When you look over the folklore of Ireland and Scotland the Cailleach is known by many names, this is because she was a localized deity. She was the Cailleach of your loch, mountain or moorland – this then gave her slightly different qualities and the animals associated with her. I do not know all these deities only the one, which I grew up with. I know her by the animals, birds and plants of the Loch Lomond area and by the weather and the seasons.
I have taken many pilgrimages to this old Crone, she is the ‘presence’ I encounter in the hills above Loch Lomond. I hear her voice through the green summer bracken stirred by the breeze and in the song of the Skylark warbling above me. She is the rocks above the ancient hill fort and a presence who has stood and watched the continents slip and slide into this current configuration that we know in our short lifespan, which to her is barely a blink of the eye.
From the hills around Loch Lomond, to the Shrine at the Glen of the Cailleach, to Loch Lomond’s Isle of the Cailleach and the Hill of the Cailleach in Eigg the character of this Cailleach seems familiar to me yet she is known by varying characteristics of varying localities.
On the Ancestral Mothers of Scotland Retreat, we visit the Hill of the Cailleach where each women can approach the site in her own way, perhaps with a gesture or two of ritual.
On my first exploration to find the hill on entering the field I wasn’t exactly sure what hill was the Cailleach’s. The wind suddenly whipped up, spooking the sheep, which took off at a gallop. A nearby flock of geese began to hiss and squawk and I was beginning to feel decidedly unwelcome. I made my way to another small hill, which seemed far more of a safe and took refuge enjoying the evening’s twilight. It was only the next day I hadn’t realized that some electronics I was carrying had gotten somewhat fried and I almost missed the ferry with phone clock being set two hours back in time!
On my next visit to the Hill and some careful research to ensure I was visiting the correct hill, I left my electronics and my camera at a safe distance. I walked around the hill three times in a sun wise direction – deosil (meaning right) as in the Celtic tradition of approaching a sacred site. On my second circle I noticed a little piece of what looked like tile sticking out of the ground and when I picked it up I realized it has the figures of two women on it. It was part of an old plate, not a teacup due to the thickness of the china. In the scene are two women, busy in some activity, which to me was definitely two priestesses in ceremony or ritual. By the third circle, I felt so very welcome at the hill this time as tears fell from my eyes from a deep, deep pool inside of me – tears of longing and yet belonging and of something missing and something found.
It is Samhain that the old crone makes her presence most felt in the world. Her ritual is to wade out in the sea waters to the whirlpool of Corrvrecken (not too far from where I was at the Hill of the Cailleach on the Isle of Eigg). She takes her great plaid off and dips it into the fast swirling cauldron. As she does, maybe she says some words in a long forgotten language, for this act ushers in winter and, as she shakes her plaid dry and throws it up, up around her shoulders, the flurry of little drops from the cloth instantly freeze and dust the uppermost peaks of the surrounding hilltops.
As we approach Samhain you are invited to take a journey with the Cailleach in a five-session online course as we explore her great age and visit her sacred sites. We explore why her story seems to have changed over the years, as well as searching her folklore for clues to her origins and finally we consider what her hold is for us in these times.