Monday, 29 March 2010

Latha na Caillich - notes

I've been trying to find some good sources on Latha na Caillich - something definitive on its origins and any customs associated with it - but I've not come up with much, other than passing mentions. On the one hand this is pretty much what I expected. On the other, it's a little frustrating.

I was hoping to get something down in writing before the day, but life got in the way of that plan...Seeing as I haven't got much, I thought I'd share the few resources I've found, in quote form, for anyone who's interested in hunting up some information on the day.

While it's referred to as Latha na Caillich(e), March 25th, it also coincides with Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation (when the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she is with child). Before 1600, March 25th was the official New Year in Scotland, and the 'official', fixed date for the Spring equinox. In England, Lady Day was the spring quarter day, which was marked at the beginning of February in Scotland, so the dating may have some English influence in terms of marking the start of spring proper. Carmichael notably makes no mention of Latha na Caillich, and instead has Mary or Bride as the agent of spring who finally defeats the cold.

It seems that much of the lore surrounding the season was meant to determine when it was best to start the sowing of certain crops that needed to avoid frost, or else marking when the danger of storms at sea had passed and everyone could be a little more confident of returning home with a good catch.

Seeing as Latha na Caillich comes from Scottish tradition, the sources are naturally skewed to Scotland, but I've found a few notes on Lady Day in Ireland as well, which I've included for comparison. Seeing as I've already posted Grant's notes on the Cailleach from Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, I won't post them again here, but they're worth a read for some context, since MacKenzie makes mention of it below.

The excerpts I've given are listed in chronological order, with Scottish sources and then Irish references to Lady Day. And so without further ado:

Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride's Day and to flee for its life on Patrick's Day. There is a saying:--

'Chuir Bride miar ’s an abhuinn
La na Feill Bride
Is dh’ fhalbh mathair ghuir an fhuachd,
Is nigh i basan anns an abhuinn
La na Feill Padruig
Is dh’ fhalbh mathair ghin an fhuachd.'
Bride put her finger in the river
On the Feast Day of Bride
And away went the hatching mother of the cold,
And she bathed her palms in the river
On the Feast Day of Patrick
And away went the conception mother of the cold,

Another version says:--

'Chuir Brighid a bas ann,
Chuir Moire a cas ann,
Chuir Padruig a chiach fhuar ann.' (?)
Bride put her palm in it,
Mary per her foot in it,
Patrick put the cold stone in it,

alluding to the decrease in cold as the year advances. In illustration of this is-- 'Chuir Moire meoirean anns an uisge La Fheili Bride is thug i neimh as, ’s La Fheill Padruig nigh i lamhan ann ’s dh’ fhalbh am fuachd uil as,' Mary put her fingers in the water on Bride's Feast Day and the venom went out of it, and on Patrick's Feast Day she bathed her hands in it and all the cold went out of it.

According to some people, 'cailleach' as a period of time is the first week of April, and is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper, hurrying about with a magic wand in her withered hand switching the grass and keeping down vegetation, to the detriment of man and beast. When, however, the grass, upborne by the warm sun, the gentle dew and the fragrant rain, overcomes the 'cailleach' she flies into a terrible temper, and throwing away her wand into the root of a whin bush, she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion till the beginning of April comes in again, saying, as she goes:

Dh' fhag e mhan mi, dh' fhag e 'n ard mi
Dh' fhag e eadar mo dha lamh mi,
Dh' fhag e bial mi, dh' fhag e cul mi,
Dh' fha e eadar mo dha shul mi.

Dh' fhag e shios mi, dh' fhag e shuas mi,
Dh' fhag e eadar mo dha chluas mi,
Dh' fhag e thall mi, dh' fhag e bhos mi,
Dh' fhag e eadar mo dha chos mi.

Thilg mi 'n slacan druidh donai,
Am bun preis crin cruaidh conuis,
Far nach fas norm no foinnidh,
Ach fracan froinnidh feurach.'

It escaped me below, it escaped me above,
It escaped me between my two hands,
It escaped me before, it escaped me behind,
It escaped me between my two eyes.

