The struggles and revelations of Scotland’s people are stamped into the landscape, like wrinkles on the palms of old lady history. Some experiences deep ravines. Other lines the soft touch of poetry skimming the surface like scree. With such deep history surrounding us it can’t help but inspire thoughts about the riddles of these places. Secrets coded in name and metaphor. Dark brooding and inspirational names captured in Gaelic given to desolate munro, shadowy river and unfathomable loch. Names such as Bod an Deamhain – the devil’s penis (point), Dùn dá Gaoithe – fort of two winds, Ath nam Marbh – the ford of the dead and Bealach nam Fiann – the pass of the Flanna (giants) beautifully illustrate Scotland’s own “dream time” or landscape tales. The stories just need nudged from the shadows, urged to reveal the path to their retelling.
A recent visit to Perth and Kinross took us to one such trail. We travelled through Glen Lyon. One of the remotest places in Scotland, though it sits at Scotland’s heart. A place where Scotland’s Celtic and Pictish past meet and, are in some way, kept alive. Travelling the expanse of Glen Lyon (perhaps named after the Celtic figure Lugh) we followed the river to the start of our 8 mile walk to the Gleann Cailliche, the valley of the old lady, at its other end.
How to get there.
You park just up from the Lubreoch Damn in Glen Lyon. The path is pretty straight forward but a long hike if you’re not prepared. You follow the dirt road alongside the dam and Loch keeping to the right. You pass many a splendid waterfall where you can stop and refresh. The most magnificent of these is called Eos Eoghannan – Eoghannan’s waterfall or waterfall born of the yew tree – next to Creag dubh – the black crag. The river ravine it forms is home to Birch and Rowan; the only trees you’ll see in the entire walk. Unless you count the white tree bog skeletal stumps poking like bleached bones from the peat here and there. The views are breath taking as you look across Loch Lyon. Midges weren’t anywhere to be seen, too exposed I think, or maybe eaten by the beautiful Butterworts, the Mothan, lining the path periodically.
Following this trail, you’ll eventually come to a turn in the terrain roughly 5 miles in. Taking this turning you walk along a river, away from the Loch towards some imposing looking Munros.
As we did, we thought we could hear the shouts of people warning us and dogs barking. We frantically turned to see what was up, only to be surprised at the sight of a group of low flying geese honking at each other as they landed in the lochs water. Geese, in some parts of Scotland, especially in the Fife stories, are said to represent the Cailleach. Stopping to admire them for a short while and ponder this connection we continued to follow the wee river along, bearing right towards Gleann Cailliche.
Here you must cross three forded streams. I say streams, the last one is a river and hell mend you if you try to cross it after a lot of rain. Once over this final river you enter the glen itself. As soon as we did we felt the weather change from cool, breezy and dry, to warm, still and humid. The glen was also strangely quiet. It had its own micro climate, or perhaps it was the blessing of the Cailleach herself we could feel? A little further up the track, about a mile or so, by the side of the river to your left you will finally find your destination. A small 1-meter-across structure, the Cailleach’s house.
The Legend of the Glen.
This is not a tigh (house) you need to knock the door of in the traditional sense. The shrine, or ‘wee house’ as some call it, resembles a miniature bothan airigh, a sheiling-bothy, with low stone walls and a turf roof. This small, almost unique structure is known as the “Tigh na Bodach” – “the house of the old man” by some and “Tigh Nam Cailleach” – “house of the old women” by others. Personally I think it depends on the focus of the researcher to the emphasis.
It houses representations of the Cailleach (old woman) and the Bodach (old man) and their Nighean (daughter) with some smaller statues said to represent other members of this mysterious family. These beautiful arcane looking water worn stones have legends that surround them. Tales I know, tell of a blessing or geas/taboo. Both are perhaps older than those who settled there. The tale recorded, by Dr Anne Ross (1993), follows something like this:
“The fragments … which have survived orally tell of an event which happened ‘many years ago’ when, in an unusually fierce snowstorm, an unnaturally large man and woman were seen coming down the mountain-side of the upper glen. They asked the people who were still settled there for hospitality and shelter. These were willingly given to them. This pleased the supernatural pair well and they took up residence in the glen when the inhabitants had built a thatched house large enough to accommodate them.”
