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Articles by Stuart McHardy
The Goddess in the landscape

Scotland’s story has long been clouded due to a few particular historical events. One is that little early written material about ancient times survives due to various raids and invasions. The earliest of these started in the 9th century with the Vikings who often raided monasteries - the natural home for written materials as well as the precious metals they were seeking. Later came the invasion  of the English king Edward Longshanks in the 13th century, and the Reformation 300 years later. Edward destroyed all documents he could find as they were sure to undermine his opportunistic and dishonest claims to be the sovereign lord of Scotland. What he didn’t destroy was taken south to England and disappeared. Later the Reformation saw the unleashing of fanatical mobs who burned books and destroyed great art under the guise of it all being Papist. Because of this and because of the close links between Ireland and Scotland the situation has arisen where Scottish culture is presented as being primarily imported from Ireland through Gaelic or from England through the medium of Anglo-Saxon which developed into Scots north of the Border. All of this ignores what can be clearly seen in the light of modern archaeological and historical learning - that Scotland was inhabited by people capable  of sophisticated thinking with considerable  mathematical and engineering powers from the time of the great stone circle of Calanais was raised about five thousand years ago.

Because of the lack of sources and the bias of historians towards both Christianity and an Oxbridge view of the world much Scottish folklore is ignored or misunderstood. This applies particularly to the Goddess in our landscape.

All of the pagan religions in Europe are accepted as having come through a Goddess phase and there is no reason to think Scotland should be any different. In fact behind tales of witches, supernatural females and Christian saints lies a reality that is still manifest in our landscape - that the Goddess walked these lands, and perhaps still does. In ancient religions it was natural to see life itself as emanating form a female source - after all do we not all come from our mothers - and the landscape of Scotland is dotted with referents to the female principle in its nurturing, life-giving sense, though we also have dark, violent females representing the destructive aspect of the Goddess, in short life and death.

Many of the most striking of our hills are called Paps and in Gaelic we have the terms Cioch and Mam which both refer to the differing shapes of the female breast. We have the Paps of Jura, the Paps of Fife, the Pap of Glencoe, the Maiden Paps in Roxburghshire, Maiden Pap in Sutherland  and many others. There all also Bennachie -originally Bean na  Cioch, and Lochnagar was initially Beinn na Ciochan and has its own Caisteal na Caillich, Meikle Pap and Little Pap. There are many others but naming them after the shape of the female breast alone is perhaps not enough to conclude that we are seeing remnants of the Goddess and her worship. However when we find holy wells, symbolic placenames associated with ritual and mythology and early sacred sites around such places it seems possible that Goddess worship was involved in the naming of such physical features.

In many parts of Scotland that were once Gaelic speaking, which is most of the country,  there are tales of the Cailleach, an ancient name meaning the veiled one that used to mean the old woman or hag, but in modern times has come to mean nun. In many of the old tales however she is presented as the Spirit of Winter, keeping Bride, the Goddess of Summer imprisoned till she is released by her lover.  As we shall see, the Cailleach in Gaelic tradition is matched by the figure of the Carlin in Scots tradition. There are literally dozens of placenames referring to the Cailleach and many such tales are attached to mountains.

One of the oldest tales of this kind refers to Scotland’s greatest natural wonder. This is the Corryvreckan the great whirlpool between the Inner Hebridean islands of Jura and Scarba. Just off Scarba’s south coast there is a huge underwater spike and when the Atlantic waters are forced through the Sound of Jura and meet tidal surges coming around both islands the waters start to gyrate around this spike and the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan  is formed. It is at its most violent at the end of autumn though sailors who dare to cross it are always in danger at any time of the year. The name of the Corryvreckan was originally Coire Bhreacain - the cauldron of the plaid. The term cauldron is one that is associated with Goddesses throughout Celtic and Germanic mythology and legend -perhaps why it is represented so widely on Pictish Symbol Stones - but here it has a specific meaning. It was in this great cauldron that the Cailleach washed her plaid, the traditional one-piece garment of the Highlands. It was this washing that was said to created the whirlpool in autumn, the sound of which can be heard for many miles around, After washing her plaid the Cailleach lays her plaid over the hills of west Scotland to dry. As she is the oldest being, clearly a reference to a Mother Goddess figure, her plaid is pure white - it needed no colour to differentiate her from other beings. This is of course a mythological explanation for the first snows of the year linked to the greatest physical event in the landscape of Scotland and her surrounding waters. Some scholars specifically link the Cailleach to Ben Nevis our greatest mountain and like many of our hills it has an Allt-na-Cailleach, stream of the Old Woman.

