The nature and lore of the Cailleach has been dealt with elsewhere here on Tairis, but so far while there has been mention of the day that is traditionally dedicated to her – March 25th, or Là na Caillich – little else has been said about it.
Really, there isn’t much to be said in concrete terms, since any references to Là na Caillich, specifically, tend to be more like passing comments, but hopefully this page will flesh those out a little. While Lady Day was observed in Ireland, and similar traditions surrounding weather lore are noted by Danaher for March 25th, there is no overt association with the Cailleach.1 As such, the following article will focus on Scottish sources.
As we’ve seen, from the late sixth century onwards, March 25th was the date of the New Year in Britain, up until 1600 in Scotland, when it was moved to January 1st by King James VI. March 25th was also the official, fixed date for the Spring Equinox, and in the Christian calendar, being nine months before Christmas day, it celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation – when Mary was visited by the archangel Gabriel with the news that she was pregnant.2 Across Britain and Ireland it was known as Lady Day, and as such it was a day of religious observance.3
In England, March 25th was a Quarter Day – one of the traditional days upon which contracts and rents were renewed.4 Accounting for the shift in the number of days between the Old Style (Julian calendar) and New Style (Gregorian calendar), it is still significant in the modern legal calendar in Britain, since April 6th remains the start of the new tax year – while the new year was moved, the start of the new tax year didn’t.5
In the Scottish calendar, it was also known as Là na Caillich, the day of the Cailleach, when she was supposed to finally give up her struggle in opposing the onslaught of Spring, upon which she threw down her wand, which she had been using all winter to bring barrenness to whatever it touched.6
Unlike the Scottish Quarter Days of Là Fheill Brìghde, Bealltainn, Lùnastal and Samhainn, Là na Caillich does not seem to have been observed with much ceremony (that has been recorded, at least). Instead, the day recognised a turning point in the year, when the weather had improved enough to be sure (or more hopeful) that any crops that were to be sown would not be damaged by too cold or inclement weather.7 Similarly, by marking the end of the stormy season, fishermen could be more confident of safe journeys out to sea and a good catch.8
There seems, however, to be some ambiguity about the dating. While Grant points to Là na Caillich as being the end of the Cailleach’s struggle to keep winter’s hold over the land and seas:
“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 Cailleach’s overthrow, the flinging down of her mallet, and her punishment in being turned into stone.”9
The date seems to coincide with a stormy period – A’ Chailleach10 – which, MacKenzie notes, can last for up to six weeks:
“Gentle Annie is feared most in the spring-time. During the rest of the year the south-west wind is ‘gentle’ enough. The Cromarty fisher-people refer to the spring equinox as ‘Gentle Annie weather.’ During that stormy period, which ‘lasts sometimes for six weeks,’ they cannot go to sea and food is very scarce. ‘We’ll have to be keeping a shilling or twa beside us for the time o’ Gentle Annie,’ a shrewd fisher-woman remarked to the Writer.”11
‘Notes on the Celtic Year’ also refers to ‘Là-Caillich’ on March 25th, and a stormy period usually following in April.12 In this light, it seems that the period of A’ Cailleach – referring to the stormy season in the Spring – was not a fixed event, but started and finished as the weather dictated at that time of year.
The end of this period marked a more settled time, weather-wise, and generally heralded better weather conditions for sowing and seafaring. The association of the Cailleach with the fixed date of March 25th could therefore be a later addition to the lore – with the general trend of movable dates becoming more fixed over time it would be no surprise for the same to happen here, and the natural choice around this time would be the start of the old New Year and all of its associations – a time for new beginnings, new crops to be sown, and so on, it would have been considered to be auspicious. In this sense, the stormy weather could sometimes become detached from the fixed date that was supposed to mark the start of Spring, proper.
Myth and Tradition
According the varying traditions, the Cailleach has a few choice words to say about her failure to halt the onslaught of Spring. In one version, on throwing down her wand, the Cailleach cries:
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 here and sprouting there,
It eludes me everywhere;
Overhead and underfoot
Bud and blade blossom shoot.13
She despairs in her knowledge that she has been defeated, and laments it. Another version makes her defeat even clearer:
“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 norm 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.’”14
Echoing the style of a lorica – a prayer of protection, like St Patrick’s Breastplate, which invokes as many directions as possible to envelop the person in the prayer’s protection as thoroughly as possible – here, the concept is used against her. Victory escapes her from every angle; she is defeated, hopeless and angry. Her fate is sealed, and with a final flourish, she is gone.15 Spring has won.
Traditions vary as to what happens to the Cailleach next. According to Grant, she is turned to stone as punishment for her actions, whereas MacKenzie records that she falls into a deep sleep until summer and autumn have passed while Brìde and Angus reign over the summer months;16 or else the Cailleach turns herself into stone to escape the her son (the sun) who has been pursuing her to combat her wintry efforts and has already taken one of her eyes.17
According to McNeill, one story tells of how the Cailleach drinks from the Well of Youth on the eve of Là Fhèill Brìghde and is transformed from an old hag into Brìde, young and maidenly once again, ready to reign over the summer.18 Unfortunately, McNeill does not cite her source for this, because while there are tales that associate the Cailleach with a Well of Youth,19 I have yet to see anyone other than MacKenzie in his tale – ‘The Coming of Angus and Bride’ – record anything that associates the Cailleach and Brìde in any way and it seems McNeill may be following MacKenzie’s example. Since the form of MacKenzie’s tale, published in 1917, bears clear similarities with Grant’s work, published in 1925, it seems certain that MacKenzie really is drawing from actual tradition in the telling, since Grant’s (albeit later) description does appear to include genuine Gaelic elements that MacKenzie didn’t include in his tale.20 However, for MacKenzie – as the earliest, and really the only explicit source to mention Brìde and the Cailleach – Brìde’s appearance in the tale is somewhat suspicious. Grant makes mention of the Cailleach’s son and his bride in her description of the Cailleach’s struggle, but never names them. In MacKenzie’s later work – Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, published in 1935 – his chapters on the Cailleach draws heavily from Grant, but makes little (or no) mention of any association with Brìde, suggesting his earlier tale is a tad anachronistic.