“The woman was pregnant and in due course gave birth to a daughter. The weather was always favourable when they dwelt there. The stock flourished and the crops were always of the best. Then one day the time came when they must go. Before doing so, they promised that as long as they were remembered and their house kept in order, and everything done as they themselves had done it, they would bring it about that winters would be mild, the summers warm, and peace and prosperity would always be with the people who had been so generous to them. In memory of this event of long ago a small shrine in the form of a house was constructed and every Bealtainn the three stones representing the three deities would be taken out of the house and placed facing down the glen. There they remained until the house was re-thatched and made warm and comfortable for the winter and they were returned to the miniature house on the eve of Samhuinn. When the upper glen was flooded and the people moved away”
The two festivals mark the beginning and end of Summer in the old Celtic calendar. The significance to cow farmers is very direct. Bealtainn marked the time when herds were moved out to pasture at the start of summer. They were moved back at Samhuinn, the start of winter. The Cailleach and the Bodach providing blessing through the year to that which people found most precious – their land, cattle, families and clan.
The Geas, or taboo/curse, is less elaborate. It is said if anyone is to mishandle the stones or remove them from their house “very bad things” will befall them. I have heard Anne Ross (the well-known Celtic researcher) once removed one of the stones for study and soon brought it back the next day. No easy task considering how long it takes to get there. Who knows what moved a steadfast academic to do such a thing but it does give weight to such a taboo.
Who are the Bodach and the Cailleach?
There are other Bodach and Cailleach stones to be found in similar locations, such as in Ireland, on the island of Gigha. What is really interesting is that the shape of those found in Gigha are very similar to the size and shape of the statues found in Scotland and similar legends are given to them. This is no coincidence.
I can only guess why these acts were performed and better minds than mine have a million and one suggestions. It may represent a time when Scotland had a more communal culture. Offerings given, and respect to the land offered, to ensure good relations were kept between this world and the other. Together. An animistic appreciation of living in a community of more than just humans perhaps? Or maybe these offerings of time and respect were given to guarantee powerful forces of nature would always look kindly upon those who lived in the Glen in a polytheistic sense? These acts might help to safeguard the herders and their families for future generations. Regardless of the reason these rich personalities, which tie us to traditions and the land, are being lost. Eroded by time as land is wrinkled by wind and rain.
The Bodach, spouse to the Cailleach, was clearly an influential figure. In earlier years, as he was replaced by more Christian thinking, he was relegated to a bogeyman or Boggart of sorts, who would snatch the unwary from safe hearth and home or a portent of death, as the Bodach Glas– the grey man. Now a supernatural being whose legends have been lost to time.
The Cailleach is a primordial creation figure/our first ancestor. Who created the western isles and other astonishing natural structures in our landscape, such as Loch Tay and many mountains and munros. At harvest time the last sheaf cut was called the Cailleach and kept in the house in her honour. This later became a curse. A dance was performed at Michealmas that at one time may have been for her, but now the moves and rhythm have all but been lost. In modern times she lingers on as a hag of winter, an old women jealous of the spring and a far cry from her original incarnation of creator of worlds. Both their names however, are still attached to features in our landscape and usually found very close to one another. Tales still relate how the snow encircling the munro is the Cailleach’s petticoat and the long line of snow down her companion mountain, the beard of the Bodach. The landscape doesn’t forget but we have become so detached from our roots and mislead by modern interpretation we find these tales fantastic or these ideas cause dissonance to our modern thinking, which we may dismiss.
Some final thoughts
Our memories may fail us. Our landscape, untouched, will not. The tales of our culture and community are not easily recalled but the landscape becomes the book our tales and history as Scottish People are written upon. We just need to remember how to read “the book of the landscape”.
What other tales might the glens, munros and lochs hold? What of the stories in our local areas? What of the tales you hear of the black dogs that run at night and the coaches that rattle along the corpse road past our windows? What is the origin of these stories and how do these stories help to enrich our local communities I wonder?
Note this article originally appeared in Modern Scot and is shared here for prosperity.
1 Murray, J. (2014) Reading the Gaelic Landscape. Whittles Publishing Glasgow.
3. according to A.C Thomas and Ross A (1993) Folklore of the Scottish Highlands. Stroud: Tepus Publishing Ltd.
4 According to A.L.F Rivet, (1961) this referee is mentioned in lots of writing im assuming has been replicated without fact checking. I say this as i cant find the original source.
5. Ross, A (1993) Folklore of the Scottish Highlands. Stroud: Tepus Publishing Ltd.
6. Czerkawska, C ( 2006) The way it was: A history of Gigha. Berlin. Edinburgh.
7. Scott, W. (1814) Waverley.
8 Ó Crualaoich, Gearóid (2003) The book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer. Cork: Cork Up.