What’s in a Name?
- Other related deities and entities associated with The Cailleach
- Names of The Cailleach
- Variations on The Cailleach (aspects, regional forms, etc.)
I have combined these 3 days because they all tie in with one another when talking about The Cailleach.
The Cailleach in the British Isles
The Cailleach Bheur in Scotland
In some places she is called the Carlin or the Carlin Maggie, which is a Middle English word meaning old woman, or witch. It in turn comes from the Old Norse karling.
She is the blue-faced hag of winter, Grandmother of the Clans, Ancestress of the Caledonii.
She was the first. Before the ice covering the whole of Scotland had melted away, She was there. She may have arrived with those earliest inhabitants hundreds of thousands of years ago, or perhaps She was there to greet them. That we may never know. Suffice to say that She is as ancient as the land She formed.
It is said that The Cailleach wore the first plaid of Scotland. Being first, it had no checks, no stripes, no colours at all. It was as white as the newly fallen snow.
After washing her plaid in the Corryvreckan (“Coire Bhreacain – the Cauldron of the ) Plaid” she would spread it out to dry over the mountains covering them in a mantle of snow.
Tigh nam Bodach – deep in the heart of Glen Lyon in a remote part of Scotland, if you were so inclined to travel there, you will find a small hut called a Tigh nam Bodach. Within the hut you will find a pile of stones that have been looked after by the locals for generations. These stones represent The Cailleach and Her family.
At the beginning of spring, the stones are brought out of the hut, and at the beginning of winter they are returned once more inside.
Each of the stones of formed of weather worn sandstone roughly shaped like a human figure. The largest is The Cailleach, another is her husband Bodach and the third represents her daughter Nighean. An assortment of smaller stones are believed to be Her younger children.
The legend goes – once upon a time, The Cailleach and her family were given shelter in the glen by the local residents. In gratitude, She left the stones with the promise that as long as the stones are cared for She will ensure prosperity and fertility to the land.
Cailleach Bhuain – associated with the harvest. Each year as farmers gathered their crops, each strove to get his yield in before his neighbour. This was because the farmer who was last to take in the harvest was charged with looking after and feeding the Cailleach or Carline doll over the coming winter.
This was a corn dolly, created out of the last sheaf of corn (remembering that at one time corn designated any cereal crop or grain grown in the Isles) harvested on the first farm each season. This would be passed from farmer to farmer as each finished the harvesting and ploughing. The last to finish had the bad luck of holding on to it until ploughing time came again when fields were prepared for planting.
On the Isle of Islay the Cailleach Bhuain would be hung on the wall beside the fireplace over the winter. On the first day of ploughing come spring She would be taken down and split between the men of the house and the mistress. Pieces would be fed to the horses or ploughed into the soil, thus ensuring a good harvest.
The Cailleach Bhearra in Ireland
She is the sovereign queen of West Cork.
The Hag of Beara is a rock formation that rises above Coulough Bay. It is said that this formation is all the remains of the Cailleach Beara who was turned to stone while awaiting the return of her husband, Manannan, God of the Sea.
Just why she was turned to stone is not known. Some say that the Cailleach Beara stole a Bible from the Catholic cleric Caitighearn. In recovering his book the cleric struck the Cailleach Beara with his staff instantly turning her into stone.
Once upon a time, a Spanish princess by the name of Beara sought to find out the name of her future husband. She was instructed to travel of the river Eibhear on a certain night and when she arrived to seek out a salmon dressed in colourful clothing that lived there.
Princes Beara did journey and she found the salmon and her future husband. Why things came to pass as they did, I do not know, but the princess did meet her future husband, Eoghan Mo’r of Magh Nuadat, that night, and they ran away to be married. They set sail for Ireland, and arrived on the shores on the north side of Bantry Bay. Eoghan named the peninsula there after his bride, Beara.
The Cailleach ny Groamagh on the Isle of Man
She is said to foretell the weather. Each year on 1st February, if the weather is good, she comes out to enjoy the sunshine. Or to gather sticks for her fire.
But this is seen as a sign that bad weather will be seen in the weeks to come.
(This is one of many stories from the British Isles that is continued in our modern tradition of Groundhog Day.)
Is the Cailleach in England?
No specific mention of The Cailleach by name have been found in England. However, there are many stories that tell of an old woman carrying stones in her apron, and dropping them when her apron strings break, thus creating mountain and rock formations.
Kerlinghou – The Old Woman’s Mound at Guisborough, North Yorkshire. Mention of the Carling Howe is made in a directory written by A H Smith in 1928. He references a Kerlinghou, or Old Woman’s Mound. The word ‘hou’ often referred to a prehistoric tomb, so in this case the Kerlling Hou may have been an old woman’s grave.
Dating even earlier, from a 12th century article, there is reference to a Kerlingkelde, or Old Woman’s Well.
The Cailleach Across Europe and Beyond
The Greek Herodotus, in his text Histories (431 – 425BCE) mentions a tribe living on the Iberian Peninsula which he called the Kallaikoi in Greek. This same tribe is mentioned again by Pliny (77BCE) and Strabo (7BCW – 23BCE), who call this tribe the Callaeci in Latin. Ptolemy mentions them as well and suggests that the meaning of this name is ‘worshippers of the Cailleach.’
Here there lived a triple Goddess called the Mo Braido, the Mamma/Omma and the Kaelling/Karring. This last being an old crone figure who controls winter storms, guards fresh water wells, and has a black rod with which she spreads ice and frost. The Kaelling/Karring created the landscape by dropping boulders and stones from her apron.
Other names of The Cailleach
These are names which have come to be associated with The Cailleach.
Stories say that she was an old woman who lived in a cave somewhere between Leicester and Glenfield in an area called the Dane Hills. She dressed all in black, and would snatch away children who went to run on the Dane Hills. There she would scratch them to death with her claws, suck their blood, and hang up their skins to be dried.
Black Annis is described as being large with blue skin and one eye. She is a hag, a bringer of death and of winter. Her fingers are talons and she has long, sharp teeth. Often, she would be blamed for the death or disappearance of livestock.
This is one name which was given to the Cailleach in the lowlands of Scotland.
The Gyre Carling, or Giant Old Woman, was said to have been able to take the form of a beautiful Queen. In this guise she was Queen of the Unseelie court of faeries.
It is said that She rides out each Halloween at the head of a Wild Hunt.
This Samhain Goddess is a night hag who rides out from the mountain Ben Nevis with her eight sister hags at the end of summer. Her name translates from the Gaelic as ‘daughter of the little saint’.
She is also known as the Queen of Elphame, from the world of the Faerie.
Here is another hag found by the lochs and rivers of Scotland. She has a body that is half woman/half goat, though she can appear in either form as the whole. Her hair is long and blonde and she has pale, grey skin.
In temperament she can be both malevolent or benevolent. She is in her way a bit of a trickster who was known for leading travellers astray.
She is a protector of cattle and wild deer, and people would give offerings to her of milk poured onto the earth and stones.