My Year of the Cailleach – Part 2
by Jill Smith
It was way back in the ‘70s I first heard of The Cailleach and Bodach House in Glen Lyon, Scotland; and ever since it has fascinated me, being a place where a ritual of not just hundreds, but maybe thousands of years, is still carried out – a place which was remote and difficult to find – maybe ‘hidden’. When my ‘Year of the Cailleach’ manifested as a journey I should carry out in 2012/13, this was one of the places which ‘called’ me. Just at this time my friend Claire Hewitt and her partner Robin turned up unexpectedly at my door – not having seen each other for over 15 years – and I discovered that, not only did they live near Glen Lyon, but Claire had been to The Cailleach’s House and would be happy to take me there.
We made our first attempt in September 2013 on a day of gale force icy winds and horizontal rain with foaming torrents cascading down hillsides in an exhilarating and very real experience of Cailleach. This did,however, create a fast-flowing river which prevented us going the whole way, so we vowed we would go back, better prepared for what we might have to face. The Cailleach had tested us.
We planned this return in early August 2014. The evening before the walk Claire took me to the Birnam Oak, a 500-year-old remnant of the woods made famous in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Although Claire (a clarsach player and storyteller) told me that oaks are usually considered male, I found this one to have the energy of a wise and ancient female. She has a hollow ‘treewomb’ where one can sit and feel close to all the nearby woodland spirits. What things these ancient beings have seen, and how brief our lives are in comparison. She became a rich part of my Cailleach journey.
It was the most glorious day: a blessing, maybe even a reward for fulfilling our promise. After the long trek through Glen Lyon, from where we could see the northern profile of the Gleann Cailliche hillside, which does in fact look like an old woman, we easily crossed the river (Ailt Cailliche) – now but a trickle, and headed up the Gleann itself. Having to cross the river another 3 or 4 times, we realised we had made the right decision on the previous trip. After a long walk on the north side of the river we came round a corner from behind a large rock and at last saw The House ahead of us on a kind of high plateau. To be somewhere I had yearned to visit for such a long time almost overwhelmed me and for a while seemed almost unreal.
There are articles still doing the rounds on the internet warning that Gleann Cailliche is in danger of possible hydro-electric development, but it appears this was some years ago and the person promoting the development has since died. There is no current danger. I had also heard rumours that the tradition – of taking ‘The Family’ out from the house for summer and putting them back for winter – had been discontinued, but this is not so and in fact The House, which was falling a bit into disrepair, was rebuilt last year and now looks splendid with a turf roof, rather like a small St Kildan cleit.
Claire told me that in the days when the glen was used for summer grazings transhumance, the men would go up first at the beginning of May, re-thatch the House and get the Cailleach, Bodach and Family out for the summer, asking for the Cailleach’s blessing on the people and animals who would summer there and asking that their produce would be plentiful. As with other Highland and Island peoples, the time at the summer shielings was a happy experience. The women, children, old people and animals went up to the summer pastures for many weeks, living in small dwellings made of stone or turf. The rich summer milk of the cows was turned into butter and cheese for the winter. The men would carry out tasks in the village: re-thatching houses and planting crops which could get established while the animals were away.
Gleann Cailliche has a lovely energy, perhaps still remembering how alive it once was when it was filled by all those people and animals. When the practice of summer shielings died out, the story is that the tradition of tending the House and the Family was taken over by gypsies, and nowadays there is a strong local community which continues it, going at Beltane to get the Family out for the summer and returning at Samhain to put them back in the House for winter.
So, what are the Cailleach, Bodach and Family? They are stones which have been fashioned by natural forces into dumbbell shapes which look extraordinarily like people. As the Cailleach (old woman) stands in deep conversation with the Bodach (old man), she has an astonishingly powerful life-force both in and around her.
I sat for a while in silent communication with her, giving thanks for the good in my life and asking for blessings on my own family. I laid out a few offerings and at first was reluctant to leave anything there, not wanting to spoil the site, but in the end left an ear of wheat from Wiltshire which had been with me in several Lammas ceremonies. Here I was meeting the Cailleach at Lammas, her energy seeming very beneficent.
