The Cailleach


The Cailleach is no mere wood hag but an ancient Celtic deity and a most tremendous figure indeed! As the goddess of wind and cold, Cailleach was often called the Veiled One or the Queen of Winter. She held dominion over the length and ferocity of winter each year.

Cailleach played a prominent role in Celtic mythology and Scottish folklore, appearing as both an old woman and a young woman to various people in order to test them. And while Cailleach is a neutral figure with her own set of morals and values, she’s one of the most terrifying figures when she appears.

We’ll be breaking down everything you need to know about this goddess of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, from her etymology, history, and stories that surround Cailleach.

Etymology of the Cailleach

The word Cailleach in both Scottish and Irish Gaelic translates to ‘old woman’ and ‘hag’, which very appropriately describes Cailleach. Cailleach still has deeper etymological roots and is likely derived from ‘Caillech’, which means veiled one in Old Gaelic.

These aren’t the only words that describe Cailleach, though, as several poets and writers call the same goddess by different names – Digdi, Milucra, Birog, and even Burach. This has led folklorists to believe that Cailleach wasn’t a single entity but rather a title held by multiple wood witches. When one Cailleach would pass, another would set up and take on the mantle of Cailleach.

But no title was quite as prominent as Cailleach Béara, the Queen of Winter.

The Cailleach Throughout History

The origins of how the Cailleach became such a unique figure in Scottish and Irish myths. In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, Donald Alexander McKenzie hails the Cailleach as the mother of all gods and goddesses in Scotland. Scottish folk tale collector J.G MacKay refers to her as the most tremendous figure in Gaelic myth today.

Although her name can be found throughout Scotland in folklore, customs, ancient monuments and the natural landscape, the Cailleach is one of the lesser-known figures of Celtic mythology and is often overlooked. Her true origins have been lost over time. She is vastly ancient and predates even the Celtic mythology of which she has become a part. One Highland folk tale states that she existed ‘from the long eternity of the world’.

Comparisons and claims to her beginnings are made in places as far-reaching as Spain and India. Some suggest that she was originally a Spanish princess named Beara, others that she is a bastardised version of the great Hindu mother goddess, Kali, brought to Britain by Indian immigrants.

The Mythology of the Cailleach

The Cailleach isn’t only just a divine hag from Scottish myth and legend but a force of nature as well. Throughout her reign in folklore, the mythology of the Cailleach grew to be a great goddess that could change the seasons and sow fertile soil into landscapes. Here are some common traits, attributes, and characteristics that the Cailleach has in Scottish and Irish mythology.


Since the Cailleach is the Queen of Winter, it’s unsurprising that she would be associated with violence and death. As the harbinger of winter winds, dark winter months, and terrible storms, the Cailleach is frequently used as an analogy to death in her tales.

This extends from gathering the souls of the dead to add to her collection to flying with the Wild Hunt on the search for mythical creatures.

Protector of Animals

In addition to being the hag of winter, creator, and destroyer of landscapes, the goddess was also the protector of animals. According to mythology, Cailleach looked after animals during long, dark winter months. During the winter the blue-skinned giantess would herd deer.

Cailleach was believed to be the patron of wolves. According to some Irish myths, Cailleach could take the form of a wolf. Although the crone is linked specifically to wolves and deer, she was said to care for both wild and domestic animals during winter.

Harvester of Grain

While Cailleach was a creator deity as well as a destroyed, she also protected. Since she was the Queen of Winter, the Cailleach Bheur, she had a connection to grain that was used to survive the harsh, dark winter months. Regardless of the Cailleach, the last sheath of grain was always dedicated to her before the first winter days.

The farmer who finished the grain harvest would make a corn mother or dolly that represented the blue-skinned crone and would throw it into a neighbour’s field if they had not finished their harvest.

The last farmer to finish the harvest was left in possession of the corn dolly and had to care for it throughout winter until the beginning of the next planting season. No farmer wanted to house the Cailleach for winter, so competition was fierce during the harvest, with each farmer trying to make sure they would not be the last to finish.

Stories Around Cailleach

The Cailleach appears in several stories in both Scottish folklore and Irish tradition, although perhaps under a slightly different name each time. There are a few common threads that tie the Winter Goddess to all these stories: the Cailleach would always fight spring, had a staff that could freeze the earth, and the visage of an old hag.

