The Goddess in the Landscape of Scotland

by Stuart McHardy

At Calanais Stone Circle on the Isle of Lewis, the moon at its standstill rises over the reclining shape in the landscape known as the cailich na mointich, “the old woman of the moors” [see articles in GA8 p.10-11 & GA10 p.2-4]. This figure is not the only one in the Scottish landscape, and not the only Cailleach. The name with the original meaning of the ‘hooded or veiled one’ in time became the Gaelic term for a Christian nun, which is ironic, for in her earlier guise she was the Mother Goddess.

Ben Nevis, home of the Cailleach

The Cailleach is associated in story with Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, from where she was said to ride out with her eight sister hags, each of them equipped with a hammer or wand, with which they struck the earth causing it to freeze. On Ben Nevis is alt-na-caillich, or ‘stream of the Cailleach’ that runs into Glen Dobhnaidh, a name reminiscent of Corca Duibhne, ‘the seed of the Goddess’, the name that the population of the Dingle peninsula in western Ireland use to describe themselves.

Another story of Ben Nevis states that the Cailleach, the manifestation of winter in traditional lore, keeps the beautiful young and fertile Bride, symbol of summer, imprisoned on the mountain till she can keep her no longer and the world bursts into spring anew.

Schiehallion, the breast-shaped mountain

Within this story we have the bare outlines of what I believe was a fundamental part of ancient pagan belief, the remnants of which are still clearly visible in Scotland’s landscape today. The Cailleach is known in many traditional tales as the creator of the landscape, a clear sign of original mythology, and as at Ben Nevis she is also the weather worker supreme. As the oldest being, the first born, she also has other attributes, as we shall see. Other mountains are associated with her, probably the best known being Schiehallion, which has a clear peak shape, not unlike that of the female breast.

The name Schiehallion has been translated as the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians one of the names for the original inhabitants of Scotland used by the Romans, a name virtually interchangeable with the term Picts. Schiehallion can be seen from a great distance, even from Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh over sixty miles away. Calton Hill is the site of modern Beltane celebrations during which 300 hundred voluntary performers celebrate the ending of the dreich Scottish winter and the (hoped-for) season of warmth and new growth with drumming, fire performance, revelry, and a ritualised procession round the hill.

Schiehallion’s shape is also echoed in other places. Lochnagar on Deeside is the site of an annual mid-summer sunrise pilgrimage, and is notable for having not only its own alt-na-cailleach, but also Casteal Caillach, ‘the Cailleach’s castle’, as well as two prominent breast-shaped peaks, which gave it its original name of Beinn na Ciochan – ‘the mountain of the nipples or paps’. It is thought that the name was changed when Queen Victoria bought the area to create the hunting estate of Balmoral! Because the glens around Lochnagar were so thoroughly cleared of their people to develop Victorian shooting estates we have little record of what stories survived here about the Cailleach, but there can be little doubt that they did exist. One story that does survive dates from 1838 – as told to author William Scrope in the book Days of Deer Stalking. Two men out stalking deer were caught in a blizzard and came across an old shieling hut in the mountains. They were greeted by an old woman who seemed to be expecting them, and fed them and gave them shelter. In the morning they rose to find themselves in a building that had clearly not been lived in for many years. Of the old woman there was no sign.

The name Beinn na Ciochan was shared with another peak now known as Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. The prominent nipple shape on the top of Bennachie is today known as Mither Tap (Mother Top) but was in the past called Mither Pap.

Mither Tap (Pap), the peak to the right

The massif also has a host of interesting places, including the Maiden Stone at the foot of Bennachie, a well-known Pictish symbol stone. The maiden corresponds to Bride, and the Picts seem to have been aware of the Cailleach and her counterpart Bride.

Other notable Paps are the Paps of Fife, East and West Lomond Hills, the latter of which has the more rounded contours of the older female while the former is more peaked and like the breast of a young girl. It is perhaps worth speculating that these two hills linked by a long ridge might represent a similar kind of duality/polarity that occurs in the Cailleach/ Bride pairing. This pairing, which survives in what were once Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, is echoed in stories and place names by the Carlin/Maiden in Scots-speaking areas. The term Cioch, Gaelic for pap or nipple, occurs in many places, but it is also notable that there are many Pap names within the Gaelic areas.

The breast-shaped Paps of Jura

One of the most significant of these are the Paps of Jura, three breast-shaped mountains clearly visible in good weather from the sea route used by megalithic travellers up Scotland’s west coast.

