A Wild and Ancient Site
There are many sites across Scotland and Ireland relating to the Cailleach for there wasn’t just one Cailleach as she had many sisters. Less than one hundred miles from where I grew up is the long loch of Loch Tay in Scotland. If you were to take to the hills until you reach Glen Tay, then continue onto Tigh na Cailliche (Glen Cailleach), you will come across the little structure of Tigh Nam Bodach, the Shrine of the Cailleach. It is possibly the only surviving shrine to the Cailleach in all of Scotland.
The structure is a thatched little shelter (shieling) that houses the stones representing the Cailleach, her husband Bodach and her daughter Nighean. They live in the shelter from Samhain (October) up until Beltane (May), the two Celtic festivals which originally marked the end and beginning of summer. At Beltane those tending the shrine would rethatch the house and bring the stones outside where they would watch over the cattle herds throughout the summer. At Samhain the stone family would be brought back into the house and sealed up for the winter. Eventually in this area, as with much of Scotland, sheep replaced the cattle and a pattern of farming changed. Records state that dwellings were inhabited in the area up until 1782 and it was these people who regularly thatched the shrine. Up until recently, the head stalker (manager/caretaker) of the Invermeran Estate, Bob Bissett, carried out the tradition so we know this is a tradition which has been carried out for hundreds of years and, possibly, this site housed a shrine to her for thousands of years before that.
Though we have no written evidence, it’s very likely this story was affected by the great reversal of roles tainted by Patriarchy and the attempt to tame the Cailleach by marrying her and giving her children. But whatever the story, it is the bones and the spirit of the great Hag that can be felt in this wild place for she is the indigenous creatrix of this land. The bones of our origins, the one who gave birth to our soil and soul.
The harvest festival of Lughnasadh involves the tradition of the making of a corn doll although there are regional variations relating to the doll created at the harvest. If it was a good harvest then the celebrations would involve creating a harvest queen doll, but if the harvest had been affected by bad weather conditions then the doll made from that harvest would be the Cailleach. Since this doll was kept by the last person to harvest their crop, there was much haste and energy around not being the last to finish. For should the doll be the Cailleach, there was much fear of “the famine of the farm”. This farmer was expected to look after the Cailleach doll which was hung up on a wall until the ploughing began on next year’s crop. At that time she was divided up and fed to the horses ending her cycle of infertility.
Sean O Duinn (2004) outlines another variation where the Cailleach doll would be pulled apart and the grain mixed with seed being sown in the springtime. By doing this, a ritual representing the continuous cycle of the death and resurrection of the corn, was shown with the corn doll accompanying the entire process.
As the Cailleach harvest doll was kept by the farmer over the winter months, appeasing the great crone, could there be an ancient relationship with these dolls to what Maria Gimbutas (1989) calls winter bone dolls? These were found in Eastern European graves dating from the 5th millennium BCE. The dolls are actually elongated bones adorned with symbols which Gimbutas interpreted as being related to renewal and life giving properties.
Gimbutas arrives at her theory of these bone dolls being related to renewal due to the other items excavated alongside them: a bone pin with double egg head, a deer tooth, a pestle for crushing ochre, gold and shell beads, a spindle whorl, and an obsidian and flint knife. She goes on to say that many of these items represented the presence of life and death as well as an underworld or dark moon aspect of the cyclical cosmic mystery of life, death and rebirth.
Perhaps the winter bone doll is part of a tradition of acknowledging the role of winter in bringing death in order that rebirth may follow with the Cailleach doll being a vestige of this ancient tradition that represented the entire spectrum of life and death. A tradition which fully acknowledges the role that death plays, including renewal, whose cycle suggests things must die in order to be reborn.
Samhain takes us into the dark of the year – a time to enter the cave and, if one should hear the call, a time to work on those dark and shadow aspects of ourself – reclaiming the parts of our soul which reside in the underworld.
As the outer world dies back and energies return to its roots, we can work with this old crone, work with her deep roots, roots that can be traced down through the ages.
We are always welcome at the cave of the Grandmothers – to tell tales around the fire, to dance and sing and, to the sound of the old ones’ drum, dance out into other worlds which take us onto the great web. For she offers us the oldest cycle – one of death which offers the scythe to bring about a death to keep the cycle in play, a cycle which requires death in order for a rebirth and then the flourishing of life again. So gather some sticks or bones and create a winter doll – which tells a tale of all that you wish to cut away, all you wish to work with and a deep intention to see you through the dark months.
Jude also leads women’s retreats and in May 2017 is offering her Ancient Mothers of Scotland retreat on the Isle of Eigg. For free membership to her Celtic Soul School visit her website at Celtic Soul Craft.
Gimbutas, Marija. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. Thames and Hudson, USA.
McHardy, Stuart. 2013. Bride in Scotland. Contained in: Monaghan, P. and McDermott, M. (eds). Brighid: Sun of Womanhood. Goddess Ink, USA. Pgs 49-58.
Lally, Jude. 2013. The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brighid to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc. Contained in: Monaghan, P and McDermott, M, (Eds), Brighid: Sun of Womanhood. Goddess Ink, USA. Pgs 10-16.
Mackenzie, Donald, A. 1917. Wonder tales from Scottish Myth and Legend. Blackie and Son, UK.
O Crualaoich, G. 2003. The Book of the Cailleach. Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer. Cork University Press, Ireland.
O Duinn, Sean. 2004. The Rites Of Brigid. Goddess and Saint. The Columba Press, Ireland.
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