là na Cailliche (March 25th), which ushers in the beginning of Spring.

Compare the Cailleach’s lament given here with K.W. Grant’s discussion of the period in a previous post; the translation given here is much more accurate (although Grant’s is perhaps a little more poetic), and echoes the lorica-type prayers that were traditionally said for protection with the idea of girding oneself with ‘spiritual armour’. The best-known example is The Deer’s Cry, or St. Patrick’s Lorica, which calls on all of the directions and elements for protection. Here, the Cailleach inverts the idea to show just how thoroughly she has been defeated:

“According to some people, ‘cailleach’ [A’ 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,1 she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion till the beginning of April comes in again, saying, as she goes:

‘Dh’ fhag e mhan mi, dh’ fhag e ‘n ard mi
Dh’ fhag e eadar mo dha lamh mi,
Dh’ fhag e bial mi, dh’ fhag e cul mi,
Dh’ fha e eadar mo dha shul mi.

Dh’ fhag e shios mi, dh’ fhag e shuas mi,
Dh’ fhag e eadar mo dha chluas mi,
Dh’ fhag e thall mi, dh’ fhag e bhos mi,
Dh’ fhag e eadar mo dha chos mi.

Thilg mi ‘n slacan druidh donai,
Am bun preis crin cruaidh conuis.
Far nach fas fionn no foinnidh,
Ach fracan froinnidh feurach.’

It escaped me below, it escaped me above.
It escaped me between my two hands,
It escaped me before, it escaped me behind,
It escaped me between my two eyes.

It escaped me down, it escaped me up,
It escaped me between my two ears,
It escaped me thither, it escaped me hither,
It escaped me between my two feet.

I threw my druidic evil wand.
Into the base of a withered hard whin bush,
Where shall not grow ‘ fionn ‘ nor ‘ fionnidh’,
But fragments of grassy ‘froinnidh.’ ”

From: E.C Watson, Highland Mythology, in The Celtic Review Volume 5, 1909, pp48-70.


1 Whin is another name for gorse, a very spikey and hardy bush that flowers for a long period of time, even in the winter. The bright yellow flowers of the gorse perhaps brings to mind the strengthening sun.

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Lore concerning the Cailleach Bheur

“The word Beur, taken simply as it stands, signifies a peak, point, or pinnacle, and may without straining be taken to mean, in its plural form of ‘Bheur’ (mountain) ridges.

The hag of the ridges, would be a suitable enough appellation for the genius of the mountain tops. There, on the topmost ridges, do the dark herds of Cailleach Bheur congregate. Thence rush the floods in fleecy foam, and snowy cascades leap, for dark clouds and dark billows are her herds of deer; her sheep and goats are fleecy clouds, and also white-crested waves, or seething waters of hill and plain.

The manner in which the word ‘beur’ is used is illustrated in the following quotation:

leis an dionaiche long,
A’ gearradh a h’astar feadh thonn
Gun chùram mar theine nan speur
Troimh bheàrna beur nan neul-

Whose taut barque
Cleaves with a fearless prow unerring her way thro’ the bilow,
Like a lightning flash that shoots thro’ the gaps of the jagged cloud ridges.

None of these surmises concerning the origin of the name is quite convincing or satisfactory.

The sphere of the Cailleach’s influence, and the actions attributed to her are the following: –

With her mallet – ‘farachan’ – or pestle – ‘slachdan’ – she beats and pounds the earth till all growth is destroyed; Nature has become torpid.

But about the middle of January Nature shows signs of reviving, and the sun has begun his returning journey. The Cailleach gets alarmed, and summons the ‘faoiltich,’ wolflings, or wolf-storms; ‘faol,’ a wolf. Those storms last until the middle of February.

Then follows the third week of February – ‘trì lathan gobaig,’ three days of ‘shark-toothed,’ bitter, stinging east winds; and ‘trì lathan feadaig,’ three days of ‘plover-winged,’ swift, fitful blasts, careering, rainy winds that are ‘the death of sheep and lamb, and get the strong cattle bogged till the flood rolls over their heads.’

Here are the Gaelic words for those last lines.

‘S mise ‘n fheadag luirigineach luath;
Marbhaidh mi ‘chaora, marbhaidh mi ‘n t-uan;
Cuiridh mi a’ bho’ mhòr ‘s an toll
Gus am bi an tonn thar a ceann.

Then comes the last week of the month, ‘Seachdain a’ Ghearrain.’ The name is variously interpreted. Some have supposed it to mean a week of sighing, moaning winds, from ‘gearan,’ complaining. Others take it to denote ‘Ploughing Week,’ from ‘gearran,’ a colt. A third party surmise that the name comes from ‘geàrr-shion,’ short, sudden squalls. But those who suggest this rendering place the week between the 15th of March and the 11th of April. Ploughing week is probably the true interpretation.

The first week of March is marked by temporary blasts of foul weather and flying showers – ‘Sgarraichean na Feill Connain‘ – St. Conan Storms. The second week is marked by tempestuous weather, squally and inclement, ‘Doirionn na Feill Padruig‘ – St. Patrick gales.

Then the Cailleach becomes desperate over her want of success. Despite her efforts to keep the earth hard by beating it with her mallet, despite her storming, the grass waxes, buds appear, and the blossoms peep from beneath their hoods. The Cailleach exclaims

Dh’fhàg e shios mi, dh’fhàg e shuas mi;
Dh’fhàg e eadar mo dhà chluais mi;
Dh’fhàg e thall mi, dh’fhàg e bhos mi;
Dh’fhàg e eadar mo dhà chois mi!

Shootings her and sprouting there,
It eludes me everywhere;
Overhead and underfoot
Bud and blade blossom shoot.

The brave, little wild duck taunts the Cailleach – “Despite thy shrivelling, stinging-cold little March, I and my twelve are yet alive!’ ‘Just wait a little!’ exclaims March, or the Cailleach – for here they are synonymous; she borrows three days from February, and the result is thus described in Scotch: –

The first day it was win’ an’ west,
The neist day it was snaw an’ sleet,
The third day it sae hard did freeze,
The wee birds nebs stuck tae the trees.

The Cailleach tries to chase away her son – the sun, wooing the young Spring – but he escapes with his bride. She causes the wild duck and her brood to perish with cold, and in so doing puts out her own eye. Baffled and defeated on every hand, and fleeing before her enemies, the wintry storms of the Cailleach sink into a calm as the returning sun shines forth and the warm winds blow.

The enraged Cailleach is defeated, she flings her mallet under a holly, where never a blade of grass can grow thereafter, so powerful is the magic influence to deaden growth.

This brings us to ‘Latha na Caillich’ – Old Wife’s Day – the 25th day of March (old style), the date of the Caileach’s overthrow, the flinging down of her mallet, and her punishment in being turned into stone.”

K. W. Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Cailleach Bheinn a’ Bhric

This is a story from K.W. Grant’s Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll (1925, p10):

“Beinn a’ Bhric” – Trout Mountain – is in Lochaber. It’s presiding genius was a “Bean-shìdhe” – fairy woman. (Sìdh, the abode of the gods; not sìth, peace as so often rendered.)

The Cailleach tended her herds of deer in Glen Nevis, and often milked them there, especially in the “dead” months of winter. The huntsmen heard her song as she milked her deer; for all Highland milkmaids were wont, in times past, to charm the milk from the cattle by keeping time with their fingers to a ringing lilt. The song of the Cailleach was unlike that of every other milkmaid; it was peculiar to herself, and unique in every respect.

Sometimes the women folk accused her of driving her deer to the shore to feed on dulse, or upon the tender blades of their winter kale. This was no more than women’s gossip; the herds of the Cailleach loved not such pasturage.

It was known among the huntsmen that, as certainly as any one of them caught a glimpse of the Cailleach he might stay at home for that day, for he should have no “shooting-luck.”