This is essentially the same Old Woman located in different parts of the landscape of Scotland and one other striking example is Caillich na mointich. the Old Woman of the Moors whose form lies in the hills to the south of the great standing stone circle of Calanias which we shall look at later.

Time and again we find the Cailleach associated with mountains and on a clear day as the weather changes it is easy to see why. I recall standing on a hillside in Glen Clova looking north to Lochnagar in early autumn on a bright day with a few clouds high in the sky. As I watched clouds began to form around the head of Lochnagar and as the sky darkened clouds began to stream out from the mountain. The Goddess of course creates the weather as well as the planet and all its beings and it seems only natural that she should be located on our mountain tops.  The harsh black figures of the Cailleachs associated with Bein Bhreac in Lochaber, Ben Wyvis in Easter Ross and many other Scottish mountains seem particularly apt creatures to be associated with Scottish winters  - which every year exact a toll of sacrifice from among the walkers and climbers who venture amongst them.

One of the strongest associations of the Cailleach is the deer and Jura, mentioned above, means the Deer Isle from the Norse Dyr -ey and the Cailleach there, the Cailleach Mhor nam Fiadh, the Big Old Woman of the Deer is said to have no remorse in killing any non-Jura man who set foot on her island. This is very close to the notion of the Goddess representing the land and links with the ancient Celtic notion of the new king marrying the female representation of the land, thereby attaining sovereignty. Many Cailleachs are mentioned as helping deer hunters who approach them the right way.

Ben Cruachan which soars over the north side of the road between Dalmally and Oban has its own Cailleach story. Here the Cailleach was the guardian of a well on the summit of the mountain. Every evening she had to cover the well with a large flat stone and every morning take it off again. One night she was tired out after being out all day with her herds in Connel  and fell asleep by the side of the well. Night fell and still she slept. Up came the waters of the well and flooded out over the land, rushing down the side of the mountain to the south. As the flood began to rage it broke through the Pass of Brander with a great roar and the Cailleach sprang awake.  Try as she might she could not cap the well and the torrent flowed free drowning many a man and beast caught in its path. This is how Loch Awe was formed and it is said the Cailleach was so ashamed that she turned to stone and the stone still sits among the rocky ruins overlooking the Loch.

Here as with the Corryvreckan we have the Cailleach being instrumental in the formation of the landscape and the same story of the overflowing well is given for the origin of Loch Ness, and others. It is no surprise that tradition also tells us that the Cailleach formed the Hebridean islands when an apronful of stones she was carrying for the making of Scotland accidentally fell!

Many mountains and glens in Scotland have stories of the Cailleach, always associated with the local landscape, for the stories were always told in such a way as to find an easy reception amongst their audience. Placenames and associated tales put her all over our landscape .

On Mull there is the Carn na Caillich where again the Cailleach dropped a load of stones when the strap of the creel she was carrying the stones in broke. Here she was said to have been trying to build a bridge over the Sound of Mull and intended putting chains across the Sound of Islay to stop ships passing. The stones where these chains were to be fixed used to be pointed out on Jura.

One of the reasons that mythology developed was to give an explanation of the physical world in human terms. A tale told all over the Highlands at least concerns the Cailleach and Bride. In this tale the Cailleach, a great, black-faced Hag has Bride, the Goddess of Summer imprisoned and in some versions she is called her daughter. During the Winter while Bride is imprisoned the Cailleach goes around the country hammering the land with her great hammer and thus freezing it. Bride is given the impossible task of washing a brown fleece white while the Cailleach is out and about. Far off in the Land of Eternal Youth, Angus Og dreams of the  beautiful maiden harshly imprisoned and resolves to come to her rescue. Bride herself manages to escape on the 1st of February for three days but is soon recaptured. This is supposed to account for the three days of good weather that were said to happen at the beginning of February called lathan Bridean

Meanwhile Angus Og is searching everywhere for Bride and with the help of a mysterious male figure eventually locates her. He frees her and they are initially pursued by the Cailleach. But with Bride’s release Spring has come and the Cailleach’s powers fade quickly. At last she gives up the chase in disgust and throws her hammer under a holly bush - which is why nothing ever grows there. Bride and Angus Og are married and rule together over the Summer months till once again the Cailleach’s time comes round.

This tale comes from long before the calendars were changed at the end of the 16th century so it is  perhaps surprising how often a short spell of weather does occur at the beginning of February. Or did the new calendar simply put things back in balance?