It escaped me down, it escaped me up,
It escaped me between my two ears,
It escaped me thither, it escaped me hither,
It escaped me between my two feet.

I threw my druidic evil wand,
Into the base of a withered hard whin bush,
Where shall not grow 'fionn' nor 'fionnidh,'
But fragments of grassy 'froinnidh.'

With these random references I desire to introduce waders of the Celtic Review to a wind-hag, who is called 'Gentle Annie' by the fisher-folk in my native town of Cromarty. The name is at once amusing and suggestive. A Christy Minstrel ditty has given 'Gentle Annie' a sentimental reputation, but whether the author of the love-song was responsible for the name, or found it in current use, I am unable to determine. It may be noted, however, that among sea-faring people all over Scotland, the curious phrase is still used, 'Don't come the Gentle Annie over me.'

The term 'gentle' also recalls 'peace-folk,' 'good folk,' and 'gentle folk,' as applied to the fairies who, being feared, were referred to in complimentary terms.

Gentle Annie is feared most in the spring-time. During the rest of the year the south-west wind is 'gentle' enough. The Cromarty fisher-people refer to the spring equinox as 'Gentle Annie weather.' During that stormy period, which 'lasts sometimes for six weeks,' they cannot go to sea and food is very scarce. 'We'11 have to be keeping a shilling or twa beside us for the time o' Gentle Annie,' a shrewd fisher-woman remarked to the Writer.

The Cromarty Firth is a well-known harbour of refuge. It is land-locked. Great headlands rise at the entrance, and the northern shore is fringed by undulating hills. The firth is securely protected from easterly and northerly winds. But when the south-west gale rages furiously, a part of the firth is exceedingly dangerous, because the wind, blows in spasmodic gusts from a gap between the mountains.  
There is one particular point below the coastguard station which is feared by the fisher people, because there the tide runs strong, and the gusts sweep off the land with great fury. It is called 'the heel of Ness,' and it juts out into the firth like a crab's toe. So greatly is this point feared that even when a moderate south-westerly wind is blowing the sails of small boats are not infrequently lowered until the 'heel' is rounded. The eastward crook of the firth may be comparatively smooth during an 'Annie' gale, while to the west of 'heel of Ness' the waves are flecked with white foam which, by the way, is called the feather in Gentle Annie's hat.'

The twenty-fifth of the month is the English Law term, "Ladyday" - known in Gaelic as Là-Caillich. The stormy period of Cailleach is somewhat later, and will be considered when we come to deal with the month of April.
'Notes on the Celtic Year,' The Celtic Monthly, March 1912, Volume 20.

One after another, on each of the three days that followed, the spirits went forth riding the black hogs. They brought snow and hail and fierce blasts of wind. Snow whitened the moors and filled the furrows of ploughed land, rivers rose in flood, and great trees were shattered and uprooted. The duck was killed, and so were her six ducklings; sheep and cattle perished, and many human beings were killed on land and drowned at sea. The days on which these things happened are called the "Three Hog Days".

Beira's reign was now drawing to a close. She found herself unable to combat any longer against the power of the new life that was rising in every vein of the land. The weakness of extreme old age crept upon her, and she longed once again to drink of the waters of the Well of Youth. When, on a bright March morning, she beheld Angus riding over the hills on his white steed, scattering her fierce hag servants before him, she fled away in despair. Ere she went she threw her magic hammer beneath a holly tree, and that is the reason why no grass grows under the holly trees.

Beira's black steed went northward with her in flight. As it leapt over Loch Etive it left the marks of its hoofs on the side of a rocky mountain, and the spot is named to this day "Horse-shoes". She did not rein up her steed until she reached the island of Skye, where she found rest on the summit of the "Old Wife's Ben" (Ben-e-Caillich) at Broadford. There she sat, gazing steadfastly across the sea, waiting until the day and night would be of equal length. All that equal day she wept tears of sorrow for her lost power, and when night came on she went westward over the sea to Green Island. At the dawn of the day that followed she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth.

