Jul 29 2014

Neolithic Orkney Stone Circle to be uncovered

Pic: BBC
The BBC have just reported that a major archaeological investigation is getting under way at one of Western Europe’s most impressive prehistoric sites.

The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles, but little is known about it.

The project will involve the re-excavation and extension of trenches dug in 1973. Geophysical surveys will also be undertaken to investigate the location of standing stones.

Dr Jane Downes of the Archaeology Department, Orkney College, UHI, and Dr Colin Richards of the University of Manchester are the project directors.

Dr Downes said:

Because so little is known about the Ring of Brodgar, a series of assumptions have taken the place of archaeological data.

The interpretation of what is arguably the most spectacular stone circle in Scotland is therefore incomplete and unclear.


Originally posted 2008-07-11 10:37:02. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Jun 14 2014

Bronze Age Sweat Lodge or Sauna Saved

Burnt Mound at Cruester
Pic: Shorewatch.co.uk
A Bronze Age structure thought to have been used as a sauna has been saved from destruction by the sea after a team of archaeologists moved the entire find to a safer location reports the Scotsman.com.

The building, which dates from between 1500BC and 1200BC, was unearthed on the Shetland island of Bressay eight years ago. It was found in the heart of the Burnt Mound at Cruester, a Bronze Age site on the coast of Bressay facing Lerwick.

But earlier in the summer of 2008, because of the increased threat of coastal erosion, local historians joined archaeologists to launch a campaign to save the building and to move it somewhere safer. A third of the mound had already been lost to sea erosion.

The central structure was carefully dismantled and each stone numbered before being moved to a site a mile way next to Bressay Heritage Centre. Continue Reading »

Originally posted 2009-05-23 12:06:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Apr 19 2014

22nd Annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games

Pic: Haggis hurling

The Chicago Daily Herald tells us that on June 20-21 the Highland Games will be in full fling in Chicago. When it comes to celebrating Celtic culture around Chicago, people of Scottish descent always seem to be overshadowed by the Irish.

There’s no national holiday like St. Patrick’s Day when “everyone is Scottish for one day.” It would also be impossible to dye the Chicago River plaid.

Yet Scottish culture and traditions strongly persevere locally, thanks to efforts of the Illinois St. Andrew Society, a nonprofit charity organization dating back to 1854. The society’s biggest and highest-profile event is the annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games, now celebrating its 22nd year.

Continue Reading »

Originally posted 2008-06-20 09:06:27. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Apr 01 2014

Prehistoric Scotland had links to lands overseas

Upper Largie Footed Food Vessel
Upper Largie Footed Food Vessel
Pic: Culture 24
Back in February 2008, Culture 24 reported on a discovery made in Upper Largie which provided exciting evidence of 4,000 year-old links between prehistoric Scotland and the Netherlands. Upper Largie is near Kilmartin in Argyll and Bute and the original excavations took place in 2005.

Analysis of the pots by Alison Sheridan, of National Museums Scotland, has revealed early international-style Beakers of the type found around the lower Rhine, which is the modern-day Netherlands and a strange hybrid of styles that suggest Irish and Yorkshire influences.

These finds are very rare.

said Martin Cook, the AOC Archaeology Project Officer, who oversaw the excavations in 2005.

I think there are three or four other examples that early in Scotland. We initially didn’t realise how unusual they were, as it is so unusual to find three beaker ceramic vessels in the same feature.

The actual structure was very unusual, there’s only been one other grave excavated like that in Scotland – you just don’t get features like that generally.

The excavations revealed two graves within a complex Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual landscape composed of monuments including an Early Neolithic cursus (long earthwork) and an Early Bronze Age timber circle.

The grave is so early and the style of ceramic is so rare for this period that it’s either an immigrant or a first or second generation descendant who still knows these techniques. The pots are made from local material which certainly suggests an immigrant or a second generation person.

Travel at this time would have been difficult with few established tracks and thick forests covering much of the British Isles – much of it populated by some dangerous wild animals. Seaward travel to or from Yorkshire and Ireland to pick up these influences would have been the slightly easier option.

I think it just re-emphasises the importance of Kilmartin as a centre during this time.

added Martin.

For more information about the work of AOC Archeology Group, see www.aocarchaeology.com

To read the full article, please go to Culture 24.

Originally posted 2009-12-23 08:24:22. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Mar 11 2014

Highland Folklore: The Secret Commonwealth Revisited

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania
Pic: Wiki
It is just over three hundred years since Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, died at the age of fifty two. But the question remains, did he really die or was he ‘taken’? Taken, that is, by the Good People, the elusive folk who lived under the earth in the green hills.The youngest and seventh son of James Kirk, Robert studied theology at St. Andrews and took his master’s degree at Edinburgh.

He became the minister of Balquidder and moved to Aberfoyle in 1685, having published a psalter in Gaelic the previous year. He had also been involved in preparing a Gaelic translation of the Bible.

We might expect a man of his background to have been a staunch supporter of established orthodoxy but this was no ordinary preacher. He recorded his thoughts in a manuscript dated 1691 entitled “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies“.