I tried to light a small candle at the House entrance, but a breeze blew up meaning I had to light it right inside the House, where it burned strongly. I felt very welcome as I reached inside the structure. I once read that the stones had been shaped by the river, but when I showed photographs to a friend, he said they looked as though they had been rolled under the great glaciers which once ground their way down the glen in the last Ice Age, being dropped when the ice melted. I love the idea that the Cailleach and her Family were already sitting there, guarding the glen, when the first people arrived; people who recognised their sacredness and began the tradition which continues to this day.
Eventually we left, bidding the Family farewell. Turning for a last look back, Claire noticed lenticulate clouds at the end of the glen which echoed the shapes of the stones, especially that of the Bodach. We wound our way back, over the river crossings and along the glens and I was filled with gratitude for the fulfilment of a 40-year dream.
There was one last place which had called me for over a decade and presented itself as the final station on my Cailleach pilgrimage. I needed to do it in October and thought I must leave it until 2015, but the Cailleach insisted that I “do it NOW”, so I explored the possibilities and set it all up, only to once again be ‘tested’ by having to change all my arrangements at the last minute. How strong was my commitment?
This last part of my journey was to experience the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, north of the Isle of Jura. More accurately a Maelstrom, the Coire Bhreachain (Gaelic) is the cauldron of the Cailleach Bheure. As she comes back into her own time she ushers in winter by washing her great plaid in the Corryvreckan. When she has done, the plaid is pure white, the land covered in frost and snow. At spring tides, just after the full moon, the fierce currents of the Gulf of Corryvreckan are flowing in conflicting directions and an underwater rocky pinnacle creates even more turmoil. The water begins to ‘boil’ and form deep whirlpools, the edges being pulled up into walls or great spouts. It is at its fiercest in October.
Though it is best seen from remote parts of the surrounding land, this wasn’t a possibility for me this time, so I had to experience it from a boat trip – better that than not to be there at all! I booked on a ‘Whirlpool Special’ with Sea.fari Adventures and got myself down to the small village of Ellenabeich, by Easdale, which was once part of a famous slate industry. The landscape of the whole area felt strange – great black rocky shapes and hills rising from bracken covered ground in a way I found unusual and rather like the landscapes in Victorian engravings.
Next morning a small group gathered at the RIB before it was completely daylight, got kitted up in voluminous waterproofs and life-jackets, and were off, sitting astride saddle-like seats so that we rode the wild beasts of the waves. It was a gloriously calm day – I had not thought to ask for ‘a little wind’ – and we were taken at first between the Grey Dogs where the water was pouring downhill, and then on to the Corryvreckan itself.
What a powerful and beautiful place! The waters of the gulf flow between two areas of high dark land, much of which was now a deep, rich autumnal red and here begin to ‘boil’. Huge circular areas become mirrorsmooth, surrounded by walls of waves, rise up, and are then sucked right down as though into a giant plughole, creating deep whirlpools over a vast area. The boat sped hither and thither from one whirlpool to another to see them as they formed then were quickly gone. The calm weather meant they were not as high or as fierce as they sometimes can be (the ‘best’ ones being too dangerous for the boat to visit), but it didn’t matter: it was wild and exciting and I was actually out in her cauldron, riding the whirlpools as they boiled.
And then she showed herself to me. Up on one high skyline was her profile, her white/grey hair streaming back as she knelt and watched her cauldron begin to boil in readiness for the great washing of her plaid. At its height the cauldron sounds so loud it can be heard for miles up the coast, but even on this calm day it had a fair old roar. I was so honoured to be there. I had been in her cauldron as it prepared for winter; I had heard its roar; I had seen her kneeling and waiting; I had completed my pilgrimage and fulfilled my commitment to her. A circle had turned.
Stories: Claire Hewitt
Mother of the Isles, Jill Smith. Dor Dama Press 2003. (www.jill-smith.co.uk)
A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland circa 1695 Martin Martin. Birlinn 1994
Sea.fari Adventures – www.seafari.co.uk
The Cailleach at the Corryvreckan – Jill Smith