Gruagach – Fairy Queen of the Highlands
by Stuart McHardy
The Scottish supernatural helper, the Gruagach, has generally been presented as a form of the better-known “brownie”. In fact what we seem to find in the Gruagach are remnants of traditions that are of extreme antiquity and are perhaps directly linked to ancient pagan belief in the specific form of Mother Goddess worship. Much of the material considered here came to my notice in the research for a study on the Nine Maidens, a motif that occurs with startling frequency in Classical, Celtic, Norse and other mythological and legendary sources. In the course of my researches I came across references to the Gruagach as possibly being linked to other beings and was intrigued.
In Old Scottish Customs, E.J. Guthrie (1895, repr.1994) introduces the Gruagach: “Some time ago the natives of some of the Western Islands firmly believed in the existence of the gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies, to whom the dairy-maids made frequent libations of milk. The gruagach was said to be an innocent being who frolicked or gambolled among the pens and folds. She was armed solely with a pliable rod, with which she switched any who would annoy her either by using bad language, or depriving her of her share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770 the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda [off Skye], were in the habit of placing daily a quantity of milk on a hollow stone for the gruagach. Should they ever neglect this duty they were sure to feel the weight of the brownie’s rod on the following day”.
F. Marion McNeill in The Silver Bough (1957) tells us of these creatures: “In Tiree, Skye and elsewhere, the tutelary spirit of both cattle and cattle fold is called the Gruagach, and in Skye, Gruagach stones, where libations were formerly left, are still pointed out. One of these is at Sleat, formerly the residence of the Lords of the Isles, and the Gruagach attached by tradition to the Castle is said to have been frequently seen in the vicinity of the stone”.
Several commentators have suggested that this helper might in fact be a decayed belief of a previously more substantial figure. J.A. McCulloch (The religion of the ancient Celts, 1911) had this to say: “Until recently milk was poured on ‘Gruagach stones’ in the Hebrides, as an offering to the Gruagach, a brownie who watched over herds, and who had taken the place of a god”. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) also describes the Gruagach, again stressing the link with cattle: “The fairy queen who watches over cows is called Gruagach in the islands, and she is often seen. In pouring libations to her and her fairies, various kinds of stones, usually with hollows in them, are used. In many parts of the Highlands, where the same deity is known, the stone into which women poured the libation is called Leac na Gruagaich, ‘Flag-stone of the Gruagach’. If the libation was omitted in the evening, the best cow in the fold would be found dead in the morning”.
There are many instances of the association of cows with powerful female figures in the traditions of the Celtic-speaking peoples, one of the most significant perhaps being the cow at Calanais who came from the sea in a time of famine and gave all the locals sufficient milk to survive, until a greedy witch, disappointed in not getting more than her share milked the cow using a bottomless bucket, which caused the cow to disappear. Tales of such supernatural cattle occur in many European and Asian locations as shown by Hilda Ellis Davidson (Roles of the Northern Goddess, 1998). The importance of cattle in Scottish Highland society has been well-documented and like the many instances Davidson mentions, appears to be of considerable antiquity. Evans-Wentz tells us that the Gruagach “is often seen”. This was written in the first decade of the 20th century and suggests that the belief in the Gruagach was still extant at that time, or shortly before.
In J.F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860/1) he writes of a spirit called locally ‘Greogaca’ which is clearly the same as the Gruagach but here the helper is presented as male. In this story, the Gruagach helps to look after the cattle, but only if an offering of warm milk is left for him in a nearby knocking-stone. This repeats the familiar motif in which farm workers, usually the milk-maids, leave libations of milk in nearby hollow stones. In some cases it is clear that these stones are cup-and-ring marked rocks. Such rocks are believed to have been the focus of some sort of ritual activity in the far past and are generally considered to have been carved in the Stone Age. This is as yet incapable of being proved, but archaeologists do agree on their great antiquity. This raises the possibility that the libations being placed in such stones was descended at some point either from specific rituals associated with such stones or that the sanctity of the stones themselves was the reason such practices arose.
