While we can confidently say that Bride was a popular saint, probably based at least partly on a pre-Christian Irish goddess, the Cailleach is a little more difficult to pin down. It seems likely that she too has divine origins, given her intimate association with the land, and elements of behaviour that are similar to that of sovereignty goddesses that are so commonly found throughout Ireland, spreading through to Scotland.1
The Cailleach is a complex figure and it is probably more accurate to say that the Cailleach that we are discussing here belongs to a group of local spirits or deities that share the name Cailleach (or other epithets associated with her) along with more localised names. Legends dealing with the Cailleach tend to pin her very firmly to specific localities and generally portray her as being representative of the more “sinister and devouring aspects of Nature”,2 especially those associated with storms and bad weather.
At some point along the way – either by the people collecting the legends and myths associated with An Cailleachan in more modern times, or by the time the legends came to be written down – the lines between the individual Cailleach's has become blurred so that they are almost a conflation into one single entity. Given the many names associated with her, it's possible that in some cases it is used as a title rather than a personal name, just as the Morrigan can be used as a specific name, or else a title.
The earliest references to the Cailleach can be seen in Irish sources, namely a poem known as The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, thought to date to around 800AD. Here she calls herself Bui, and refers to her time of youth, spent amongst kings and comely youths, drinking fine meads and ales and taking part in feasts. Her lament is that her youth is at an end, she is old, a hag, and though she claims to have gladly taken the nuns veil, she mourns for what once was:
2. I am Bui, the Old Woman of Beare; I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed; today it has befallen me, by reason of my mean estate, that I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear.
...7 My body, full of bitterness, seeks to go to a dwelling where it is known(?): when the Son of God deems it time, let Him come to carry off his deposit.
8 When my arms are seen, all bony and thin! - the craft they used to practise was pleasant: they used to be about glorious kings.
9 When my arms are seen, all bony and thin, they are not, I declare, worth raising around comely youths.
10 The maidens are joyful when they reach May-day; grief is more fitting for me: I am not only miserable, but an old woman.
11 I speak no honied words; no wethers are killed for my wedding; my hair is scant and grey; to have a mean veil over it causes no regret.
12 To have a white veil on my head causes me no grief; many coverings of every hue were on my head as we drank good ale.2a
The tone of the poem intimates great sorrow, even though she claims to be glad to have made her choice. The mention of her ever-renewed smock, her associations with kings and feasts, her 'honied words', all seem to indicate that she was once a sovereignty goddess, now portrayed as a nun, having willingly renounced her lofty position in the name of God.
Her status as a hag and a nun in the poem is no coincidence. The word 'Cailleach' is thought to come from the Latin word pallium, which means 'veil'. Goidelic languages tended towards replacing the letter 'p' with 'c' in words loaned from different languages, and so it became caille, 'veil'. Here cailleach is thought to primarily mean 'veiled one'.3 In early medieval Irish society, this would have suggested someone who was either married in the conventional sense, or a woman who had been consecrated as a nun – in other words, she was effectively married to Christ.4 Later, as the lore regarding the Cailleach evolved and spread, emphasising her more terrible, destructive aspects, the term also came to mean an old hag, a supernatural figure or 'hag-witch'.5 In a modern context, cailleach refers to an old wife.6 In all, her depiction as an old nun, a bitter old woman in some respects, is very apt, and indicative of how versatile Gaelic can be.
The fact that she is seen as a hag fits neatly with the theme of decay and death found in the winter months. As the spirit of winter, however, the Cailleach is perhaps best known as Cailleach Bheur, Beira, the Gyre-Carline, Mag Moullach, or in the north-east of Scotland as Gentle Annie – a somewhat ironic epithet by the fishermen who regard her as being responsible for the gales and storms of the winter season. The epithet Bheur is said to come from beura or bheura, which means 'shrill, sharp, cutting', probably in reference to her association with the cold weather and storms of winter7 – the sharpness of the frosts and the shrillness of the winds, perhaps.
According to McNeill at least one tradition views Bride and the Cailleach as being one and the same, with the Cailleach drinking from the Well of Youth at the beginning of each spring, whereby she is transformed into the youthful Bride.8 While this fits neatly with the old woman of Beare's mention of her smock, ever renewed once upon a time, most traditions in Scotland have them firmly pitted against each other as two differing personalities. Just like the sovereignty goddesses of Irish literature, who appeared as old hags or transformed themselves into beautiful young maidens upon being recognised by kings, the Cailleach has obvious transformative abilities. Just as the Morrigan, Macha or Medb, for example, have more negative associations with war and death, the Cailleach does too.
