Brighde of the Isles

by Jill Smith

What are these magical, mystical Isles of the Hebrides? Known now as the Western Isles (Eilean Siar), the Outer Hebrides lie to the extreme north- west of mainland Scotland, 24 miles (43 sea miles) across a body of water called the Minch. This is a wild sea, and in the distant past there was a much greater flow of people to and from the Hebrides by the seas to the south and north than over the Minch to the mainland. This meant there was a powerful connection to Ireland and the Celtic/Gaelic culture, and later with the Vikings/Norse who sailed round the north of the mainland and actually owned the Hebrides for a considerable chunk of historical time, which is why many of the current place names, though now Gaelicised, are Norse.

My own overwhelming feeling about the Islands from the years I have known them (since 1982) is that there is a powerful spirit of the land, an identifiable energy which I call ‘Mother of the Isles’. It is like the very life-force of the Islands themselves and can be perceived as the manifestation of Brighde – she who may originally have been goddess of the land.

Brighde is an ancient creative force/goddess who later merged with St. Bridget of Kildare in Ireland to become something of both of them, yet more; and in the Hebrides she has her own distinct character. The early Celtic church easily assimilated the older pagan beliefs, blending them into a spirituality which initially may not have been all that different from what had gone before. In Celtic times the power of the Goddess as the life-force of place was understood as the ‘Sovereignty’ of the land.

Goddess of the Western Isles
Goddess of the Western Isles – Jill Smith

Once the more ancient societies were taken over by Kingdoms, a King would need to have union with the Goddess of Sovereignty in order for his kingship to have any power, protection or physical and spiritual reality. He had to be symbolically wedded to the land, to the Goddess of the land, for without her his kingship was as nothing. This could be achieved by a ritual or actual mating with a totemic animal or with an initiated priestess who was the physical representative of the Goddess Sovereignty: the life and identity of the land. We know most of this from the stories and histories of Ireland, but it was probably the same across the Celtic realms. It seems clear that the spirit of the Goddess of the land must have permeated everything in the Hebrides, in order that deep love and respect for her could continue in the lives of the people throughout many changes in society and religion, up until very recent times. In the Hebrides Brighde had her own very specific identity as ‘Brighde of the Isles’, which was not found anywhere else and which seems to be somewhere between the ancient Goddess and the later Christian saint.

In the early days of my life on Lewis I ‘met’ Brighde as a profound reality, which was an integral part of moving to live with that land. She was and still is a very real energy whose presence is now with me always no matter where I go. It is like knowing a friend, and through that knowing, although I was not physically born of the Islands, I feel I have come to a true knowing of that land.

So who is Brighde? She was originally an ancient goddess of major significance. The fact of her long endurance htrough time, through changes in culture and religion, underlies her importance and the fact that her energy goes back to the earliest times when she was the Goddess, the Sovereignty of the Land for the people who first inhabited the Islands. She was held in exceptional esteem by the Celts, who named places for her over a large part of their lands. As one example, the tribe of the Brigantes was named after her, as were their extensive lands of Brigantia which once covered much of Northern Britain

The spirituality of the early Celtic Church was probably not dissimilar in many ways from that of the former Druidic beliefs; many of the early saints behaved in a very druidic, shamanic and even magical way, and the Christian monks lived a spiritual life not much changed from that which went before.

In the Hebrides the ancient mother goddess who was the spirit, life and substance of the land slipped easily into her new identity as St. Bride with little changed. Here in particular she emerged as ‘Bride of the Isles’, a distinct individual between goddess and saint, in a way separate from them with her own identity, yet with the atttributes of both. A real trinity, in fact.

There are many variations of her name from Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and many other sources – Bride, Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Brigit, and so on, but she made herself known to me as Brighde, so that is how I refer to her.

It has been suggested that her name comes from roots which mean ‘the exalted one’ or ‘divinity’, so the name may simply mean ‘goddess’; but there are other suggestions that it comes from ‘bright’ as a manifestation of spiritual fire, and this is the flame of the Imbolc/Candlemas fire. Mary Beith suggests she was linked to a long line of mother goddesses associated with the moon, water, serpents and weaving, and that her association with fire suggests a particularly ancient lineage.

It is interesting that even in her latter days as a saint, her actual lineage was of extreme importance. Invocations of St. Bride, especially those for protection, focussed on the recitation of the genealogy of Bride, even though at this stage it seems to have been largely male. It takes one right back through time in a direct unbroken line, keeping it alive in the present, affording protection.

Mary Beith links the goddess Brighde with the Libyan snake goddess Neit, who was adopted by the Egyptians. Like Brighde, Neit protected women, childbirth and marriage, and was skilled in the domestic arts. Brighde is credited with bringing many arts and crafts to human beings, especially to women. These included spinning and weaving and the tending of cattle. Neit wove the world with her shuttle, and as the celestial cow, gave birth to the sky.

Beith explains that weaving and serpent images are common amongst moon goddesses. The snake’s movement is like the complex weaving movements of the moon across the sky, which are monthly, yearly and in nineteen year cycles. This shows how complex lunar astronomical knowledge was brought to them by Brighde, and was held in the tradition passed to women in the weaving of threads. There were probably songs and stories to accompany the weaving, not only to help memorise the order of the colours of the threads and establish a working rhythm, but originally to pass on this far more sophisticated knowledge.