The Gruagach was attentive to the herds and kept them from the rocks. In the tale, The Young King of Easaidh Ruadh the hero overcomes the supernatural being the Gruagach carsalach donn (the brown curly long-haired one) with the assistance of his daughter. Campbell later tells us that: “The word Gruagach … generally means a maiden. It also means a female spectre of the class of Brownies to which the Highland dairy maids made frequent libations of milk”. Campbell gives us a couple of other instances of the creature; for example, a Gruagach used to haunt Skipness Castle, and is still remembered there as a supernatural female who did odd jobs about the house for the maids, and lived in the ruin.
He also tells us of another male Gruagach in a tale from Barra called the Fair Gruagach, son of the King of Eirinn, in which the Gruagach was a former Druid priest. It is worth considering whether this male Gruagach in Barra could be the remnant of much earlier belief where the figure was in fact female. Over the years, as Christianity took hold, this idea of a female priest would have lost its relevance to the audience, and in fact might even have been offensive to them.
All over Scotland, particularly the western isles, there were stones where offerings to Gruagach were made. In The Silver Bough (1957) Marian McNeill said: “In the isle of Skye there are stones to which, until fairly recent times the islanders brought libations of milk. These are called Gruagach Stones and are believed to be rude representations of Griannos or Gruagach, one of the many names of the sun-god [sic.] of the Gaels. In later times the milk was brought as an offering to the fairies”. While the reference to the sun god is difficult to credit nowadays, this shows not just the similar association between the Gruagach and the sacred stones, but the reference to the fairies again suggests a continuity of practice and belief.
‘Gruagach’ may mean “the long-haired one” and be derived from gruag = a wig, and is a common Gaelic name for a maiden, or a young woman. In A Midsummer Eve’s Dream (1971) Alexander Hope analyses16thC Scots poems by Dunbar. In the poem the Golden Targe Dunbar’s goddesses wear green kirtles under their green mantles and with their long hair hanging loose they are also presented as fairies in their appearance. The belief in a “fairy-cult” which Hope discerns in these and other works is quite clearly a remnant of an earlier pagan religion.
Donald Mackenzie (Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life, 1935) tells of a gruagach in the township of Bennan on Mull who was also a cattle herder, but, taking offence she decided to quit the island. “She placed her left foot on Ben Bhidhe in Arran and her right foot on ’Allasan’ (Ailsa Craig), making this her stepping stone to cross to the mainland of Scotland or to Ireland. While the gruagach was in the act of moving her left foot a three-masted ship passed beneath, the mainmast of which struck her in the thigh and overturned her into the sea. The people of Bennan mourned the Gruagach long and loudly”. Here we have a truly supernatural being who tended the flocks but was a remarkable giant. The strong possibility here is that the Gruagach was capable of altering her size at will, a faculty strongly reminiscent of shape-shifting, an ability attributed to many female groups, as well as witches.
Her great size here is also suggestive of the Scottish Cailleach as the Hag of Winter. As Mackenzie points out, the Cailleach was clearly a Goddess figure in the past and many remnants of belief in her crop up in Scottish tradition. She is an extremely complex figure and O Crualaoich (Continuity and Adaptation in Legends of the Cailleach Bhearra, 1988) drew attention to her links with the notion of the Sovereignty Queen tradition in Irish sources as well as noting the similarity to various figures from Norse folklore. Anne Ross’s term for this creature “The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts” (1973) is a particularly apposite term, though the similarities with Norse tradition noted by O Crualaoich suggest that it would be unwise to see this figure as existing only among the traditionary material of the Celtic speaking peoples. His reference to the recurring motif of the Cailleach creating aspects of the landscape can be perhaps best be interpreted as remnants of a fundamental mythological construct in which the original Mother Goddess was active in creating the physical world.
One of the generally ignored aspects of pre-historic, and early historic society, in Britain and neighbouring Europe, is that contact between them by sea was anything but difficult. Sailing from modern Brittany to the Hebrides is not a major journey and, even with less sophisticated equipment would not be a particularly hazardous or lengthy journey at certain times of the year. It is therefore not surprising to find that other similarly-named creatures to the Gruagach also exist in Breton tradition.
