My Year of the Cailleach – Part 1
by Jill Smith
The Cailleach entered my reality in the early ‘80s, before I encountered any Gaelic or knew her by that name. She was to me then The Hag – and in later years The Wild Hag. I differentiate between Hag and Crone, Hag being exceptionally ancient, of the land at a time when it was being created, and in legend responsible for that creation. I found her within myself as well: in that part of me which remembered my most ancient ancestors, that part of me which is as wild as the bare rocks before there was life. She was also the pure energy of the wrathful dakini. Much later I discovered her identity as Cailleach, and more specifically as the Cailleach Bheure, creator of many Scottish landscape features, mother of Winter, personification of all that is wild – to be respected for her destructive power as well as her inability to hold back the growth of the following Spring. She is with me constantly, balancing the energy of Blessed Brighde.
However, it was in the Autumn of 2012 that I realised I was specifically on a ‘Year of the Cailleach’, being called to visit and honour her at many sites which are named for her. It began with a need to go to the ‘Hag’ mountain on South Harris for Samhain, but this time not to walk the ‘coffin path’ which she overlooks and of which she is the guardian, but to be on her body and physically connected to her great presence. As we headed towards her through the thick wintery heather and undergrowth all was calm and silent with no animals or birds, even though the path is also known as ‘bealach creig an eoin’ or pass of the rock of the bird (specifically eagle). Her sharp ancient profile and sunken throat remained unchanged until we were right under her towering chin. Up to then she had sheltered us, but on her bony ribcage the biting wind from the other direction cut into us with a vengeance: ‘Beure’ can mean biting or cutting. Her body is hard bare rock, lashed by the winds of aeons, barren, bearing no life. We had touched her in all her harshness, yet known her protectiveness as well. My Year of the Cailleach had begun.
Although the Cailleach Bheure seems to be named for the Beara peninsula in Ireland and many think her legends came from Ireland to Scotland, others believe she comes from a far more ancient time in Scotland and moved from there to Ireland. Whichever is right, I had long felt drawn to visit her peninsula and in 2013 it became possible to go to Ireland with my friend Karen (Taylor), not only to Beara but to other sites which have Cailleach legends or associations. We only had a week, and I did not want it to be a touristy ‘site crawl’ feeling we must give each place as much time and attention as we could. The intention was to go to a few sites which had somehow ‘called’ me strongly and made themselves known as part of my journey.
Our first place was in the North – ‘The Cailleach Birra’s House’ on Slieve Gullion, high above and within the Ring of Gullion which is the remnant of a Paleocene volcano. As I so often find, at first she tantalised us, tested us, played hard to get, to see how dedicated we were in our need to find and experience her. The directions in books were inadequate when we made our first fruitless search late in the wet afternoon of our arrival but the next morning, rested and better prepared, we tried again, realising some of our mistakes, though still having to ask local walkers where the path to her could be found.
We began the exhausting climb up the path to the South Cairn, the highest existing passage cairn in Ireland on top of the highest hill in County Armagh. Everything was covered in thick, low cloud so we couldn’t see the surrounding countryside as we climbed higher and higher in our own bubble of reality. We reached the cairn, which looks like a vast mound of loose tumbled rock – not hard to imagine where the legends come from of the Cailleach dropping stones from her apron to form these mounds (and sometimes whole mountains). Most of the walkers reached this as a marker on a longer route, and did not venture to the entrance round to the ‘back’ of the track, so we had the place to ourselves for a while when we crawled along the passage into the chamber of the cairn.
They have put a small skylight into the beautiful corbelled roof, but it is still rich in atmosphere and the presence of the Cailleach. Some legends have her living under the house and many involve her in stories featuring Finn mac Cumhaill. Sometimes he is tricked into her house, sometimes into the nearby Lough na Cailli, but they all involve the Cailleach causing him to become an old man with white or grey hair, and although his youth and vigour are later restored, the colour of his hair is not. The cairn was constructed in 3000 BC and I marvelled at the skill of its construction. I was excited to realise that there were 3 damaged basins on the floor – rough stone blocks whose centres have been shaped by being worn away rather like Neolithic querns. I wondered if the use of the basins was the start of a tradition which developed into the high art of the Newgrange basins, or a later remembering of those beautifully sculptured artefacts.
I felt close to the Cailleach there, and also to the ancient wise women who I feel sure tended and used the place. I lit a candle for them and left tiny winter/cailleach gifts hidden away from the sight of later visitors. We crawled out through the passage which is aligned to the winter solstice setting sun and which faces Sliabh na Cailleach at Loughcrew – our next port of call. I loved being with the cairn in the mist, in our own bit of faerie-land, but it seemed a shame not to be able to look down on the land below, and as we descended the mist rolled away and we could see how high we were, see the Ring of Gullion which surrounded us and realise the creation legends did reflect the reality of the wild volcanic upsurges which created this landscape. Phew, what a start!
Sliabh na Cailli in County Meath is the Hill of the Hag and is covered in over 30 chambered cairns, but it is Cairn T, the most central and biggest, which is her cave. There is an alignment along the line of the midsummer sunrise of The Cailleach Birra’s House, Cairn T and Slieve Aughty, a great range of hills to the South West. The name of this comes from Echtga “an awful daughter and horrible goddess” who had a sister Echtach who was an owl goddess. The hills are also known as ‘The Mountains of the Awful One’.