Once when the tempests of late Autumn marched down the hills, a young hunter of stout heart, on hearing that the Cailleach was abroad, determined to brave her. From dawn till sundown, he hunted in the deer forest of Loch Tréig, the chosen haunt of the Cailleach, but never a trace of deer or roe did he light upon. When twilight came he betook himself for shelter to a hut built for that purpose by the huntsmen. As he gathered wood and leaves wherewith to light a fire on the hearth, he began out of sheer bravado to rhyme a taunt against the Cailleach, imitating her peculiar tune as he hummed the stanzas:-

The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Tall and stern, tall and stern;
The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Swift she glides o’er peak and cairn.

Cailleach Bheinn a’ Bhric horó!
Bhric horó! Bhric horó!
Cailleach Bheinn a’ Bhric horó!
Warder of the mountain well, etc.

The hunter had completed but a few stanzas when the Cailleach, lilting as was her wont, approached and saluted him.

“I am aware,” said she, “that thou hast wandered far to-day in search of game. I have come all the way from “Lagan-nam-féith” – Quagmire Hollow – since the first spark of fire fell on thy tinder, to give thee sure luck in hunting. To-morrow, as I milk my deer, watch thou, and whichever of the deer becomes restive, I will strike with the knob of my fetter. (A fetter was made of plaited horse-hair with a loop at one end and a knob of hard wood at the other for fastening it.) Note it well; take good aim, and thou shalt have good luck.”

The hunter obeyed; and from that day forward he never hunted in vain.

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Cailleach and the hunter

From The Emmet, 1823:

The Cailleach…had the most unlimited power over the elements. When a hunter kindled a fire in a sheeling to warm his benumbed limbs, after the fatigues of the chase, this sublime being although in a mountain of Perthshire strode in a moment from hill to hill, and was with the hunter at his blazing fire in a twinkling, though it had been kindled by him in the distant mountains of Ross-shire. She always attempted to destroy him whom she thus so unexpectedly and unwelcomely visited; and the means which she had recourse to for this purpose were various. She was much afraid of a dog and a loaded gun; and as these were companions which every hunter had along with him, she was not so successful in the trade of slaying as she naturally wished. The following song was sung by her one evening to scare a hunter from killing her deer. As the hunter was in the act of levelling his piece at a large stag that grazed in a green meadow between two mountains, she suddenly made her appearance on the frowning brow of a large precipice, and recited or sung as follows, and it almost is unnecessary to mention, that the hunter made the decentest speed possible towards the low grounds, when the last strain came rolling to his ear on the evening breeze…

Tiny hunter cease to roam,
O’er the piny heights where I make my dwelling;
Tempt the roaring foam,
Of ocean when high the trouble waves are swelling,
But here where I hold my sway,
O’er deep glen and mountain gray,
Dare not venture night or day –
Tiny mortal roam not here!
I am monarch of the deer,
Which bound over all these green mountains;
I partake of their cheer,
The crystal stream so clear,
And the cresses that fringe the blue fountains:
Tis I that deform heaven’s face with the storm,
And sublime on the dark clouds career.
I revel ‘mid the elemental war,
At rest within my misty car,
And send my voice in hollow moans afar,
Down the dusky glen among the dwellings of men;
And fill them with terror and fear!
Cease, then, my piny heights to climb,
Pollute not my green knoll of thyme,
Where I hold my august court,
And with my fairy subjects sport,
When the moon at her noon,
Pours her silver stream of light,
O’er the blue bosom of the silent night!
Tremble mortal, at my power,
Leave my sacred dominion!
Ere I cause the heavens lower,
And whelm thee with a fearful shower,
For sport to my fairy minions!
Hence away! child of clay,
Go tempt the roaring foam,
Of ocean, when high the troubled waves are swelling;
But ne’er again stray where I hold my sway,
O’er the piny heights that I make my dwelling!
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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Hunting, Scotland, Weather


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