“Determined now her tomb to build,
Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carron-more;
Then stepped one thousand yards to Loar,
And dropped another goodly heap;
And then with one prodigious leap,
Gained carrion-beg; and on its height
Displayed the wonders of her might.”
(J.Swift, 17th century)
It is a clear starry night tonight here in Glastonbury, with the Moon riding high and bright towards a Full Moon in a couple of days from now. Last night the Crone of Winter had her way in my garden, freezing all that remained of the tender plants and leaving it to wilt in the little warmth the Sun was able to provide today. Soon the remaining green will turn brown too, and the land will remain frozen for a few weeks, with the promise of awakening again next
The Cailleach is the primordial British Crone of Winter, and many of the stories associated with her highlights her strong association with the weather, especially the colder months. I absolutely love Her and the stories recorded about her over the centuries, and feel that she should be better known!
What follow is an extract from the book Visions of the Cailleach which I co-authored with David Rankine, and which was published back in 2009.
Visions of the Cailleach (2009). Cover art by Marc Potts.
“O life that ebbs like the seal
I am weary and old, I am weary and old –
Oh! How can I happy be
All alone in the dark and cold.
I’m the old Beira again,
My mantle no longer is green,
I think of my beauty with pain
And the days when another was queen.
My arms are withered and thin,
My hair once golden is grey;
‘Tis winter – my reign doth begin –
Youth’s summer has faded away.
Youth’s summer and autumn have fled –
I am weary and old, I am weary and old.
Every flower must fade and fall dead
When the winds blow cold,
when the winds blow cold.”
In the winter months, it used to be believed that you might catch a glimpse of the Cailleach, shrouded in white and riding through the sky on the back of a wolf. If you did, you would keep very still for it was widely known that she could bring snow and blizzards, swirling the air with her magic wand and keeping her mantle of snow over the land. At Samhain she would become dominant and ride through the land on her wolf, striking down signs of growth with her magic wand, spreading snow and winter across the land. She then ruled until the coming of summer at Beltane.
There are regional variations on this story, some of which instead has the Cailleach ruling winter from the Autumn Equinox to the Spring Equinox, i.e. the days when there is more dark than light, and when water and cold tend to dominate the climate. The 25th March, just after the Spring Equinox, was referred to as Latha na Caillich (Cailleach Day), and is now sometimes known as Lady Day. Interestingly autumn and winter correspond to the elements of Water and Earth respectively, and these are the two elements that she was most associated with, which are also traditionally the two elements perceived as being feminine in nature.
The wintery associations in the story of Beira tie into references in the seasonal cycle. Hence the explanation for the short burst of good weather than often seems to introduce February, and likewise the connection to the wolf, with the old Gaelic name for the month of January being Faoilleach or wolf month.
Although the Cailleach as a winter goddess is not found in folklore beyond Britain, on the Continent, we find the Germanic winter goddess, Frau Holda or Holle. There is a significant number of shared motifs, such as Holda being described as a crone who can also appear as a beautiful maiden, and having connections with witches and with water through pools and fountains and other water sources.
Like the local Scottish descriptions of the Cailleach’s behaviour for the Corryvreckan whirlpool, Holda’s behaviour was said to determine the weather. Thus when it snowed Holda was shaking out her feather pillows, fog was smoke from her fire and thunder was Holda reeling flax. Curiously, like the Cailleach, there was ambivalence towards Holda from the Christian Church which became more negative with time. Thus it seems that certain characteristics were clearly associated with European winter goddesses, as there is no evidence to indicate that Holda and the Cailleach came from the same root source.
As winter marks the end of the year, leading towards its death, it is easy to see why a supernatural figure looking like an old woman should have come to personify the power of winter. The seasonal tides of the year have come to be associated with the ages of human life, and so the spring maiden matures into the old crone of winter, in a cyclical manner reflecting the seasons upon the Earth.
The beauty of the Cailleach reflected the beauty of winter. The lines on her face all told stories, she did not have the wrinkle-free smoothness of a young girl, but rather the wisdom won through age and experience. Her eyes spoke of death, wonder and determination, all of which were found in the harsh snows which blanketed the land and reminded people of their own mortality.
 Song of the Cailleach Beira, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend; Mackenzie, 1917
 Halloween, 1st November.
 Mayday, 1st May.
 September 21st/22nd.
 March 21st/22nd.