Brìde is certainly associated with the Spring season – as Alexander Carmichael, for one, records – and (according to Carmichael) there does indeed seem to be a struggle over Spring’s emergence. Here, though, the struggle ends on St Patrick’s Day, with the help and influence of Brìde or Mary.21
It may be that Carmichael is recording one strand of tradition – all good and Catholic, with no uncomfortable pagan connotations – while MacKenzie et al are recording another strand that is less self-conscious about such things – and that MacKenzie’s use of Brìde in The Coming of Angus and Bride is a logical choice on his part – if he’s going to choose someone, then Brìde is the clear winner as a popular, well-known saint and someone who is very apt to the season anyway.
Alternatively, it may be that Carmichael has carefully edited out those uncomfortable pagan connotations himself, but then again, other sources do make mention of St Patrick’s Day associations:
“The writer has heard references to the pursuit of the Cailleach by her son beginning when the day and night are of equal length. In the west this period, 17th to 29th arch, the “middle day”, is known as Feill Paruig (St. Patrick’s Day) and there is supposed to be a south wind in the morning and a north wind at night. The son who pursues the Cailleach is supplanted by St Patrick, who is said to come from Ireland “to see his parishioners in Barra and other places on the west of Scotland”. His wife is a daughter of Ossian, the last of the Fianna (Fians). After this day “the limpet is better than the whelk” and although “horse grow lean, crabs grow fat.” Vegetation is reviving. A Gaelic saying is, “There is not a herb in the ground but the length of a mouse’s ear of it is out on St. Patrick’s Day.” High tides come on St. Patrick’s Day. A swelling (tòchadh) in the sea is supposed to be caused by the increasing heat.”22
While it could be argued that Carmichael may have been selective on this subject, then, it does appear that there was actual lore surrounding St Patrick’s Day, which is no surprise considering its proximity to March 25th.
There is very little evidence to show that the Celts ever celebrated the solstices or equinoxes in either the historical or archaeological record, although the inhabitants of the British Isles are known to have been aware of these dates from the orientation of many of the pre-historic monuments that have survived – such as Loughcrew, Newgrange, Maes Howe, and the like. Presumably these orientations were deliberate, and of ritual importance, but it is arguably not something that survived the spread of Celtic culture and customs.
In essence, then, Là na Caillich is associated with the equinox not because of any pre-historic ‘Celtic’ (in general) customs of celebrating this time of year, but because of its associations with the stormy weather found at this time of year, and the previous practice of starting the New Year at the ‘official’ equinox as a result of Christian influence.23
The absence of any elaborate customs, unlike those that have survived for the Quarter Days, that might be associated with Là na Caillich, specifically, also suggest that it was not necessarily a ritually significant period in the pre-Christian Celtic calendar – certainly not on a par with the Quarter Days, at the least.
However, if we look to other traditions, we might see some significance in the offerings to Shony, which Martin Martin records as taking place around Easter (which often coincides with the period of A’ Chailleach). Although placed in a different context – dedicated to Shony (probably St John as Ronald Black suggests)24 – the practice of making offerings to ensure a good crop of seaweed from the storms at this time of year make it easily comparable with the Cailleach’s influence. In this sense, it could be argued that similar offerings to the Cailleach, or her storm hags – na Cailleacha Beura25 – in a reconstructionist context at this time of year, would be entirely appropriate, and adapted to more local circumstances and needs. After all, even if we don’t rely on the growing of our own crops for subsistence, no matter where we are the weather can affect our livelihoods and life in many different ways.
1 p67, The Year in Ireland, Danaher, 1972; p183, British Popular Customs Present and Past, Thiselton-Dyer, 1911.
2 p143, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p15. See also Old Style and New Style Dates and the change to the Gregorian Calendar: A summary for genealogists.
3 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p15;p18.
4 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p18.
5 Gregorson-Campbell, in fact, explicitly states the connection between the two dates in his entry for Lady Day, see Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p548.
6 p65-66, Watson, ‘Highland Mythology’, The Celtic Review Vol V, 1905; p46-48, ‘The Coming of Angus and Bride,’ Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917; K. W. Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.
7 K. W. Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.
8 p341, ‘The Highland Goddesses,’ The Celtic Review Vol V, 1905.
9 Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.
10 See Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p544 and Black’s notes on p571-572.
11 p341, ‘The Highland Goddesses,’ The Celtic Review Vol V, 1905.
12 ‘Notes on the Celtic Year,’ The Celtic Monthly, March 1912, Volume 20.
13 The translation takes some poetic liberties. Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.
14 p65-66, Watson, ‘Highland Mythology’, The Celtic Review Vol V, 1905.
15 p143, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935; Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.
16 p46-48, ‘The Coming of Angus and Bride,’ Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917.
17 p143, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.
18 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol II, 1959, p21.
19 See, for example, Gregorson-Campbell, ‘The Sharp-Witted Wife,’ The Scottish Historical Review, p413-414.
20 For the full excerpt of Grant’s commentary see here.
21 See: Carmina Gadelica Volume 1, 1900.
22 p144-145, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.
23 See The New Year.
24 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p590.
25 p152, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.