In Scotland she is often associated with creating lochs and rivers, along with eight other hags who were her servants (one, Nessa, was responsible for creating Loch Ness according to one legend), and is said to possess a hammer with which she created the mountains. It is in this landscape that the Cailleach is seen as inhabiting – mountains, old standing stones or simply the most remote area of a district. Anyone who encounters her may find that she is either well-disposed towards them, or very much not, depending on the clan or locality you come from.9
As a spirit of winter, and in keeping with her unfriendliness towards mortals, the Cailleach had a reputation for helping deer escape huntsmen – a particularly unfriendly thing to do as far as the people were concerned, since deer would have been a valuable addition to a fairly limited diet during the colder months. Snow was said to be the milk of her goats running down the side of mountains, and whenever the peaks were seen to be covered in snow it was said, “Beira is milking her shaggy goats, and streams of milk are pouring down over high rocks.”.10 In Edinburgh, it was said that snow was the result of 'the Old Woman over in Fife' plucking her geese.11
Cailleach Bheur is said to reside at Ben Nevis, and ushers in the winter at Samhainn by washing her cloak in the Corryvreckan (Coire Bhreacain - “the Cauldron of the Plaid” - a whirlpool found between the islands of Jura and Mull, which has a fearsome reputation of being unnavigable) – because no loch was big enough for it. The whirlpool itself is said to have been created when Breckan, the son of a Scottish king, was drowned in his boat after it was upset by the waves caused by the Cailleach herself. Three days before she takes up her winter reign, three of her servants stir up the water to make it ready for her. The Cailleach then washes her cloak until “the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white” (i.e. Covered in snow), and brings the cold, ice, snow, storms and is also said to cause the rivers to overflow throughout the winter.12
She is described as being fearsome to look upon, with a dark blue, dull complexion, teeth “as red as rust” and only one eye which “...was keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean.” Her hair was long and white, and her clothing was grey except for a dun coloured shawl that she wore tightly wrapped around her shoulders. On her head was “a spotted mutch” (a type of hat), and even the Cailleach found herself hideous to behold:
“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!”13
She was also said to be of such gigantic proportions that the waters of the Sound of Mull only came up as far as her knees.14 Her size, hideous appearance, and particularly the fact that she has only one eye is evidence of her usually malign, but also supernatural, influence. Several characters in Irish myth who are less than positively disposed towards heroes of the tales are said to have only one eye as well as (in many cases) other abnormalities and physical disfigurements. This can be seen especially with the Fomorians (such as Balor), who are often depicted as the enemy of the various settlers of Ireland, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the Cailleach is said to have had many giant sons that were known as Fooar – a name that may be linked to the Fomorians.15 It's probably no coincidence that one method that is commonly described as being a means of obtaining imbas, or divine inspiration, is for the seeker to stand on one foot and close one eye.
Although the Cailleach reigned unequivocally throughout the winter months in Scotland, it is said that by spring her subjects began to rebel against her harsh rule and long for the return of the summer king. As the Cailleach found her power slipping away, she grew enraged and caused storms throughout January and February to try and forestall the waning of her rule and thus the transition into spring.16 This stormy period is known as A Chailleach, the timing of which depends entirely on when the storms begin, and how long they last for.17
Some legends say the reason she loses her control over her reign is because she was overcome by the combined forces of the sun, dew and rain. Others say the reason for her weakening was due to her age, and she is attributed as saying: “Nuair a bha 'mhuir 'na coille 's 'na crìonaich/Bha mise 'n sin 'am nionaig 'oig” (When the ocean was a forest of shrivelled trees/I was then a young maiden).18 Facing the inevitable, one tale that refers to the Cailleach's transformative powers tells that on the eve of each spring when her strength had all but gone, she drank from the Well of Youth and became young again, but the effects of the well did not last long and she aged rapidly as the weeks and months passed by until she was an old hag at the time of resuming her reign at winter.19
In spite of losing her reign at spring, the Cailleach does not give up her struggle to regain control easily. As Bride is said to go around with her wand causing vegetation to grow and flourish, the Cailleach is also said to go around blasting it with her own wand, until she is finally overcome on March 25 (originally the new year in the Christian calendar, based on the spring equinox, until the shift was made to January 1). In some places she is said to give up on St Patrick's Day, since it was generally a more widely observed holy day than March 25, commonly known as Auld Wife's Day (or Lady Day).20
This lore is encapsulated in perhaps the best known tale dealing with this legend, in Mackenzie's The Coming of Angus and Bride. Here, the Cailleach holds Bride captive because she is jealous of her beauty and because her son Angus is in love with the maiden. The Cailleach tells Bride to wash her cloak until it is white and so Bride laboriously does as she is bid, day after day without making any progress. The cloak remains as brown as ever until Father Winter appears and helps her out. Overjoyed, Bride returns to the Cailleach with the white cloak, and some snowdrops that Father Winter also gave her. Enraged by the sight of the flowers – clear evidence that the Cailleach's power was waning, she goes out with her magic hammer and causes frosts and storms all over the land.
Meanwhile, Angus dreams of the beautiful Bride and sees her terrible plight at the hands of the Cailleach. He sets out to rescue her, and in order to do so borrows three days from August, when the weather is calm and warm, to ensure a safe passage to where Bride is being kept. Searching high and low, and suffering great peril at the hands of the Cailleach who knew what he was about, Angus was finally united with his love on the first day of spring – Bride's Day. They married, and the Cailleach grew even more outraged and sent her hags to wage war against him and the brief respite from the harsh weather was marred once again by cold and frost as a result of the Cailleach borrowing three days from winter in her campaign against the forces of spring. Angus, however, determined to rule with his queen as King of Summer, fought back and eventually the hag was defeated. The Cailleach fled, and sitting on top of a mountain she wept and mourned for her loss.