Threads are very important in the healing rituals of the Gaelic traditions of the Highlands and Islands, and these may originally have carried ancient lunar knowledge incorporated into what later became magical lore. The ‘charms of the threads’ or ‘eolas an t-snaithein’ involved the use of red, white and black threads which represented the eclipsed moon, the full moon and the dark moon. These were entwined about the affected part and an incantation muttered over the patient three times. There are still people practising this traditional and ancient form of healing, but they are hard to find. There is/was also the ‘barr a’chian’ – the ‘top of the head’, which involves winding red threads round the neck while reciting a charm to drive evil spirits out through the top of the head. 

"Brighde of the Isles" - Jill Smith

Brighde of the Isles – Jill Smith

In the Islands the reverence for Brighde was so strong that with the coming of Christianity she retained her female identity as a saint among so many that were male. She was not eclipsed by Mary, mother of Christ, though she was often known as Mary of the Gaels. The goddess Brighde is but lightly concealed in the legends and stories of St. Bridget. As St. Bride with her Gaelic identity, she took on a Christian role which brought biblical events and characters to the Islands themselves in a kind of Gaelic life of Christ; while on the other hand Brighde herself was often transported to take part in events in biblical lands. She was known as the ‘knee-woman’ or ‘aid-woman’ of Mary and then became the foster-mother of Christ.

Because of this, she was invoked to aid and protect at times of birth, the human aid-women going to the door and, standing on the threshold, calling to Bride to enter the room and give aid to the women in labour. These Christian stories surely replaced legends of the goddess, some possibly even connected to the birth of lunar cycles or astrological eras.

The mother of Bride was said to have given birth to her while carrying a pitcher of milk and in this milk she gave her her first bath. Bride was then said to have been raised on the milk of a white red-eared cow. Here we have the moon goddess/milk goddess fed by an Otherworld/faerie cow whose white was of the full moon and whose red was the light of the eclipse of the moon, fed with the knowledge of lunar eclipse cycles!

As this ancient moon/milk mother goddess evolved into the saint, her goddess connection to the Celtic festival of Imbolc/Oimelc, which means ‘ewe’s milk’, or some say ‘parturition’, on January 31/February 1, evolved into St. Bride’s connection with the Christian Candlemass on February 2nd. At the time of the year when ewes begin to give birth and come into milk, this sacred fluid makes it the most special time for the milk goddess. Bride is also connected with ‘milk-yielding’ plants which are sacred to her. For example, the dandelion is called in Gaelic ‘beannan Bride’ or ‘the little notched plant of Bride’ and its milk-like sap is food for the early lambs.

Until comparatively recently, Brighde’s Day was greatly celebrated in the Highlands and Islands. In the High lands, the young girls made a figure of Brighde from a sheaf of corn, usually oats. They dressed and decorated her with sparkly shells and crystals and any small flowers and greenery growing at that time of year. A very bright shell or crystal was placed over her heart. This was called ‘reul iuil Brighde’, ‘the guiding star of Bride’. The girls, dressed in white with their hair down, carried the Brighde in a procession, singing a song to her and visiting every house. Everyone was expected to revere her and make an offering of shell, crystal or flower to her. Mothers gave her a Brighde bannock, cheese or roll of butter. Finally they went to one house to make a feast, the men being allowed in after a while. Much of the food was kept and distributed later to the poor.

In another tradition, the older women of each household made a cradle called the bed of Bride. They made a figure of her from a sheaf of oats and decorated her with ribbons, shells and crystals. One woman went to the door, stood on the step or threshold, put her hands on the door-jambes and called softly in Gaelic “Brighde’s bed is ready”. Another woman said “Bride, come in, thy welcome is truly made”. In so doing, they invoked the spirit of Brighde and she was truly present in the figure they had made.

They placed Brighde in the bed with a straight white wand beside her (the ‘slachdan Brighde’). This was usually of birch, broom, bramble, white willow or other sacred wood stripped of its bark. Then they smoothed over the ashes of the hearth, protecting them from draughts. In the morning they eagerly examined the ashes. They were very pleased if they found the mark of Brighde’s wand, but were overjoyed if they found her actual footprint, as that proved she was truly with them that night and they would have good fortune throughout the coming year.

Throughout the Celtic lands there are many healing wells dedicated to Bride, but in the Northern Hebridean islands, since the coming of the Reformed Church, there are few wells with dedications to saints. However, there is one modest but beautiful well dedicated to Bride on a croft above the sea in the small village of Melbost, Borve, on the north-west of Lewis on the way up to Ness. Nearby are the ruins of a tiny chapel and some stones which may have been part of a burial ground. Very little is known of the chapel or the well. Martin Martin mentions the chapel of ‘St. Brigit in Barove’ and it was noted by the Ordnance Survey as ‘Teampull Bhrighid’.

I used to visit the well each year at Imbolc. It seems to be a natural spring of beautiful, clear, clean water which flows down towards the sea. It is a beautiful spot, a wonderful place from which to watch the sun set over the sea at Imbolc, when the waves crash on the rocks and rattle the stones of the shore; when the oyster-catcher (symbol of Brighde) struts and flies nearby and the sun rises again over the land. When there is a full moon at Imbolc, it is like entering another realm, and when the moon is crescent it is like the horseshoe forged by Brighde the smith, or the horns of Brighde’s cow. Sometimes, if you are really lucky, there may even be the magical curtains of the Aurora Borealis wafting over the Northern skies, shifting one very, very close to that Otherworld. Brighde is very close here, and she and the power of her land fill the heart even more than usual at her special time of year.

This article is taken from the new book “Mother of the Isles” by Jill Smith. [Dor Dama Press, 2002]

Details from Meyn Mamvro Publications, 51 Cam Bosavern, St. Just, Penzance, Cornwall TR197QX.

Paintings by Jill Smith