Posted by: Brian | March 25, 2012

Latha na Cailliche (March 25th)

March 25 is Latha na Cailliche (Day of the Old Woman) in Scottish lore, so I would like to explore the Cailleach in this blog entry.

So, who is this goddess, this Cailleach? In Scottish follore, stretch marks – whether on young men who have grown quickly, or women’s breast, or those associated with pregnancy – are seen as evidence of her antipathy to life. They are the marks of the Cailleach’s claws as she tries to hold down the life and vitality that is rising up.

And in parts of Scotland, each river is even said to have a Cailleach, and a certain number of drowning victims each year are said to be her due.

But is this all she is, a mean spirited goddess who inflicts stretch marks and drowns people?

The Cailleach is a rich, complex, and often disturbing personage in Irish and Scottish spirituality. She is an old woman, sometimes benign and sometimes monstrous. She goes through cyclical periods of old-age and youth. She can represent the wilds, the land, the sea, whirl-pools, storms, the harvest, winter, darkness, and death. The Cailleach is that which is ‘outside’. And the Cailleach is that which is hidden or in-between; the occluded or liminal aspects of nature, culture, and the cycles of life.  Her symbols include the owl – usually understood as a bad omen – as well as the sharp-leafed holly, and certain boulders or stone formations.

In contrast to, yet emergent from, this ‘portfolio’ of the dire and the difficult, the Cailleach is a Sovereignty goddess who upholds righteous kingship; the Cailleach is the disenfranchised and the dispossessed; the Cailleach is a source of ancient wisdom.

Since, there is much more to say than can be accommodated in a single blog post, this entry will explore two potential etymologies of her title; times of the year sacred to her; a tiny bit about her role; and why she matters in our lives today.


The word cailleach, literally means ‘old woman’ or ‘nun’, from caille, ‘veil’. Many have suggested that this word is ultimately derived from Latin, pallium, i.e. cloak, cover or veil. This would make the word a fairly late arrival, and would beg the question of whether or not the Cailleach herself emerges in medieval folklore rather than ancient myth. Alternatively, I would suggest that caille goes back directly the the Proto-Indo-European ‘*Kolyo‘. Bruce Lincoln, following the reconstruction of Hermann Güntert, suggests that this ‘*Kolyo‘, meaning ‘the coverer’, is a PIE goddess who is half maiden / half grotesque governing the realm of death, but also the life which is sustained by death. He suggests the name is preserved in Norse Hel and Greek Calypso. And whileLincoln does not mention the Cailleach specifically, the connection is clear. It would share the meaning of ‘veil’ as in ‘to cover’ but not require the Christian context to provide an origin for this very un-Christian personage.

And while I am no linguist, I can’t help but conjecture another etymology for the Cailleach; what if it is rooted not in caille but rather from caill, which means ‘loss’. As an ancient and post-menopausal woman, the Cailleach has lost her fertility and can be compared linguistically to caillteanach, ‘eunuch’ who has also clearly lost something.

And to add to this linguistic muddle, we also have words like the Irish cáithleach or Scottish càileach, both meaning ‘husk’, which could point to either a cover or a loss, but is likely rooted in càth meaning ‘bag’, ‘pod’ but also ‘spent’ or ‘cast’.


There are many times associated with the Cailleach. On the west coast of Scotland, the Cailleach is said to usher in winter by washing her great plaid in the whirlpool of Coire Bhreacain. This process takes three days, during which time the roar of the coming storm can be heard even miles inland. When she is done, her plaid is pure white and snow covers the land. Likewise, as a personification of winter, her season is often said to begin at Samhain (Nov 1st), but customs related to her begin much earlier than that, in the harvest season.

While there is a huge amount of regional and historical variation, at harvest time, a special sheaf was often made into a corn dolly. In some parts of Ireland and Scotland, the dollies were maidens, in others, hags. In some places, the dollies were maidens if the harvest was good and hags if the harvest was bad. In some places the dollies were not human shaped at all, but in the form of hares or mares, both of which have goddess or Cailleach associations. And in still other places, special sheaves were woven into a diverse range of loops, knots, and twists that served as dollies, even though they are not dolly-shaped at all. Regardless, these images were taken into the home at the end of harvest and maintained in a special place for the winter. In the spring, the dollies were either ploughed into the fields or fed to the plough horse.