Gruagach may be related to the Breton words Groac’h or Grac’h, a name given to the Druidesses or Priestesses, who had colleges on the Isle de Sein, off the NW coast of Brittany. These Groac’h were known for being involved in divination, healing and shape-shifting, and P.F.Anson (Fisher Folk Lore, 1965) says of them: “On the intensely Catholic Isle de Sein there used to be the conviction that certain women had what was known as ‘le don de vouer’, i.e. the power of communicating with the Devil or his emissaries, in other words that they were witches. Fishermen alleged that they had seen these women on dark nights launching mysterious boats (bag-sorcérs) to enable them to take part in a witches’ Sabbath or coven known as groach’hed”.
In Women of the Celts, Jean Markale (1986) recounts the story of a supernatural female called the Groac’h. He tells us: “There was a lake where lived the Groac’h, who kept fabulous treasure and whose marvellous palace was accessible by a boat in the shape of a swan”. In the tale she is a witch type figure who has imprisoned a whole series of men by turning them into fish after marrying them. Through using a series of Christian magic talismans, the hero Houarn, with the help of his betrothed Bellah, manages to outwit the Groac’h, turning her into “ a hideous queen of the mushrooms” before pitching her down a well! He then releases the witch’s unfortunate husbands from their spells and appropriates her treasure.
Markale suggests that Houarn is “not in full possession of his power and feeling constrained to find it, (goes) looking for it in the matriarchal universe of a still gynaeocratic society”. The tale itself appears to be a Christianised version of something much more pagan and what we are perhaps seeing here are the remnants of a belief system which was focussed on the ultimate symbol of the feminine principle – the Mother Goddess.
In the late 17th century church leaders in the Castennec peninsula in southern Brittany were worried by an upsurge of what appeared to be paganism. People there were supposedly worshipping a goddess figure. The idol was called the Groua-hourn, Breton for ‘old woman’ or ‘sorceress’, a title that is very like Groac’h, and which has a similar meaning to the Scottish Gaelic term Cailleach or the Scots Carlin. The statue was thrown in the River Blavet by outraged priests but 30 years later was recovered by a local aristocrat, who attempted to make it more acceptable. During the attempt the statue was destroyed and the count ordered a new, more respectable one to be made. This was then put on display in the local church and is known today as the Venus of Quiniply, and still worshipped.
The Bretons are accepted as being closely linked to the P-Celtic peoples of south-western England and Wales, particularly in terms of language. In Welsh tradition we come across another similar term, gwrach, generally translated as witch or hag. Lewis Spence (Legends and Romances of Brittany, 1917) tells of the Gwrach Y Rhibyn, The Hag of the Dribble, as: “One of the Welsh banshees, whose pleasure it is to carry stones across the mountains in her apron, then loosing the string, she lets the stones shower down, this making a dribble. It is believed that at twilight this hag flaps her raven wing against the window of those who are doomed to die, and howls ‘A a ui ui Ami” This is clearly foundation mythology – tales told to explain the actual creation of the physical world – and here we have another direct link to the Scottish Cailleach.
The Gwrach Y Rhibyn is also clearly linked to the Banshee of Q-Celtic tradition who foretells death, and the mention of the raven wing might be seen as suggestive of the goddess Morrigan who haunted battlefields in the shape of a raven in Irish tradition. J.Rhys (Celtic Folklore; Welsh and Manx,1901) also talks of the Gwrach Y Rhibyn but is less definite about the meaning of the term: “What exactly Gwrach Y Rhibyn should connote I am unable to say. I may mention, however, on the authority of Mr Gwenogryn Evans, that in Mid-Cardinganshire the term means a long roll or bustle of fern tied with ropes of straw and placed along the middle of the top of a hayrick. This is to form a ridge over which and on which the thatch is worked and supported, Gwrach, unqualified is used in this sense in Glamorganshire”.