Cairn T is gated and we had to collect the key (and pay a deposit) from a nearby tearooms before climbing the hill to the cairn, which has several smaller ‘satellite’ cairns around it. On the kerb of the main cairn there is a magnificent rock seemingly carved into The Hag’s Chair. We entered the passage and found ourselves in a corbel-roofed chamber with 3 smaller chambers leading from it. Many of the stones are carved with complex patterns, some of which echo those in other Neolithic sites as well as those from other cultures, some extant today. Some stones seem to have been carved before being built into the cairn, as at other sites, and maybe were sacred long before becoming part of the structure. Once more I felt close to the energy of the Cailleach, the ancient people/women who tended the place and whatever ceremonies and rituals took place within it.
We next drove right across to the west coast of Ireland, to the huge Cliffs of Moher, passing through The Burren, a powerful Cailleach landscape of bare rock which has many sites named for her, though they weren’t part of our journey this time. We knew that somewhere on the Cliffs was ‘The Hag’s Head’ but weren’t sure exactly where. We set off to the southern-most part, but a series of events caused Karen to walk across a field, turn, and see what was one of the most stunning Cailleach images I have ever encountered. She is a huge round-topped stac on the cliff, and when viewed from the south, is an old woman with a cap on her head gazing out over the Atlantic.
It was almost by accident (though surely meant!) that Karen had spotted her, and only the decisions we had made about our schedule that morning had meant we were there when the light and shadows were perfect to see her at her most breath-taking. What an extraordinary place, created by the forces of nature, and we sat with her a long time in the sunshine also gazing out over the ocean, then walked north along the cliff path, turned to walk back after a while and saw two other astonishing faces in the cliffs. What a landscape!
At last it was time to go to the Beara peninsula and seek out the famed Hag there. Once again it was initially hard to find her, being pixie-led down wrong turnings and finding our instructions unclear and ambiguous. Most places we sought were poorly signed, maybe intentionally, and every time our dedication to finding the site seemed tested. The Hag of Beara is at least signposted, once you actually find where she is!
She is surprisingly small, sitting squat, gazing out to sea, legends say waiting for her lover Manannan mac Lir to return. For me she had many faces and many moods. The strata of the rocks underfoot seemed vertical and white, whereas hers are horizontal and black, so I felt she must either have been placed there by humans or by some extraordinary force of nature. She has many nooks and crannies for offerings and was covered in them: many coins and strange things people had with them when visiting – including an empty cartridge case! Karen and I were both taking something from one place we visited to the next, creating links on our journey into a kind of Dreaming path, and I gave her things I had brought from the Hebrides. As we sat with her she felt more like a granny than a wild hag (but it was summer). We watched 3 hares running around in a field and made up a story about them as they enacted some spring hare ritual. We also heard a cuckoo and it felt auspicious that this was my first of the year.
A board by the entrance tells her story, but it was different from any I’d heard in Scotland. Here a male saint (Caitighern, who oddly gave his name to Kilkatherine church) turned her permanently to stone, whereas I have always heard that she turned herself to stone for the summer, the stone always remaining wet to show her life-force was still in it, to then come alive again when it is time to thrash down the remnants of autumn and bring on winter. I gave her most of my remaining sacred water to keep her spirit alive, and felt fulfilled to have finally met her.
The last site on my Irish list was Labbacallee, the Hag’s Bed, somewhere north of Cork, and once again our directions were unclear and ambiguous as we drove up and down a road we thought was on our route. There were many crows flying all over the place and suddenly one flew right at us and crashed into the windscreen, shocking Karen, who was driving. (It wasn’t killed). We turned around and began to understand the directions differently and at last found the right road and the Labbacallee.
This is an enormous wedge cairn with a huge slab of stone on the top. How on earth did Neolithic people lift and move such things? It lay between two distant ranges of hills, one of which looked very hag-like. There were many tall trees beside and over-hanging it, full of crows’ nests and with hordes of the birds flying around and cawing loudly seeming to be her guardians or familiars.
The trees were very green with the sun shining and flickering through them, though there was a strong and icy wind. It felt as though that wind would always be there, no matter how bright the sun. I lay a while on the big cap-stone and on a smaller one at the back, but didn’t squeeze inside to the huge interior space beneath. The remains of a Bronze Age woman were found there, her body in one place, her head in another, with the remains of a man and a child, as well as cremated remains of pig, ox and sheep and a small bone pin. The woman had been buried with some sinews still attached so had been in some way exposed or previously interred before her final burial. The rays of the setting equinox sun enter the chamber from the front. For me, this was one of the most powerful experiences of our whole journey; a good way to end the Irish part of my Cailleach year.
A few months later I walked Glen Lyon in Perthshire with my friend Claire (Hewitt). Storm force winds had been forecast and we walked for miles bent double into the wind and lashing rain, as though in an act of subservience to the Cailleach but also echoing the stance of old women. The wind was indeed the breath of the Cailleach and rarely have I been so vibrantly aware of her mighty energy and power as she blew against us relentlessly, but the whole experience was invigorating and inspiring as great foaming, tumbling yellow waterfalls cascaded down the sides of the Glen. We sat on an old sleeper and had our lunch as the sun came out and I realised I wouldn’t get to the final two places on my journey, and that this had actually been ‘Part 1.’ The following year would bring me to ‘Part 2’.
What a very real, awesome and powerful energy this Cailleach is. I am grateful for what she has allowed me to experience so far and look forward to what further adventures she may have in store for me.
Sources of Information:
‘Mother of the Isles’. Jill Smith. Dor Dama Press. 2003. Now available from Jill – www.jill-smith.co.uk
‘Sacred Ireland’. Cary Meehan. Gothic Image. 2002
‘The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog’. Patricia Monaghan. New World Press.2003
‘Mythic Ireland’. Michael Dames. Thames and Hudson. 1992
Other information on legends: Claire Hewitt. www.clairehewitt.co.uk
Taliesin Smith. www.taliesinsmith.co.uk