So, even though there is tremendous variation in the physical form of the harvest Cailleach dollies and the informal ritual patterns associated with them, the spiritual significance of last sheaf practices is very consistent: The spirit of the harvest, and the life affirming power of the growing season lived in the crop, and the harvest effectively made this power homeless. Therefore, fashioning shapes from the last sheaf of wheat (or other cereal crop) would create a vehicle for this power. Thus abundance was kept safe through the winter, both for the well being of next year’s crop, and also to garner ‘luck’ in exchange for caring for the harvest Cailleach through the winter.

More negative variations on this custom have the corn dolly made from the last sheaf of the first local field to complete the harvest. It would then be passed on to each farmer in turn as they completed their harvest, so that the last one finished had to keep this Cailleach as a punishment for sloth. Here, the implicit function of maintaining the fertility of the land through the winter remains, but is overshadowed (whether seriously or in play) by a sort of moral judgment and a hint of danger.

This danger is not unwarranted, for in addition to the fertility and abundance symbolised by the corn-dolly Cailleach, she is also the power of winter itself. Many stories depict the arrival of the Cailleach to some king or hero’s house on Samhain night or in the cold darkness of winter. Likewise there are Scottish tales that have the Cailleach capturing the goddess, Bride, and keeping her captive until Aengus (typically her brother, but here depicted as a suitor) frees her from the Cailleach’s clutches through fierce combat. In this the “Cailleach does not lay down her sceptre without a struggle. It is she who raises the storms of spring, and in the period known as A Chailleach she makes her final effort to arrest growth. Latha na Cailleach, the Auld Wife’s Day…is the traditional date of her final overthrow.”

In fact, each week of March, notorious for unpredictable weather, has a name related to the Cailleach. Marion MacNeill lists them as the Sweeper, the Whistler, the Sharp-billed One, and A Chailleach. Likewise, John Campbell, though also linking March with the Cailleach, lists these weeks as Feadag (the Whistle), Gobag (the Sharp-billed One), Sguabag (the Sweeper), and lastly Gearran (the Gelding or Complaint). Interestingly however, D.A. Mackenzie uses the same names in the same order, to refer not to the weeks, but rather to the winds which the Cailleach uses in combat against Angus, after he rescues Bride from her.

Even later in the year, there are Bealtaine (May 1st) customs associated with the Cailleach. For example, in Glen Lyon, Perthshire, there is a special set of customs which are enacted at Samhain and Bealtaine even to this day. In the valley of Gleann Cailliche, there is a small shrine called Tigh na Cailliche, ‘House of the Hag’. Every year at Samhain, three stones known as the Cailleach, the Bodach, and the Nighean (the Hag, the Churl, and the Daughter), are placed inside their ‘house’ (i.e. the shrine); and every year at Bealtaine, these stones are taken out again, to enjoy the warmer seasons. It is said, that so long as the locals perform this simple act, the Cailleach will insure good weather and good crops.

Moving from Scottish folk customs, to Scottish folk tales, it is at Bealtaine that the Cailleach traditionally either regains her youth, by bathing in a certain lake sacred to her (the exact lake varies by region and story), or turns to a pillar of stone, after throwing her wand or mallet under a holly bush.

In other Bealtaine celebrations, the Cailleach is remembered by the male participants drawing lots (usually oat cakes, one of which is scorched) out of a woman’s bonnet. The loser would have to wear the bonnet and be symbolically driven away, as a scapegoat representing winter and all inauspicious things.

Sometimes a show was made of capturing this Cailleach and pretending to throw him (now her) into the fire; but someone would intervene and the unlucky person would then jump over the fire three times to be purified, and so returned to his normal state. In other parts ofEuropea straw effigy of a “witch” is burned around this time, which clearly holds similar symbolism.