There is a Cailleach story linked to a place name on one of these Paps, and close by on the eastern coast of the island there are Bride and Cailleach placenames at opposite ends of Craigshouse Bay. The name Jura is originally Norse and means Deer Island. In many traditional stories from the west the deer are known as cattle of the Cailleach. There is also some evidence of deer-priestesses in pagan times, and the link between the deer and the Goddess is known in other parts of Europe, as noted by Marija Gimbutas. In this light it is also interesting that the Picts in the east used the deer symbol extensively on their Symbol Stones, including several instances that would appear to be deer masks. The association of the deer with fertility exists in many cultures, the Abbot’s Bromley deer dance being a clear instance in England. Jura also has a traditional tale that tells of Seven Big women, who might very well originally have been one of the widespread groups of Nine Maidens.

North Berwick Law, the Cailleach's pooh!

Other notable Paps are the Paps of Lothian, which are North Berwick Law and Arthur’s Seat. North Berwick Law is a striking breast-shaped peak seen for great distances, and was said to have been defecated by the Cailleach herself! North Berwick was notably the location of the coven which led to the most famous of the Scottish witch trials, when they tried to drown King James VI, who later became James I of England.

Arthur’s Seat has been said by some to be a late name introduced after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain became popular. There are references to sleeping warriors within the hill, exactly as at other places elsewhere in the landscape. As the population of that area, the Gododdin, were a pre-Celtic speaking people, it would only be natural for them to have the same traditions as the other early British & Welsh speakers, and local names and stories referring to Arthur in Scotland are at least as authentic as those in Wales and Cornwall. In fact, the semi-historical Arthur of the fifth century is more likely to have been active in central Scotland than anywhere else.

What is clear is that these peak-shaped mountains and hills have a series of associations through place names and mythological and legendary material that suggests they were seen as being of significance in pre-Christian times. This I suggest is simply because the belief in the Mother as creatrix of the earth meant that people saw such obviously female shapes in the landscapes as being sacred because She had created them to be seen. There is a great deal of evidence to support the idea of the Goddess in the landscape, some of which refers to geophysical locations reminiscent of the female breasts and pudenda.

Traces of this Goddess motif can be found in the use of the serpent and the cauldron on Pictish symbol stones. The cauldron is a symbol of fertility and regeneration in both Welsh and Irish early traditional material and later is associated with witchcraft. I suggest that the Pictish cauldrons appears to suggest the same concept as the cauldrons of regeneration in the Welsh Mabinogian – and may well refer to the Goddess as the Cailleach.

Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Scotland

The serpent, which occurs on quite a few Pictish stones, is associated with Bride in several ancient Gaelic prayers. The serpent with its ability to slough its skin and hibernate in the earth has been used as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration in many cultures. In several locations in Scotland the story has survived that at Beltain the Cailleach goes before dawn to a particular sacred well and drinks from it, and then changes into Bride. This is a direct example of the duality/polarity already referred to, as is the fact that most Cailleach place names are on high points in the landscape, while the Bride place names are generally in low-lying areas.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool

Finally, there is the Goddess association with the Corryvreckan, the whirl-pool between Jura and the small island of Scarba to the north. The name of this whirlpool, one of only seven major geo-physical events of its type on the whole of our planet, originates from Corrie Bhreachain, the cauldron of the breacan or plaid. This is where the Cailleach is said to have come at the beginning of winter to wash her plaid or traditional one-piece garment. This takes place in October/November and the sound of the Corryvreckan at this time can be heard for over 20 miles away. The whirlpool eddies that form on the surface of the Gulf of Corryvreckan are still known in Gaelic lore as the breath of the Goddess under the waters.

The eddies are thrown into the advancing Atlantic tide by the power of the whirlpool, caused by a great underwater spike of the south shore of Scarba which is called An Cailleach. This sounds very like Hvergelmer, the Roaring Cauldron of Norse Mythology where the Nine Maidens of the Mill grind out the physical universe from the bodies of the Ice Gods defeated in battle by Odin and the Norse Gods at the beginning of time. Hverlgeimer has a great spike in it called Veraldar Nagh round which the World Mill turns.

In the hills and mountains of Scotland and in the Hebrides, we can still see remnants of the ancient belief in the Goddess today.

A full list of 125 Bridget sites in Scotland with map locations by Heather Upfield can be found at: