The shrine of the Cailleach at Glen Lyon

The shrine of the Cailleach at Glen Lyon

Each year, in one of the most remote areas of Scotland, a family of stones are brought out of the house in the spring and returned to the house for the winter. The tradition stretches back thousands of years and the site is believed to be the only surviving shrine to the Celtic goddess Cailleach.

Often described as the most beautiful Scottish Glen, Glen Lyon runs for 55 km making it the longest enclosed valley in Scotland. The area is known for its mountain scenery and, although lying in the Perth and Kinross region in central Scotland, it is actually one of the most remote parts of the country.

The legacies of Scotland's ancient Celtic past have survived right up to modern times in this area largely due to its remoteness. Glen Lyon is one of the richest archaeological sites in Scotland and the original Gaelic name of the valley -Gleann Lìomhann- translates as "valley of Lugh", after the Sun God in Celtic mythology.

The Cailleach and her stone family, Glen Lyon, Scotland. Glen Lyon however is better known amongst folklorists and archaeologists for an ancient ritual associated with the Cailleach, a creator deity in Celtic folklore. Deep in the glen, there is a small hut where a number of stones representing the Cailleach and her family are being cared for by the locals. The site is recognised as the only surviving shrine to the goddess Cailleach and the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual in Britain.

The only surviving shrine to the Goddess Cailleach

Deep inside Glen Lyon is Glen Cailleach, Gleann Cailliche in Gaelic, a small valley named after the Cailleach. Like many other Highland glens, access is only possible via a hike taking several hours along estate tracks and boggy moorland flanked by high, craggy hills. Here in the heart of Glen Cailleach lies a small turf-roofed hut known as Tigh nam Bodach, the only surviving shrine to the goddess Cailleach.

Until very recently, the place was largely unknown to the average Scot and the very few who knew about it thought it was better not to publicise it. However, plans to build a hydro scheme in the area brought the shrine into the spotlight and now, ironically, the existence of shrine needs to be publicised in order to protect it.

The Cailleach and her husband Bodach Tigh nam Bodach is a simple shieling, a modest stone hut measuring 2.0m x 1.3m with walls 0.4m high. The building is home to a family of water-worn sandstones roughly shaped in human forms. The largest stone, 45 cm high, represents the Cailleach, while other two stones represent her husband Bodach -"the old man"- and their daughter Nighean, which is only 7.6 cm tall. There are also a number of unnamed, smaller stones, which are believed to be smaller children.

The Cailleach and her stone family only live in the shieling from Beltane to Samhain, from May 1 to October 31, the two Celtic festivals that mark the beginning and end of summer. Traditionally, local people walked up the glen to take the Cailleach and her stone family out of their house on Beltane, and in Samhain (Halloween) they were returned indoors for the winter.

Before the Highland clearances and the changes in the pattern of farming, there used to be more people living in the glen. It is recorded that until the early 20th century the Cailleach's house was re-thatched every year by the locals. The cult to the Cailleach declined as people moved away from the area, but the tradition of bringing the stone family indoors for the winter and taking them outside in spring was continued by local shepherds or gamekeepers.

This ancient ritual is linked with farming prosperity, for Goddess Cailleach was believed to be watching over the cattle that once grazed on these mountains during the summer. According to local lore, the Cailleach and her family were once given shelter in the glen by the local people. So grateful was she for the hospitality given to her family that she left the stones with the promise that, as long as they were cared, she would ensure the glen would continue to be fertile and prosperous.

There are other legends associated with the Cailleach at Tigh na Bodach. One tale has it that terrible things will happen to anyone who dares to disturb her lair. Another legend says that the Cailleach gives birth to a new child every hundred years. Archaeological reports from 1967 state that originally there were 12 stones inside the shieling; this was probably an attempt to throw a Christian cloak over the pagan shrine, converting the stones into a saint called Meuran and his eleven disciples.

Folklorists believe the ritual at Tigh na Bodach has been going on possibly for thousands of years. It is one of the few surviving examples of continuity of ancient Celtic beliefs from the past in the present day. The ritual is still carried out by both local residents and visitors who pilgrim to the site to pay a visit to the Cailleach and her family.

Other places associated with the Cailleach

The Cailleach was a creator goddess; she could harness the wild powers of nature, make mountains, move large boulders around, and raise sea and windstorms. She could use her great powers both to create or destroy, often for the latter.

Beinn na Caillich, Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo: Richard WebbThe cult to the Cailleach seems to have been confined to the Gaelic fringe, where her memory still lives on thousands of years later in a few place names and folktales.

In Scotland, where the Cailleach is depicted as a hag or wizened old woman, she is associated with the creation of Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute. There are also mountains named after her -Beinn na Caillich- on the isle of Skye and in Lochaber.

Ireland has the legend of the Cailleach Bhéarra, a sovereignty queen embedded in the folklore of West Cork. The name of the Cailleach also appears on Ceann Caillí -the Hag's Head- at the Cliffs of Moher in Co.Clare and Sliabh na Caillí -the Hag's Mountain- in Co. Meath.

Galicia, where folktales featuring hags and fairy goddesses are extremely common, may have been named after the Cailleach. According to some authors, the ancient name of the country -Callaecia- would have originally meant "Land of the Cailleach".

Glen Lyon, one of the richest archaeological areas in Scotland

Located at the entrance of Glen Lyon, the small village of Fortingall was an important sacred place in ancient times. The area surrounding Fortingall has one of the richest concentrations of Megalithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Scotland. The village is best known for its Yew Tree, believed to be between 2000 and 5000 years years old.

Also close to Glen Lyon is the small village of Dull, which in the 7th century was one of Scotland's main monastic centres. The monastery was founded by St Adomnán or Eònan of Iona, an important figure in Scottish and Irish history. Local tradition has it that St Adomnán is buried in Dull’s church, where a holy well has made miraculous cures. People from all over the region used to go on pilgrimage to Craig Fhionnaidh to pray over the saint’s footstep imprinted in a stone. According to tradition, when the Black Plague hit the glen in 664 AD, St Adomnán climbed the hillock and prayed for a miracle until the glen was free of the disease.

Do you want to know more?

The Glenlyon History Society - Comann Eachdraidh Ghleann Lìomhann, a historical society run by local residents of Glenlyon with an interest in the local history of the glen.

Would you like to visit a very special old woman?

(Click here for a map of Gleann Cailliche) - From Fortingall, continue towards Loch Lyon and then follow the estate track to Gleann Meurain. For a strenuous walk up the hills, you can also get to Gleann Cailliche through Gleann Achadh near Bridge of Orchy.

The Cailleach on film: An Cailleach Bhéarra, Ireland, 2007The Cailleach on film:
An Cailleach Bhéarra, Ireland, 2007
Watch the film here..»

Irish animation / short film, 8:00 min. In order for her youth to be renewed, An Cailleach Bhéarra, or The Old Woman of Beara, has to return to the water every 100 years. The film combines two Irish short tales involving the character of the Cailleach, running them together and reinterpreting the stories in a playful modern context.

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