The Cailleach, the Bodach, and the Scottish Highlands

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GLEN LYON, Perthshire, Scotland – The Guardian recently ran a report on ancient stones in the Highlands of Scotland which are moved twice a year by local people, according to a winter ritual. The stones are found in Glen Lyon in Perthshire, and are not like the huge standing stone edifices of other parts of the U.K.: these are small stones, under a foot in height.

Tigh Nan Cailleach – Image credit: Richard Bisset – CC BY 3.0

One of them represents the Cailleach, examined in greater detail later in the article, and others are said to represent the Bodach (“old man”), who is her husband, and her children. In the warmer months, these stone figures live in a small stone house, known locally as either the Tigh Nam Bodach (house of the old man) and Tigh Nan Cailleach (house of the old woman). At Samhain, however, their guardians take them up to a shieling (a shepherd’s hut), studded with quartz, which lies elsewhere in the hills.

The Cailleach herself is traditionally a seasonal goddess, emerging with the gradual dying of the light and the first cold winds of winter. These winds are known in Scotland as the breath of the Cailleach Bheaur, the blue hag of winter. In Scottish folklore, the Cailleach wakes every Samhain, and is it is she who is responsible for bringing gales, snow, and cold weather before turning to stone every Imbolc. Her name means ‘older wise woman’ in Gaelic, and she is a formidable figure in British and Irish folklore.

Author Danu Forrest writes, “She is intimately connected to witches in their old role of midwives and layers out of the dead, and is likely to be a folk memory of an initiator goddess.”

Her connection with stone and barrow mounds suggests her connection to the underworld and ancestral realms, of death and therefore rebirth. The owl or ‘Cailleach oidhche’ is sacred to her and this bird is also associated with death, the underworld, magic, and the ability to see spirits. Deer and Cattle are also sacred to her and cattle bones, particularly horned skulls, have been found in numerous long and round barrows.

In the Highlands, ‘cailleach’ as a period of time comes in the first week of April and is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper, cutting about her with her wand, and keeping down new growth. When, however, the sunlight, the growing crops, and the fragrant rain overcomes the ‘Cailleach,’ she flies into a temper, flings her wand into the root of a whin bush, then disappears in a fury before returning around Samhain.

In Scotland, the plural Cailleachan (the ‘old women’) is also known as The Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A’ Chailleach.

At Meall Daill, the figures of the Cailleach, the Bodach and their children lie deep in the hills and are accessible only on foot after a considerable hike. They have been known to archaeologists and folklore experts for some time.

Archaeologist Gavin MacGregor learned of them in the 1990s when excavating shielings at Ben Lawers, in the same region. He says, “There was a tradition of special stones in this part of the Highlands, including charms and healing stones, and excavations have found a group of very similar water-worn stones in Glen Quaich, so they are not anomalous but part of a wider culture.”

He notes that similar stones are located in the church gateposts in the village of Fortingall.

“There’s no evidence that they date back to pre-Christian times, but the stones have clearly remained in memory and probably inactive, if perhaps intermittent, tradition for hundreds of years,” MacGregor added.

Author and storyteller Jess Smith, who grew up near Glen Lyon, adds:

“Water stones mould rather than break up or go jaggy, so they can take on the form of a human or an animal, and there is power in them. We heard about the drovers throwing meal and bread to the stones or their cattle would get sick. Places like this are very important. They live within the part of our psyche where we keep our respect for the ancients.”

Glen Lyons, Perthshire – Image credit: Paul Hermans – CC BY-SA 3.0

It is not known how ancient these little stone figures actually are. Speculation ranges from the suggestion that they were made by bored estate workers in the 20th century, or were put there by shepherds in the 18th, or that they actually are very old. The first reference to the site is in a book published in 1888, which suggests a link with a monastic community (but The Guardian notes that this might simply be to avoid upsetting the local kirk by mentioning ancient gods).

The writer of this piece, when visiting a Gurdjieffian friend in nearby Killin in the 1990s, was told by a local Pagan-friendly farmer that ‘all sorts of stuff’ went on up in the hills, but he hinted that it was some kind of Masonic tradition – rather more acceptable than what might be seen as witchcraft.

We spoke to Dean, an esoteric practitioner living in the Highlands, who was told by an older resident that when she was young, “…young people would process up the glens to these high places to give offerings at Samhain or thereabouts to appease the ‘Winter Hag,’ as she called her, so the winter would be kinder to man and beast…she said that those who understand would still observe these places and occasions, but had to do it secretly or under guise of something else!”

Gavin McGregor says, “Whether you listen to the folklore or consider it a modern invention, the rhythms of tending to the stones also relate to our elemental relationship with the land and the change of seasons. Perhaps one reason the site remains so powerful is that there are multiple truths and stories.”