A collection of essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, Celtic mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
“At length, when night was setting in, they saw a deep and unknown glen of joyless aspect before them; they descended into it, to avoid the bleak winds of the summits, and had proposed to put up a few stones and turfs for shelter during the dark hours. Whilst they were looking for a convenient spot, to their great relief they discovered a shieling, deserted, as they imagined, as buildings in such remote places usually are in the winter. What, then, was their surprise, when, upon approaching the door, it was opened, even without their knocking. A woman presented herself, of a wild and haggard aspect; told them she had been expecting them, and that their supper and beds were ready. Even so they found it – the pot was boiling, and bannocks and oat-cakes were placed upon the table, and also two plates, for the expected guests. There was something so extraordinary about this old woman, that it operated as a sort of fascination, and the men’s eyes were continually turned upon her. She had large features, long lank hair, and small grey eyes, deeply sunk, and conveying a striking impression of vice and cunning; she halted on one leg, and chanted a wild song, in an unknown language, while she was pouring out the kail.
“Tired and exhausted as the men were, the whole thing appeared to their superstitious imaginations so much like witchcraft, that, although half famished, they could scarcely bring themselves to eat. Fear came upon them, when she waved her long sinewy arms, and darkly hinted that she had power over the winds and the storm, muttering at intervals some unintelligible sentences; then at once holding up a rope, with three knots tied in it.
“‘If,’ quoth she, ‘I loose the first, there shall blow a fair wind, such as the deer-stalker may wish; if I loose the second, a stronger blast shall sweep over the hills; and if I loose the third, such a storm will break out as neither man nor beast can endure; and the blast shall howl down the corries and the glens, and the pines shall fall crashing into the torrents, and this bare arm shall guide the course of the storm, as I sit on my throne of Cairn-Gower, on top of the mountain of Ben-y-Gloe. Well did you know my power today, when the wind was cold and deadly, and all was dimmed in snow – and you see that you are expected here, and you have brought no venison; but if you mean to thrive, you must place a fat hart, or a yeld hind, in the braes of Atholl, by Fraser’s Cairn, at midnight, the first Monday in every month, while the season lasts – the lord’s ghost will not meddle with it. If you neglect this my bidding, foul will befall you, and the fate of Walter of Rhuairm shall overtake you; you shall surely perish on the waste; the raven shall croak your dirge; and your bones shall be picked by the eagle.'”
This extraordinary little tale describes an encounter between two hunters from the central Highlands of Scotland and a figure from the folklore of the region called, in English, the Witch of Ben-y-Gloe. The witch is a particularly fearsome hag, associated with the storms and dwelling on top of the most prominent mountain in the vicinity; she’s easily recognisable as a version of the widespread Highland spirit known as the Cailleach, about whom I wrote in my piece on the Tigh nam Bodach shrine.
The Cailleach is variously accorded the roles of the queen of the winter, the tutelary spirit of the wilderness, the mother of the giants and even, in one set of traditions, the creator of the world. She’s the last native spirit widely honoured in Scotland that can reasonably be described as a deity; the last survivor of the old, pagan gods of the Celtic peoples.
The piece quoted above represents the latest recorded example of an encounter between humans and the Witch of Ben-y-Gloe. The original dialogue was presented in a dialect of Old Scots; I’ve converted it into standard English for ease of understanding. It was taken from the book “Days of Deer-Stalking” by William Scrope, published in 1839; the incident it describes was said to have taken place in the winter of 1773. The dates are singular; we have here, as late as the 18th century, a tale of hunters encountering a pagan goddess who revels in her power over the weather, and who instructs them in the proper way in which to offer her sacrifices. The pre-Christian character of the spirit concerned is clear; and the nature of the transaction would satisfy any of the standard definitions of religiosity. What we have here, less than two decades before the outbreak of the French Revolution, is an instance of pagan Celtic religion still clinging to life in the glens of the central Highlands.
There are a great many more legends of the Cailleach figure recorded from the central Highlands, and a great many other remnants of pre-Christian religion that have persisted there far later than might reasonably be expected. In the coming weeks, I’ll be heading off on a journey into the region for the purposes of researching some of them, and to visit and photograph the places in which the tales are set. Some further articles and images will follow on this website and, in due course, if everything goes according to plan, in some books.
For now, though, there’s one thing I’d like to explore, and on which I’d like to ask for a little help from the internet community. There’s an odd coincidence in certain aspects of the legends of some of the northern lands of which I’m fondest; a resemblance between the Cailleach folklore and certain other groups of tales from regions not-too-distant. Yet, I cannot find any explanation for such similarities beyond the most wildly speculative. I wonder if anyone out there is able to help connect some dots?
