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The Season of the Witch

David LinternAll Hallows Eve is almost upon us, so it’s time for another seasonal excursion into Scottish mythology. David Lintern braves the cold, twice.

Right at the very end of Glen Lyon, there’s a little shrine called the Tigh Nam Bodach, meaning the house of the father, or old man. And before we go any further, the name Lyon is reckoned to be a corruption of Lugdunum, after Lugh, the Celtic sun god, a character significant in the first chapter in this story, linked at the foot of the page. But we’ve heard enough from the men. Today it’s the turn of the Cailleach.

The Auch Corbetts in autumn, from a 2 day round visiting the 5 Orchy Munros and the Tigh nam Bodach

The Auch Corbetts in autumn, from a 2 day round visiting the 5 Orchy Munros and the Tigh nam Bodach

The Tigh Nam Bodach sits in Gleann Cailliche, the Glen of the Old Woman. It can be combined with a walk to Beinn Mhanach… and to be honest it would make an excursion to this otherwise unspectacular Munro much more interesting. Three eroded water stones represent a family, the third being their brown haired daughter, Nighean. Folk music fans may know of a beautiful traditional tune that takes her name.

This tiny, unassuming monument of wood and stone is still looked after by the local people of the glen. In a low key and private ceremony around the time of the Celtic festivals of Beltane and Samhain, they tuck away the stone family into the house for winter and close up the entrance. In the spring they walk up to the miniature sheiling and bring them out into the sun again. A few years ago, a Perthshire stonemason rebuilt the house and gave it a new wood and turf top hat. The locals also successfully protested against the Auch estate’s plans to build extra hydro infrastructure in this unique place.

The house of the father, in the valley of the mother. 3 stones in front of the house represent the family.

The house of the father, in the valley of the mother. 3 stones in front of the house represent the family.

Forget about the house itself and consider the location – the main player in Celtic mythology is a woman. The Cailleach was the chief aspect of a divine feminine, responsible for the creation and protection of landscape and wild nature for the pre-Christian clans – those who migrated with their cattle twice a year in sync with those same seasonal shifts marked by our current day Halloween – All Hallows Eve – and May Day. In some cases she’s cast as benign, a keeper of deer as cattle, a milkmaid of hinds, or a celtic Francis-of-Assisi-like figure who befriends all wild creatures… but also a mountain maker and weather creator, a destructive Shiva-like deity but as is appropriate for our northerly climes, especially associated with the coming of storms and snow. She is born on All Hallows Eve, when the summer sheilings are shut down for the coming winter.

In this latter role she can be a terrifying one eyed witch or hag, blue faced from the cold and wrapped in a ragged shawl, sometimes leading a coven of crones on giant goats across stormy, cloud streaked skies. She carries a hammer which brings frost wherever it strikes, knocking the peaks and corries into shape. The boulders and screes we associate with glaciation instead tumble from her basket as she works. This elemental dervish must be placated with tributes and offerings, often in the form of venison from the hunt. Even now, people leave small gifts – apples, and less appropriately boiled sweets – at the Tigh nam Bodach. The ground around the shrine is strangely green; whether fertile from past grazing or maybe even from these gifts, I am not sure. For the people of the time, the Cailleach was divine explanation for the fortunes of hunting, weather and the physical geography that surrounded them. Even now she speaks to us all, male and female, who have ever bowed their heads in awe, high on a Scottish hill in a winter storm.

Michael of clan Mcgregor, feeling winter’s pinch on Beinn a’ Bheithir.

Michael of clan Mcgregor, feeling winter’s pinch on Beinn a’ Bheithir.

However, the Cailleach was not immortal – care was required to maintain the symbiotic relationship between human beings and this shape shifting, unpredictable force of nature. Whilst those who offended her could be punished, they in their turn could also symbolically maim or kill her spirit, through the taming of wild landscape. Hamish Brown in his Mountain Walk quotes Duncan Fraser’s Highland Perthshire: “Tigh-nam-Bodach, living all her lone. Born of water, turned to stone”.

For me, the Tigh nam Bodach is the navel in the belly of the highlands, a symbolic telephone line to our mountain forebears. It has a personal resonance too. My own daughter is named closely after the old couple’s kin – I first visited them the day after I found out she was to be born. But while the shrine of the glen is unique in being the only Celtic ritual in Europe that survives in its original form, the Cailleach is omnipresent. Look at your maps with new eyes, heathens! Like all the best archetypes, she’s everywhere and nowhere, the ghost in our machine, completely woven into the fabric of the Scottish landscape.

Ben Cruachan, mothership of the southern highlands.

Ben Cruachan, mothership of the southern highlands.

The Cailleach, in her especially angry blue faced winter conjuring getup – as the Cailleach Bheithir – has a special connection to Ben Cruachan and was said to have been responsible for a well or spring on it’s summit. It was her task to cap the spring each night and uncap it by morning. I’ll return to the significance of this in part 2 – there’s a fairly obvious cyclic relationship between youth, age, ‘brides’, ‘hags’ and the passing of the seasons. For now, old age takes it’s toll one night after a long day of goat driving, and our demigod falls asleep on the job. Water floods the glen and becomes Loch Awe. She’s so mortified by what she has done that she turns to stone – a strange correlation with that family over in Glen Lyon. Today, Ben Cruachan has become the hollow mountain and it’s waters are controlled by a vast underground pump storage hydro scheme. The cailleach has indeed been tamed, turned to stone by man.


But maybe she’s not done quite yet. There’s a connection to her more nefarious side and another hill – Beinn a’ Bheithir, which forms part of the Ballachulish Horseshoe. Apparently, she took up residence here too, although whether she translocated completely after the hydro moved in down the road, or it was a second home all along I’m not sure. I can confirm that our attempt to complete this scrambly ridge last season was met by a proper avalanche ready tantrum, with windslab forming by the second under our feet as we stalled in a freezing gale. We hope to return this winter season to see if she’s in a better mood.

More sorcery in next month’s instalment… until then, read more about Scotland’s mythology here: Road to the Western Lands

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