On that day which is of equal length with the night, Angus came to Scotland with Bride, and they were hailed as king and queen of the unseen beings. They rode from south to north in the morning and forenoon, and from north to south in the afternoon and evening. A gentle wind went with them, blowing towards the north from dawn till midday, and towards the south from midday till sunset.

It was on that day that Bride dipped her fair white hands in the high rivers and lochs which still retained ice. When she did so, the Ice Hag fell into a deep sleep from which she could not awake until summer and autumn were over and past.

The grass grew quickly after Angus began to reign as king. Seeds were sown, and the people called on Bride to grant them a good harvest. Ere long the whole land was made beautiful with spring flowers of every hue.

The Cailleach Bheur is in the folk-stories associated with the coldest and stormiest period of the year. She is called "the daughter of Grianan" or Grianaig" - that is, of the "little sun". In the old Celtic calendar the "big sun" shines during the period from Beltane (1st May) till Hallowe'en, and the "little sun" is the sun of the winter period. "Daughter of the little sun" does not mean, however, that the sun was either her father or mother, but simply that she was born during the cold season.
p137, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.

The period of spring called A' Chailleach is the one in which she pauses to prepare for her final effort in arresting growth, as is usually explained in the ceilidh's (house 'gossipings'). The 'daughter of the little sun' of winter had been an active influence since her revival at Hallowe'en.
p141, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.

Mrs Grant refers to Latha na Caillich (Cailleach Day), 25th March (old style), as the date of the Cailleach's overthrow. Until December, 1599, 25th March was New Year's Day and is now 'Lady Day'.

Some folk stories tell that before the Cailleach had ceased her activities her son pursued her, riding a swift horse. According to Mrs Grant, the Cailleach, having in her final storm caused the death of the wild duck and newly-hatched ducklings 'put out her eye'. Other versions heard by the writer state that her eye was 'put out' by her the winter state that her eye was 'put out' by her son. To escape destruction at his hands, she transforms herself into 'a grey stone looking across the sea.'
p143, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.

The writer has heard references to the pursuit of the Cailleach by her son beginning when the day and night are of equal length. In the west this period, 17th to 29th arch, the "middle day", is known as Feill Paruig (St. Patrick's Day) and there is supposed to be a south wind in the morning and a north wind at night. The son who pursues the Cailleach is supplanted by St Patrick, who is said to come from Ireland "to see his parishioners in Barra and other places on the west of Scotland". His wife is a daughter of Ossian, the last of the Fianna (Fians). After this day "the limpet is better than the whelk" and although "horse grow lean, crabs grow fat." Vegetation is reviving. A Gaelic saying is, "There is not a herb in the ground but the length of a mouse's ear of it is out on St. Patrick's Day." High tides comeon St. Patrick's Day. A swelling (tòchadh) in the sea is supposed to be caused by the increasing heat.
p144-145, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.

The writer has heard Highlanders tell of the Cailleach's assistants (na Cailleacha Beura) riding on wolves and wild pigs as storm-bringers. They raise the storms of "the wolf month" (February).
p152, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, MacKenzie, 1935.


At Kilmasteige, Co Sligo, the Lady Days are observed with most scrupulous attention, that is to say, so far as abstaining from all daily labour, or following any trade or calling, although their sanctity does not operate on their minds so as to induce them to refrain from sports and pastimes, cursing or swearing, or frequenting tippling houses and drinking to excess.
p183, British Popular Customs Present and Past, Thiselton-Dyer, 1911.

25 March, the feast of the Annunciation, was a Holiday of Obligation on which the Lenten fast was relaxed although there was in Ireland no extensive erry-making as on St Patrick's Day. It had some legal significance for, until Britain belatedly accepted Pope Gregory's calendar in 1752, the year began officially on 25 March, which was thus of importance as regards contracts, leases, rents and so on.

Apart, however, from its religious and legal significance, it had little effect on popular tradition. High winds were expected on this day, and if it coincided with Easter Sunday people feared that the following harvest would be poor, with consequent scarcity of food.
p67, The Year in Ireland, Danaher, 1972.

This article is also worth a read.

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