Since the Cailleach appears in several stories and poems, we won’t be able to cover them all here, but here are some of our favourites:

The Cailleach Poetry

The Cailleach has appeared in literature throughout the ages. In the 8th-century poem “Lament of the Old Woman,” she reflects on her faded youth and laments its loss. In Donald Alexander Mackenzie’s 20th-century retelling of Scottish folklore, the Cailleach became Beira, Queen of Winter.

The work retained much of Cailleach’s classic characterization and, along with Lady Gregory’s translation of old Irish tales, served as one of the more prominent sources of Cailleach myths:

The maidens rejoice When May-day comes to them; For me, sorrow is meeter, I am wretched, I am an old hag. – “Lament of the Hag of Beara”

A Firewood Collector

One of the oldest stories about the Cailleach occurs on the 1st of February each year. On this day, it’s said that the Cailleach runs of out firewood for the winter. In Irish and Scottish myth and legend, she wanders the glens in the form of an old woman searching for more firewood. If she wants winter to end, she’ll command the day of her search to be warm and sunny.

However, if she oversleeps, the day is stormy and overcast, and forecasts a couple more dark winter months before spring thaws the Cailleach Goddess’ cold curse. For centuries, tradition dictated that the weather on the first day of February would offer a glimpse into the weeks and months to come.

For American readers, this ritual may be ringing a bell – it’s very similar to Groundhog Day in the United States. The only difference is that the Americans adopted the tradition and replaced the Cailleach with a groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil, to be precise) who tells when the spring thaw will come by looking at his shadow or not.

Tigh nan Cailleach

A more benign story about the Cailleach is called Tigh Nan Cailleach, which translates to ‘house of the old men’. As the story goes, the Cailleach, the Bodach, and their children were looking for a place to stay for an evening away from the downpouring weather. Despite how terrifying these spirits and hags looked, they were offered a place to stay.

During their overnight, the glens that surrounded them blossomed with fertility. The Cailleach departed and informed the family that housed them that if they wanted the ground to remain eternally fertile, they would need to put up stones for the crone goddess and her own family between the 1st of May and the 31st of October – between the seasonal changes of Beltane and Samhain.

Where to See the Cailleach Sites Today

While the stories of the Cailleach were written long ago, there are still parts of Scotland where you can see evidence of this great witch figure.

Ben Cruachan, Argyll and Bute

Beira, Queen of Winter, as she’s known in Scotland, had a heavy hand in forming the large mountains and hills in the country. It’s said that as she flew across the sky, she accidentally dropped rocks that formed the great Munros of Argyll and Bute. Others believe they were intentionally formed by her hand and hammer.

The tallest mountain in this mountain range is thus fittingly called Ben Cruachan, home of Cailleach na Cruachan.

Hag’s Head, Ireland

If you’re planning to take a quick trip over to Ireland while visiting Scotland, then ensure you stop and pay a visit to the Hag’s Head in Ireland. Here, the Cailleach is associated with the craggy mountains and sheer cliff faces. The Hag’s Head is a special lookout point at the southernmost tip of the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.

Whirlpool at Corryvreken, Scotland

Often called Scotland’s maelstrom, the whirlpool at Corryvreken sits in the narrow strait between the Isles of Jura and Scarba. This strait is infamous for its strong currents and standing waves. When the tidal forces are just strong enough, it also forms the third-largest whirlpool in the world!

If that isn’t because of the Cailleach Bhéara then I don’t know what is! That’s before we’ve even mentioned the fact that in the traditional Gaelic, the whirlpool translates as ‘cauldron of the placid’.

Tigh nan Cailleach Site, close to Glen Cailleach and Glen Lyon

We covered the story about Tigh nan Cailleach, but did you know that it exists in real life? If you wonder tales occasionally have tidbits of the truth, then look no further than this cosy glen. You can find Glen Cailleach in Perthshire near Glen Lyon.

This area is famous for that pagan ritual, which, according to legend, is associated with the Cailleach. There is a small shieling in the Glen which houses a number of heavy water-worn stones resembling miniature human beings

Beinn an Caillich

One of the final locations where you can see the sites where the mythic Cailleach visited is on the Isle of Skye. In fact, Ben Nevis was said to be the throne of the Cailleach! The two mountains on the Isle of Skye were named Beinn na Caillich after her, where folklore mentions that the Cailleach threw fierce storms of sleet and rain down onto the lands below her.

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