Myths and stories of The Cailleach
The Cailleach – goddess of the ancestors, wisdom that comes with age, the weather, time, shape-shifting and winter. She is said to have shaped the landscape by dropping boulders from her apron… ~ Pagan Portals: The Cailleach by Rachel Patterson
There are so many places around the British Isles that were named for The Cailleach that you would think we would know more about her. Instead though, we are left with teasing glimpses that remain in regional legends, place names, and old wives’ tales. I am sharing here stories about The Cailleach that come to use from Scotland and Ireland.
The Cailleach created the Scottish landscape by dropping giant stones from her apron as she strode across the land.Islands were formed when she dropped boulders while wading through the waters that surround Scotland.
You can see where she dropped Her boulders in places such as Beinn Cailleach Bheur in Argyllshire, Beinn na Cailich on the Isle of Skye, and Cailleach Vear off the coast of Mull to name but a very few.
On the Isle of Lewis you can see a hill range that is said to be a woman lying on her back. This is called Cailleach na Mointeach, or the old woman of the moors.’
The Shepherd and the Dog
A shepherd, knowing that winder and the Cailleach were on the way, began to keep his dog inside the house at night. But one night, as he slept, the dog escaped. In the morning the dog was still outside and, seeing a person pass by,barked loudly. As the bar bounced off the surrounding cliffs it echoed with such strength that the Cailleach, who was standing on the lock shore, keeled over falling down into a heap of bones. The shepherd heard the dog bark and ran out of the house and down to where the Cailleach lay. He realised she was dying and sat cradling her inhis arms. She seemed to be trying to say something so he leaned in closely and she whispered: “It was early the dog spoke, the dog spoke, it was early the dog spoke across Loch Ba.”
This in the story links in with other stories which tell us that the Cailleach would visit mountain streams and wells in the night to drink from them. This was how she would renew her strength or perform rites of passage for the seasons. Within the stories, it was said that she must come to drink ‘before bird tastes water or dog was heard to bark.’
Other stories tell us how places came to be named.
The Ailsa Craig
The Cailleach was wading across the ocean her apron filed with rocks when a French sailor sailed his boat through her legs. As he did so, the sail touched the Cailleach’s thigh and surprised her so much so that she jumped and dropped some of her rocks which formed the island of Ailsa Craig.
The Cailleach looked after two wells, which she had to visit twice a day to open and then cap. She was weary of trailing between the two so she employed a young maiden to look after one of the wells; this young girl was named Nessa. One evening Nessa got held up and was late getting to the well to cap it, when she arrived she found the well overflowing; knowing the Cailleach was going to be furious Nessa ran away. The Cailleach was watching from the top of the mountain Ben Nevis and seeing what happened she placed a curse on Nessa that she had to run forever and never leave the water. Nessa because a river and a loch. And thus, the river Ness and Loch Ness were created.
In another version of this tale that I have seen, Nessa falls asleep and for this reason does not cap the well in time. Other lochs around Scotland were said to have been created when the Cailleach fell asleep and didn’t stop the flow of water from a well in time.
The Cailleach here as the Cailleach Bhearra is credited with created much of the landscape in the same was as Her Scottish counterpart, by dropping boulders from her apron. Or, as presented in one story to be told shortly, after getting into a bit of a throwing matching with another Cailleach.
You can find Her in the cliffs of Moher in County Clare at Ceann Cailli (thehag’s head). In western Tipperary, in the mountains above Kilross, you will find a stone formation referred to as the ‘House of the Cailleac’.
Other rock formations in Ireland include Sliabh na Cailli (the hag’s mountain) in County Meath, Slieve Gullion in County Armagh, Sloc na Caillagh on Raithlin, and Cailslean na Caillighe on Lough Carra.
The Shower of Stones
Two Cailleachs who both lived in Magh Cuilinn got into an argument. IT became very heated and they agree to hold a stone throwing contest. Being giants, they didn’t throw pebbles but huge boulders. They went to the top of Poll Mountain and stood a distance apart, each on a separate hilltop, and they each began to collect a great store of boulders around them.
At dawn the following day they took their positions and began throwing stones t each other. Boulders flew and each of the Cailleach became battered, bruised, and bleeding.
After a while one of the Cailleachs (the Cailleach Bearra) started throwing her stones over the head of the other Cailleach (whose name was not recorded) so that they landed beyond her. Seeming to take advantage of these over-throws, the Cailleach began throwing her stones in quick succession at the Cailleach Bearra. Soon the Cailleach Bearra was surrounded by all of the stones, and none lay about the Cailleach.
She then proceeded to hit the Cailleach with stone after stone, reducing her to a pile of bone.
This happened so long ago that the boulders have long since worn away, and all that remains is a cairn where the Cailleach fell.
I like this story because it, and others like it, indicate that Cailleach was perhaps not a name but a title. And so I differentiate between talking about the Cailleach, the Veiled Ones and talking about The Cailleach.
The Hag of Beara
One day, the Cailleach Beara was visited in her home by a monk and his servant. The monk asked her about her great age. She replied by telling him that each year she had been alive she killed a bullock and threw a bone into the loft. If he wanted to know her age he just had to count them.
The monk sent his servant into the loft. Hours passed and still the servant counted.Day turned into night and began to brighten into day again, and still the servant counted.
Finally, the monk lost patience and gave up on ever learning the Cailleach’s age.
Many other stories of the Cailleach can be found across the British Isles. Above all else, I believe that they speak of Her great age, and of the influence that She held and continues to hold over these lands