The region to which I refer is the Fennoscandian one; the north-eastern fringes of Scandinavia and Russia, where Europe shades slowly into the Siberian forests. The peoples of the region speak languages called Finno-Ugrian, and possess a mythological heritage that is distinct from that of the Nordic, Slavic and Baltic peoples who neighbour them. The most well-known of the Finnic peoples are the Finns themselves, the Estonians and the Sami (latterly called Lapps); to their number may be added a cluster of smaller, less well-known peoples whose homelands now lie within Russia.
In Fennoscandia there are a number of mythic figures who recall, to some degree, the Cailleach. The most salient is that of Louhi, the ‘Mistress of Northland’ who features heavily in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Like the Cailleach, she is a female spirit who holds her power without reference to any accompanying male deity, and who is the ruler of the north and the cold. The domain over which she reigns, called Northland or Pohjola, is a mountainous land that seems to represent both the ultimate winter and also, in a more general sense, an otherworld. She is frequently inimical to man, spiriting away to her territory precious things that the Kalevala heroes must strive to win back from her. Here’s an excerpt from Rune 47 of the Kalevala describing some of her activities, in John Martin Crawford’s verse translation from 1888;
“Louhi, hostess of Pohyola,
Northland’s old and toothless wizard,
Makes the Sun and Moon her captives;
In her arms she takes fair Luna
From her cradle in the birch-tree,
Calls the Sun down from his station,
From the fir-tree’s bending branches,
Carries them to upper Northland,
To the darksome Sariola;
Hides the Moon, no more to glimmer,
In a rock of many colors;
Hides the Sun, to shine no longer,
In the iron-banded mountain;
Thereupon these words she utters:
‘Moon of gold and Sun of silver,
Hide your faces in the caverns
Of Pohyola’s dismal mountain;
Shine no more to gladden Northland,
Till I come to give ye freedom,
Drawn by coursers nine in number,
Sable coursers of one mother!'”
The mythology of the neighbouring Sami, the native inhabitants of Lapland who occupy Europe’s farthest extremity, also includes similar figures. Female deities called the Akkas were worshipped before the arrival of Christianity; the first of them, Maderakka, is the ultimate mother-goddess and bestower of life. The word ‘Akka’ translates from the Finnic languages into English as ‘hag’ – the same definition applied to ‘cailleach’ when translated from Gaelic. She has three daughters whose functions relate to birth and creation, three subsidiary Akkas with subsidiary functions; a repetition of the triple-deity theme that occurs so frequently in Celtic mythology. There is an Akka too for the underworld; Jabme-Akka, who rules over a mirror-world where the dead reside, located beneath the soil.
There are a number of commonalities between the goddess traditions found among the Finnic and the Celtic peoples. A superficial list of such, incomplete and, of necessity, based on an understanding of the Finnic material that is partial, could include the following;
There are resemblances; whether these represent anything more than coincidence is currently unclear to me, and I’d like to build a fuller understanding. There are two questions I’d like to find answers for;
If anyone has any folk-tales relating to such goddesses from Finland, Lapland and Estonia please either let me know, or tell me where to look. On the second point, the question is a little more difficult. There are few, if any, historic connections between the Finnic and Celtic regions. If there is any connection in the mythology it must presumably therefore date back into the depths of prehistory; at which point we unfortunately and inevitably enter into the realms of speculation. Such speculation takes place against the background that the maternal DNA of the Sami is predominantly of a haplotype related to that of the Celts; that there is, on some level, a connection is therefore clear. Less clear by far is the nature of that connection, though; and it is a genetic connection that is not present among the Finns…
If anyone has any knowledge of Sami and Finnic archaeology that could shed some light on these issues, I’d be likewise grateful to hear about it, or to be pointed in the right direction.
Lapland is a place that, for me, has always been a little bit special. I’ve spent many months up there, hiking around on the tundra and through the mountains. In the freedom you have to travel where you wish, enshrined in the ‘allemannsretten’, and in the character of the people, there are a great many similarities between it and my own land. If a connection can be shaped between the two and some stories woven around it, no-one would be happier than I; it’s a place that already holds a big place in my own story.
To finish, here are a few pictures of an Akka, a hag-goddess, still honoured in the modern day. This stone sits on the edge of a hill called Komsa by the side of the Altafjord; a spot on the north coast of Lapland, some 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The stone is named Ahkka; it’s a personification of the deity, in the same way that the Carlin Stones of Scotland, the Carn na’Cailleachs of the Highlands, are in my country. Offerings are still placed there today, on a little ledge on the innermost side. I passed a night here, once, when thunder storms rolled in from the tundra and poured on the sunset light the deep dark tint of honey. Quite a night and quite a journey it was; if you can help connect it to this next one, I’d be very grateful indeed.