On the east of Scotland, much of which has been Scots-speaking for almost as long as Gaelic has been spoken in the west there is a figure which is a clear match for the Cailleach. This is the Carlin who like her counterpart has left traces in the landscape. The Paps of Fife were mentioned above and on the western side of the Lomond Hills, of which the Paps form part is the narrow gap known as Glenvale. Here stood a striking pillar of stone known as Carlin Maggie, which sadly has now fallen. The tale is that this was the a haunt of witches and Carlin Maggie was their leader. One time seeing Satan approach carrying a load of rocks she took a stand on Bishop’s Hill  and preceded to flyte him - insult him in rhyme. He dropped his load of rocks and chased her coming close enough to turn her into stone at this spot overlooking Loch Leven.  Here we have a representative of the old, pagan religion going against even the Christian Devil! In the surrounding area  there are records of fertility rituals associated with a nearby bore hole through rock called the Maiden Bore, old wells and even an early Christian  fish sign  carved in the living rock on West Lomond Hill. The clustering of such sites strongly supports the idea that such names were given in honour of the Goddess and that the area was one of considerable sanctity.

The Carlin who crops up in Scots medieval literature was the subject of one early anonymous poem, the Gyre-Carling,  in which she is said to have farted out North Berwick Law! The poem was said to have been a favourite of James V. This is a bit different from the other tales here but still links her directly to the creation of the physical world and it is interesting that one of our most famous groups of witches gathered in the shade of North Berwick Law. The name Gyre-Carlin means something like the biting or ravenous old woman which is very like the meaning of the Cailleach Bheur, a name that crops up often in Gaelic traditions. It is clear that the idea of the Hag of Winter is common to the Germanic and Celtic speaking traditions in Scotland and this might suggest we are dealing with an idea that comes from a time before either of these two languages had developed. This is impossible to prove but it is known that some aspects of Scottish tradition like the association of these female figures with deer, were common in other parts of Europe over 5,000 years ago.

The Gyre-Carolling in the poem is also remarkably like the idea of the Cailleach presented in the  poem The Manere of the Crying of Ane Playe by William Dunbar, the great 15th/16th century poet  where, telling of her as the wife of Fionn ,”She spittit Lochlomond with her lips; Thunner and fireflaucht flew fae her hips.” Fireflaucht is lightning and this may be reference to her role as the source of storms and bad weather. The similarity between the Cailleach and Carlin here is absolute.

A striking suggestion of ancient worship and ritual comes from Loch Carlingwark in Dumfries. Here in the loch was found a great collection of votive gifts - gifts put into wells, rivers or lochs accompanying prayers to the goddess, or perhaps other divinities. Among the collection form Carlingwark, to be seen the Museum of Scotland, is a great cauldron, echoing the relationship between many early goddess figures and the actual source of food for family and communities. Water, the source and support of all life has long been central to pagan religion and accounts for the long association of prayer and ritual with wells, as we shall see later.


The stone circle of Calanais laid out on the ground in the shape of a Celtic Cross over 5000 years ago is truly one of Scotland’s wonders. Its use in lunar observation is now accepted and in the hills along which the moon “dances” at the end of its 18.6 year cycle we can see  how important the notion of the  goddess in the landscape must have been. In these hills to the south of the Calanais complex the outline of a reclining human figure can be seen. Though it is only recently that archaeologists have rediscovered the lunar associations of this magnificent megalithic site, local tradition has preserved at least one memory of the sanctity of the area. The term for the human figure reclining in the hills to the south in the Cailleach na mointich - the Old Woman of the moors. In this sense Old Woman can be seen as referring to the Goddess, here present to underline the importance of the complex of megalithic sites round Loch Roag.

One tale that occurs in several locations tells how on the morning of Beltain the ancient tribal Feast to greet the summer, the Cailleach went to a holy well. Taking a mouthful of water just as the sun rose she drank and was magically transformed into the Summer Goddess, Bride, the forerunner of St. Brigit who has long been revered in the Western Isles. Here we seem to have a portrayal of a Goddess who corresponds to the old notion of the year being split into two main seasons- the Time of The Big Sun and the Time of the Little Sun. These seasons were separated by the great feasts of Beltain and Samhain. Although the other great quarter-day feasts of Imbolc (1st February) and Lammas(1st August) were undoubtedly important they are clearly overshadowed by the other two. Imbolc itself is the Day of Bride and was linked to the start of lambing .

Bride survives in Gaelic tradition as the birthmaid of Christ and many prayers were made to her. As we shall see later there are many Bride’s Wells in Scotland and the number of Kilbrides shows the extent of churches once dedicated to her. However there are other Bride names that suggest a strong connection to the earlier Goddess figure.