The reference to the term used in building hay-ricks is a clear link with harvest and is not the only one in Welsh tradition. There are other mentions of the Gwrach and clearly related figures which show them to be supernatural beings. W.Sikes (British Goblins, 1880) has the following:
“It was also believed that a large town was swallowed up (at Crymlyn Lake), and that the Gwragad Annwn turned the submerged walls to use as the superstructure of their fairy palaces”. Here these creatures are what Katherine Briggs (Anatomy of Puck, 1959) called “lake maidens” rather than witches but the term Annwn obviously puts them in the Otherworld of Welsh tradition, again possibly suggesting the remnants of some earlier belief.
The use of the term gwrach at harvest time is well attested. T.M.Owen (Welsh Folk Customs. 1974) tells us that at the end of harvest in late 19th century Pembrokeshire the custom was to shout: “Bore y codais hi/ Hwyr y dilmais hi? Mi as hi mi ces hi (Early in the morning I got on her track, late in the evening I followed her; I got her, I got her). When asked what he had got, the reapers all shouted together: Gwrach, Gwrach, gwrach”. As Owen goes on to explain, the term gwrach here is the direct equivalent of the Scottish term Cailleach or Carlin, which was used in many areas to denote the last sheaf of the harvest. Such rituals associated with the last sheaf of harvest are common in many societies.
The various beings we have considered this far all have names that at one point or another have become associated with powerful female figures. There does seem to be a direct link in the attributes of these different essentially female figures, which I suggest points towards an underlying communality of belief. It is also of considerable interest that we have these references over a period close to two millennia. The Grac’h or Gallicenae were reported in the 1st century CE, while the various harvest uses of the differing terms in Wales and Scotland lasted into the late 19th century and probably later. In the midst of this we have a pagan seeress Groa from Norway (whose name and attributes may well also be connected to the Gruagach), an area which became Christian circa 1000 CE. The possibility that all these female figures are remnants of some sort of ancient religious belief is strengthened by the fact that both the Cailleach in Scotland and the Gwrach Y Rhibhyn in Wales are clearly remnants of goddess figures closely involved with shaping or even creating the landscape. In this respect the Cailleach is of particular importance. The term Cailleach is given as inherently meaning the veiled one, a meaning which gave rise to the later usage of the word as meaning nun. Such traditions certainly involve a concept combining both the feminine and the sacred.
I therefore suggest that in the various terms Gruagach, Gwrach, Grac’h, Groa etc. we are confronted with a term that was initially linked to the Mother Goddess in her Winter aspect and which through time became associated with those who were her priest-esses, and even perhaps priests. The association of the Scottish Gruagachs variously with cup-and–ring marked stones, skill at arms and fertility suggest remnants of ancient religious belief. The association of Groac’hs with ancient monuments in Breton tradition is another example of the same idea.
The Welsh Gwrach Y Rhibhyn is, like the Scottish Cailleach involved in the creation of the physical world. The Grac’h of the Isle de Sein and Groa in Norse mythology are practitioners of prophecy and magic, clear attributes of shaman style priests. In the story of the Groac’h luring unsuspecting males to her island home we have what seems to be a Christian attempt to demonise an earlier pagan figure. As I have said there are strong links with what were clearly established groups of pagan priestesses in various European societies and beyond. Elsewhere (The Quest for the Nine Maidens, 2002) I have looked in detail at some of these groups and here I suggest that the ongoing links with fertility, the harvest terms and rituals, the echoes of knowledge and instruction, and the involvement with divination show that in Gruagach, Grac’h and Groa we are seeing faint memories of an active priestesshood of a mother goddess worshipping religion.
In Scotland, Wales, Brittany and Scandinavia we have seen these similar terms being associated with female figures of a supernatural kind. They are all either powerful creatures, with control over healing, the weather and divination or are linked directly to fertility practices. Within the examples we have here considered there are groups who have been called Druidesses – the Gallicenae of Sena, individual seeresses – Groa, malignant fairies – Groac’h and of course the solitary Gruagach, tending the cattle and haunting cup-and-ring marked stones, themselves sites of ancient ritual. In all these cases the links to ancient pagan belief are straightforward. The names are very similar in pronunciation and are, at the least, suggestive of remnants of ancient belief and practice associated with an even more powerful female figure – the Mother Goddess, perhaps the earliest and most powerful of all human created deities.
This article is extracted from a longer unpublished Conference paper by Stuart McHardy.