Bealtaine processions might even be led by a hobby horse, a man-in-black, and a man cross-dressed in the clothes of an old woman – a fuller manifestation of what is merely hinted at with the bonnet custom above. On theIsle of Man, this procession was divided into two rival parties, one led by the Cailleach and the other by a beautiful young woman elected as the May Queen. These parties would engage in a mock combat, with the powers of summer driving away the powers of winter so that summer could arrive.

This particular image clearly represents the Cailleach, not only as winter, but through cross-dressing, as both liminal and ‘other’.


While this exploration of the Cailleach through the seasons has touched upon some neutral or even benevolent aspects of the Cailleach’s nature, the overriding tone is one of danger and strangeness. So, to balance that out a little, I will conclude with a story that emphasises her potential as an ally.

The story of Niall and the Hag is a just a portion of a larger and richer tale, but in the interest of space I will make due with an excerpt. Niall is a semi-historical king who lived in the fourth and fifth century CE, but this story takes place just before his rise to power:

Once, long ago and far away, Niall was hunting with his four half-brothers, all sons of Eochaid Mugmedón, High King of Ireland.They had set up camp in a glade when they realized they had no water. So one by one his brothers went in search of water, but each came back harrowed and shaken. Finally, Nial said he would go. In this way he came upon a well of bright and shining stone, upwelling with lustrous water. But between him and the well was a bluish Hag of horrific aspect. Her teeth were like green sickles and her claws like grey scythes. Her knees and elbows were black and her hair was like bracken in winter.When he asked to approach the well for water, she said, “You may have as much water as you like, young prince, but first you must kiss me; even as your kindred could not.”Niall, at first was silent, then braced himself and said, “I’ll give you kiss, and more. I will lie with you.”

He sank down to the grass with her, steeling himself to fulfill his word.

But, with their limbs entwined, all of a sudden, all had changed. There with him was not a hag, but a beautiful maiden with golden hair and fair white form.

Looking into his eyes, she said to him, “And so you have seen me: at first fearsome, wolfish, terrifying, and at last beautiful. This is Sovereignty: for it is not attained without battle and conflict; but at last it is fair and gracious to everyone.”

Not long after, Niall became High King of Ireland and founded the Uí Néill dynasty, which would dominateIrelandfor the next 6 centuries. Included in this illustrious line would be Diarmait Mac Cerbaill, who ruled from 545-568; the last pagan high king ofIreland.

Other tales of Sovereignty goddesses, whether or not they bear this changing ‘loathly lady’ motif, emphasis the need for the king to be virtuous lest she abandon him for another more suitable candidate.

I think this story can help us make sense of the Cailleach, in all her ambiguity, paradox, change, treacherousness, generosity, and unknowable-ness. And, while we have barely scratched the surface of all the lore associated with her, I hope it gives some sense of her importance. To me, even this little bit speaks of her as an embodiment of the world itself. Like living in general, and hard times in particular, she brings us face to face with the basic facts of life and our finite nature; asking us to exceed who we have been. As all primordial or natural phenomena, she is a tremendous, amoral power, who nonetheless demands a moral response. Perhaps the Cailleach personifies existence itself, not as we perceive it, but as it really is – summoning us, in return, to become who we really are.

Some further reading:


  1. […] is a short Film in honour of Latha na Cailliche (March […]

  2. Very interesting! The themes explored here tend to be more relevant to the Scottish Cailleach than to her (various) Irish counterparts – my particular interest is in Baoi, from the Beara Peninsula – but it’s fascinating to explore the overlaps and cross-sections between these sovereignty figures.

  3. […] Latha na Cailiche- Brian Walsh […]

  4. […] March 25 – Latha na Cailliche: While the festival is Scottish in origin there is no reason why followers of Gentlidecht can’t also make offerings to her as she is found in Ireland as Cailleach Beara.  Being a goddess associated with the winter and storms it may not be a bad idea. Brian Walsh goes into some detail on his blog. […]

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