In Glen Clova in the Angus foothills of the Grampian mountains there is a pool by the roadside just east of the Gella bridge called Bride’s Coggie. A coggie is an old Scots term for a wooden bucket and this pool is said to be stone lined. In the same area there are placenames which refer to women which might give weight to the idea of a goddess site here. There is Clachnabrain which comes from the Gaelic Clach-na Mnathan -the stone of the women and Braeminzeon which is Braigh na Mnathan, hillside of the women. Near Bride’s Bed in the shadow of the Craigs of Lethnot was the first location of a church in the glen.  In a story that is repeated throughout the country we are told the stones of the church were always moved overnight from the selected spot till the site itself was changed. As we shall see one of the symbols of Bride is the serpent, or in Scottish terms, the adder. It is therefore worth noting that in this section of the glen, adders are regularly seen. In a glen just a few kilometres to the east, Glenesk, there is another Bride name , which this time is Bride’s Bed and might refer to an ancient man-made circular depression below Craigmaskeldie at the head of the glen. Also in Angus, near  there is Bride’s Ring which is the remains of a prehistoric defensive structure.

Several examples of the rituals associated with Bride and St Bridget have been described in the past. In the Western Isles  where  Bride’s importance is emphasised in her title as Handmaiden to Mary or Birthmaiden to Christ there were intricate procedures followed at Imbolc, the feast of Bride on February 1st. Old women would make up  an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle, which they call leaba Bride, the bed of Bride. They would then take pains to decorate it with primroses, daisies and other flowers that open their eyes in the morning of the year. These would have been gathered from sunny sheltered valleys around. After that they would take a sheaf of corn and fashion it into the shape of a woman which they would then dress up with brightly-coloured ribbons, sparkling sea shells and bright stones from the hill.. This figure is called Bride. When it was all dressed and decorated, one of the women would go to the door of the house and, standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, call quietly into the darkness," Bride's bed is ready." Another woman  behind her would reply," Let Bride come in. Bride is welcome." Then the woman at the door would again address Bride," Bride come thou in, thy bed is made. Preserve the house for the Trinity.”  With great ceremony the women would proceed to lay the figure of Bride in the bed. A small straight white wand ( the bark being peeled off) would then be placed beside the figure. These  wands were generally of birch, broom, bramble, white willow or other sacred wood. The women would then level the ashes on the hearth, smoothing them  over carefully. The following morning the whole family would make a close examination of  the ashes. If they found the mark of the wand of Bride they  would rejoice, but if what  they found was lorg Bride, the footprint of Bride, they would have cause for great celebration, for this was taken to mean that  Bride herself was present in their home during the night. This was widely believed to mean that there would be increase in family, in flock, and in field in the coming year. If there were no marks on the ashes, the family would be disappointed for they thought that this was a sign that Bride was offended and had not hear their call. They would then make offerings to try and propitiate her. This is clearly nothing to do with Christianity, even if Bride was the Birthmaid of Christ.

Within Gaelic tradition there is one association with Bride that stands out as a particularly strong echo of pre-Christian thought and that is her association with the serpent. The serpent in Christian terms is of course evil but several rhymes survive showing that Bride, was directly associated with this unlikely creature. In Scottish terms particularly the association is specifically with the adder as that is our only indigenous snake. It is also of course a creature strongly linked with various traditions regarding those most romantic and insubstantial figures, the Druids. McNeill gives this version of a hymn to the adder which was believed to emerge from its hibernation on Imbolc, St Bride's Day  February 1st,

"Today is the day of Bride
the serpent shall come from the hole
I will not molest the serpent
Nor will the serpent molest me"

This has been commented upon as a relic of serpent worship by several commentators but it is probably truer to say that the serpent/adder is a symbol associated with the Mother Goddess and the serpent in many cultures has been seen as a symbol of knowledge. The creature’s habits of shedding its skin and of hibernating underground both make it a good symbol for the ideas of regeneration and rebirth. In ancient times when prayers were said to try and ensure the harvest for the coming season the serpent’s association with the earth itself was also significant. There are scholars who think that our ancestors prayed to those who had gone before them to work magic on the seeds in the earth to ensue harvest the following year. This makes sense and the serpent as a being that appeared to cross into the underworld was a powerful symbol.  The appearance of a variety of serpent/adder representations on Pictish Symbol Stones strongly suggests they saw it as a powerful  religious symbol and it is at least possible that they associated it with Bride herself.

We should be remember that these practices are recorded as happening in communities that had been ostensibly Christian for over a thousand years and this underlines the hold that the idea Bride, an aspect of the Mother Goddess, continued to have on both community and individual until very recently. Just as  Bride is associated with the serpent, the Cailleach is associated with the cauldron, another symbol found on the Pictish Symbol Stones. As the passage above illustrates there were also rituals associated with such figures - rituals that might come from as far back as the Stone Age, another point to which we shall return.

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