Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Cailleach Bheur

Given the weather at the moment - gales, torrential rain, slee, hail, flooding - it was a nice coincidence that I finally spotted a copy of a book I've been after for ages, which I was hoping would have some good stuff about the Cailleach. It was a little more than I'd usually spend on a book so Mr Seren said he'd get it me for Christmas - not that we're doing presents for each other, but anyway...

Donald MacKenzie refers to the book a lot in his Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life and he seemed to take a lot of his information from this source, so I had to have it. My efforts in getting my hands on it were frustrated by the fact that I couldn't get it from the library, so hunting down my own copy was the only way to go. It arrived yesterday and I got into it with gusto, and so far I'm really enjoying it - lots of good stuff, and she gives a version of the Cailleach's battle with Spring, but without Bride or Angus in it like MacKenzie has, who really does seem to be the only source for that.

So anyway, I thought it would be good to copy it down for anyone interested. And maybe it would please her so we she'll calm down and we can get some sunshine for once, eh?

"The word Beur, taken simply as it stands, signifies a peak, point, or pinnacle, and may without straining be taken to mean, in its plural form of 'Bheur' (mountain) ridges.

The hag of the ridges, would be a suitable enough appellation for the genius of the mountain tops. There, on the topmost ridges, do the dark herds of Cailleach Bheur congregate. Thence rush the floods in fleecy foam, and snowy cascades leap, for dark clouds and dark billows are her herds of deer; her sheep and goats are fleecy clouds, and also white-crested waves, or seething waters of hill and plain.

The manner in which the word 'beur' is used is illustrated in the following quotation:

leis an dionaiche long,
A' gearradh a h'astar feadh thonn
Gun chùram mar theine nan speur
Troimh bheàrna beur nan neul-

Whose taut barque
Cleaves with a fearless prow unerring her way thro' the bilow,
Like a lightning flash that shoots thro' the gaps of the jagged cloud ridges.

None of these surmises concerning the origin of the name is quite convincing or satisfactory.

The sphere of the Cailleach's influence, and the actions attributed to her are the following: -

With her mallet - 'farachan' - or pestle - 'slachdan' - she beats and pounds the earth till all growth is destroyed; Nature has become torpid.

But about the middle of January Nature shows signs of reviving, and the sun has begun his returning journey. The Cailleach gets alarmed, and summons the 'faoiltich,' wolflings, or wolf-storms; 'faol,' a wolf. Those storms last until the middle of February.

Then follows the third week of February - 'trì lathan gobaig,' three days of 'shark-toothed,' bitter, stinging east winds; and 'trì lathan feadaig,' three days of 'plover-winged,' swift, fitful blasts, careering, rainy winds that are 'the death of sheep and lamb, and get the strong cattle bogged till the flood rolls over their heads.'

Here are the Gaelic words for those last lines.

'S mise 'n fheadag luirigineach luath;
Marbhaidh mi 'chaora, marbhaidh mi 'n t-uan;
Cuiridh mi a' bho' mhòr 's an toll
Gus am bi an tonn thar a ceann.

Then comes the last week of the month, 'Seachdain a' Ghearrain.' The name is variously interpreted. Some have supposed it to mean a week of sighing, moaning winds, from 'gearan,' complaining. Others take it to denote 'Ploughing Week,' from 'gearran,' a colt. A third party surmise that the name comes from 'geàrr-shion,' short, sudden squalls. But those who suggest this rendering place the week between the 15th of March and the 11th of April. Ploughing week is probably the true interpretation.

The first week of March is marked by temporary blasts of foul weather and flying showers - 'Sgarraichean na Feill Connain' - St. Conan Storms. The second week is marked by tempestuous weather, squally and inclement, 'Doirionn na Feill Padruig' - St. Patrick gales.

Then the Cailleach becomes desperate over her want of success. Despite her efforts to keep the earth hard by beating it with her mallet, despite her storming, the grass waxes, buds appear, and the blossoms peep from beneath their hoods. The Cailleach exclaims

Dh'fhàg e shios mi, dh'fhàg e shuas mi;
Dh'fhàg e eadar mo dhà chluais mi;
Dh'fhàg e thall mi, dh'fhàg e bhos mi;
Dh'fhàg e eadar mo dhà chois mi!

Shootings her and sprouting there,
It eludes me everywhere;
Overhead and underfoot
Bud and blade blossom shoot.

The brave, little wild duck taunts the Cailleach - "Despite thy shrivelling, stinging-cold little March, I and my twelve are yet alive!' 'Just wait a little!' exclaims March, or the Cailleach - for here they are synonymous; she borrows three days from February, and the result is thus described in Scotch: -

The first day it was win' an' west,
The neist day it was snaw an' sleet,
The third day it sae hard did freeze,
The wee birds nebs stuck tae the trees.

The Cailleach tries to chase away her son - the sun, wooing the young Spring - but he escapes with his bride. She causes the wild duck and her brood to perish with cold, and in so doing puts out her own eye. Baffled and defeated on every hand, and fleeing before her enemies, the wintry storms of the Cailleach sink into a calm as the returning sun shines forth and the warm winds blow.

The enraged Cailleach is defeated, she flings her mallet under a holly, where never a blade of grass can grow thereafter, so powerful is the magic influence to deaden growth.

This brings us to 'Latha na Caillich' - Old Wife's Day - the 25th day of March (old style), the date of the Caileach's overthrow, the flinging down of her mallet, and her punishment in being turned into stone."

K. W. Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.

Sadly she doesn't cite any sources that she vaguely mentions at times, and a lot of it seems to be anecdotal anyway. She also seems keen to show the Cailleach as having Norwegian origins, which is interesting, and there do seem to be some parallels with some of the mythology so it does seem that there has been an influence at least. I'm looking forward to finishing it off, anyway, when I get a minute...