The Cailleach was a Celtic goddess who traversed Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. She was responsible for the creation of islands and lakes. Seen as both a creator and destroyer, she was known as the “Veiled One.”
Cailleach means “old woman” or “hag” in Scottish and Gaelic. In fact, some scholars believe that this was a title given to any old woman.
The Cailleach is often veiled, often depicted with a single eye. She has deathly pale skin with red teeth. Skulls adorned her clothing. Sometimes she was depicted as a giantess, leaping from mountain to mountain. The Manx believed she could shapeshift into a giant bird.
The Shaper of the Land
As she leapt from mountain to mountain, she carried huge rocks bundled up in her apron. Dropping these could create new hills or even islands. She also managed several wells and could use these to flood the land.
Her tools of creation and destruction included her hammer, with which she was able to control storms and thunder. In some legends, she also controlled a well that would occasionally overflow and flood the land.
Poet Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) included her in one of his compositions:
“Determined now her tomb to build,
Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carron-more;
Then stepped one thousand yards to Loar,
And dropped another goodly heap;
And then with one prodigious leap,
Gained carrion-beg; and on its height
Displayed the wonders of her might.”
Builder of Islands
One day, the Cailleach happened to be wading through the Northern Channel, between Scotland and Ireland. A French sailor maneuvered his ship between the giantess’s legs. The sail brushed her inner thigh and the sensation to this intimate area gave Cailleach a start. She dropped her load of rocks, forming the island of Ailsa Craig. (Source: Eleanor Hull in her article Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare)
In ancient times, many giants roamed the northern isles — the most famous being Gog-Magog and Cailleach-Mhore (Great Cailleach). Legends say that Cailleach-Mhore trudged over the hills, this time carrying massive rocks in a creel (a basket slung over her back). She halted to catch her breath and the creel ripped under the weight. Boulders tumbled onto the landscape, forming new hills. Many hills are known as the “spellings from the creel of the big old woman.”
The Cailleach (also known as Beria in Scotland) created the mountains to use as stepping stones across the land. They also provided houses for her many sons, called the Foawr, the stone throwing giants. These giant children always quarreled with each other. To punish any children who disobeyed her, Beria would close up their mountain houses so they could not leave.
Still angry with each other, her children would climb to the top of their mountain houses and toss boulders at each other. Many of these now lie on the steep slopes or scattered around the valleys of Scotland.
Beria also used her magic hammer to shape the hills, splintering the rocks so that she could tell one hill from another. She would also strike the ground to form valleys.
Creator of Loch Ness
The Cailleach also had two wells that she managed. Each morning, she would uncap the wells to draw water and then shut them up at dusk. But the two wells were very far apart and she grew weary of trekking backing and forth each day.
She hired a maiden, named Nessa, to work the smaller well. One day, Nessa was late and found the water gushing out of the well. Frightened, she ran away, leaving the water flowing all night.
Needless to say, Cailleach was displeased. She cursed the maid to forever run and never leave the water. Nessa was transformed into the river Ness, which flows into Loch Ness.
According to legend, once a year (on the anniversary of her transformation) Nessa emerges from the Loch and sings a sad song to the moon. Her voice is more melodious than any bird or the golden harps of the fairies.
The Cailleach was also the goddess of winter, and we’ll explore that in the next post.