The day of her defeat is the spring equinox (though more usually set at the fixed day of March 25):
“On that day which is of equal length with the night, Angus came to Scotland with Bride, and they were hailed as king and queen of the unseen beings. They rode from south to north in the morning and forenoon, and from north to south in the afternoon and evening. A gentle wind went with them, blowing towards the north from dawn till midday, and towards the south from midday till sunset.
It was on that day that Bride dipped her fair white hands in the high rivers and lochs which still retained ice. When she did so, the Ice Hag fell into a deep sleep from which she could not awake until summer and autumn were over and past.”21
Clearly the tale is an allegory of how winter changes into spring, and the seasons cycle on. MacKenzie appears to be the only source for this tale, suggesting it's of fairly recent origin, possibly put together by MacKenzie himself using the commonest elements of the legends about the Cailleach. But in spite of the Cailleach's final defeat on Auld Wife's Day, her presence can be found at other times of the year as well. At Yule-time, for example, McNeill records a custom whereby the Yule log is identified as the Cailleach:
“Early on Yule E'en, whilst the housewife was still busy in the kitchen, and the flailman chapped in the barn to provide fodder for the cattle, and the herd-laddies axe resounded on the fir-stock, so that there should be plenty of fire-candles to brighten the Yule festivities, the head of the house went out to the woods an procured the stump of some withered tree, which he proceeded to carve into the rude resemblance of a woman. He was joined by the other members of the household, now relieved of toil, and they returned with the Cailleach in their midst. The stump was placed ceremoniously in the heart of the peat fire, and the whole company cracked jokes while the Christmas Old Wife blazed.”22
At Bealltainn, in some parts of the Highlands the bonnach bealtine was distributed among the men present at the bonfire festivities by the 'master of the feast'. One piece of the bannock was marked in some way, and whoever got it was known as 'cailleach beal-tine', the Bealltainn carline. The unlucky person who received the appellation was generally stuck with it for the next year, and to mark his ill fortune some of the men present would make a show of dragging him towards the bonfire, while others would rescue him. In some parts, the cailleach beal-tine was abused with egg shells being thrown at him.23
Clearly even at this time of year it was felt necessary to remember the harsher aspects that nature could throw at people. However, such a fact was perhaps even more keenly felt at the time of the harvest, throughout Lùnastal and leading up to Samhainn. As the harvest was taken in, each farmer was keen not to be the last one to finish harvesting his crops, for to do so would earn him the dubious honour of looking after and 'feeding' the Cailleach or Carline for the next year – a corn dolly made from the last sheaf of corn which represented the 'famine of the farm', or gort a bhaile.24 On Islay, the last sheaf (Cailleach Bhuain, as it was called), was hung on the wall next to the fireplace until the time came to plough the fields ready for the next crop. On the first day of ploughing she was taken down and split between the men who would do the ploughing and the mistress of the house. The bits of corn were then taken to the field and fed to the horses who would be pulling the plough, in order to ensure a good harvest and thus symbolically ending the power of the Cailleach over the household.25
In the Western Isles the last sheaf of corn harvested was fashioned into the Cailleach, and it was then surreptitiously passed on to a farm where the ploughing had not yet finished, and so on until the farmer who was last to finish was stuck with it. Such a 'gift' was considered very unwelcome, and it had to be delivered with great caution, stealth, and a preferably quick getaway. On many occasions the person delivering the Cailleach was chased after and beaten if caught – sometimes stripped or shaved as well.26
Like the brideag that was made for Bride's Day, the Cailleach or Maiden was often decorated with ribbons, threads or plant leaves and stalks. In some communities the first sheaf of corn to be harvested was fashioned into a corn doll known as Bride or the Maiden, along with the final sheaf being fashioned into the Cailleach. Sometimes, however, the last sheaf was known as the Maiden if it was harvested before Samhainn, but the Cailleach if it was harvested after Samhainn.27
In some form or another, then, the spirit of winter (or hunger...) can be seen throughout the year in Scotland. While her influence is most prominent throughout the winter months, during her reign, there is always an underlying presence whatever the occasion. The legends and customs associated with her, such as the burning of a Yule-log carved into her likeness, suggests that she was not someone to be propitiated like Bride was, but at least acknowledged in some way – if only to make a symbolic show that her reign would soon come to an end.
1 For more on this, see Georaid O Crualaoich's The Cailleach....
2 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, p197/215.
4 Ó Crualaoich, 2003, p82.
9 Mackenzie, p27.29; Newton, p197.
12 McNeill, Vol 2, p20; MacKenzie, p10/p30-31.
16 McNeill, Vol 2, p22; Mackenzie, p10.
21 See Mackenzie, p33-48.
22 McNeill, vol 3, p72-73.
23 McNeill, vol 2, p59-60.
25 Ibid. See also Seanchas ìle/Islay's Folklore Project, p75.