Descriptions of the Faerie World

There is no mention of hell and damnation, just a fair and reasonable account of the unseen world. There is nothing sentimental in his writing, and those seers who had the ability to witness the people of peace regarded it as an affliction rather than a gift. The Tabhaiser, or Seer,

“is not terrified with their sight when he calls them, but seeing them in a surpryse (as often he does) frights him extreamly”.

These are clearly not the tinselled fairies of Victorian England but the wild and elemental spirits of nature.

Two ways of gaining the second sight are described. The first is to acquire a tedder (tether) of hair which has bound a corpse to the bier. With this wound round the waist one must stoop down and look back through the legs until a funeral passes. The alternative is to find an accomplished seer who will place his right foot over the candidate’s left and lay his hand upon his head. This confers the power to see and seems not unlike descriptions of admission to a witch coven.

Kirk’s account of the secret commonwealth combines the banal with the surreal. They live in houses underground that are large and fair, lit with lamps and fires but without fuel to sustain them. They may abduct mortal women to nurse their children. Their clothing and speech is that of the country they live in. Their life span is longer than ours, but eventually they die. They have rulers and laws but no discernible religion. Moreover, unlike us, they do not have a dense, material form but have, in Kirk’s words,

“Bodies of congealed Air”.

Every Quarter they travel to fresh lodgings, a reference perhaps to the elemental tides of the seasons.

It is possible that Kirk employed seers to give him information about the dark and silent world, just as Dr. Dee relied upon Edward Kelly a century before.

What really happened to Robert Kirk?

An odd story of what became of the minister of Aberfoyle remains. His successor, the Rev. Dr Grahame, describes how Robert Kirk was walking one day on a fairy hill. He collapsed and was taken for dead. After the funeral, his form was seen by a relative. The spectre urged him to go to their cousin Grahame of Duchray.

Kirk was, he explained, not dead but a captive in the elemental world. His widow was pregnant and he foretold that if Duchray came to the christening, he, Robert Kirk, would appear. Duchray must then throw his dirk over the head of the apparition. If this was done, Kirk would be freed.

Sure enough, the birth and the christening came. Grahame of Duchray was there, just as he had been bidden. During the ceremony the outline of the former minister could be seen. Duchray was so taken aback that he failed to throw the dirk. And the author of the Secret Commonwealth disappeared, never to be seen again


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Originally posted 2012-04-01 13:53:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Sep 02 2013

Launch video from the beginnings of BBC Alba


There has been an important development in terms of Celtic language television broadcasting with the launch of the new Gaelic TV station BBC Alba. The video above from YouTube is a reworking of Runrig’s “Alba”, first tune on the opening night on Scotland’s new TV channel, BBC Alba.

The new channel is initially available on Sky satellite TV channel 168 and also on Freesat. The station will also become available on the digital terrestrial service Freeview. However the Freeview launch will not take place until 2010 at the earliest which is disappointing.

The Head of BBC Alba, Margaret Mary Murray, has said the channel was not just for Gaelic speakers.

Originally posted 2009-03-06 21:28:21. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Feb 16 2013

Regaining a sense of ‘Clan’ at Clan Gathering

Halystorm’s Head
The Daily Pilot reports about the 76th Annual Highland Gathering and Festival at the OC Fair and Expo on Sunday, along with many other clans. What a day this must have been!Daniel Telford, the correspondent says:The weekend festival invited a number of the major Scottish clans that have representatives in the U.S. to have booths and inform the public about their heritage. The booths lined the streets of the expo, offering information, T-shirts, trinkets and the chance for some to trace their genealogy.

There were also Scottish bands and music, as well as boutiques and kilt stores.

One of the highlights of the festival was the Scottish athletics competition, as men tried to prove that some of the strongest are those wearing kilts. They competed in a number of events, including the caber toss, where contestants take a long log and launch it in hopes of turning the log end over end while keeping the log in a straight line.

Gary Herbold, a member of the Ferguson Clan, represents the Ferguson Clan at a number of Scottish Festivals across California and has been involved in Scottish events for nearly two decades. He said:

A lot of people that you get, it’s their first time. Their grandmothers or uncle was in [a particular clan] and they never thought much about it. They are usually very thrilled to tie something in their personal life to something bigger.

You can read more about the story here.

Originally posted 2008-05-31 13:08:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Dec 24 2012

Stone of Destiny: An Improbable Story About Key Event In Scottish History

Stone of Destiny - new film
Pic: City News.
Canada’s City News reports that: It’s an improbable story, and one tailor-made for Hollywood.

So it’s surprising that the true account behind the Stone of Destiny is just coming to the big screen now, nearly six decades after the original events occurred.

It was Christmas Day, 1950, when Glasgow University student Ian Hamilton and his friends broke into Westminster Abbey to steal a 300 lb block of sandstone. Called the Stone of Destiny, or the Stone of Scone, Edward I seized the stone from Scotland in 1296 as part of his spoils of war. For hundreds of years it sat in a compartment underneath St. Edward’s Chair, upon which monarchs were crowned.

That never sat well with the Scots, and though over the years many talked about taking back the stone no one ever did – until Hamilton and his friends. Continue Reading »

Originally posted 2009-03-04 09:55:30. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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Dec 16 2012

The Cailleach, or Hag of Winter by Stuart McHardy

The Cailleach

The Cailleach

Pic: Picture Source

The Hag of Winter is known in Scotland and Ireland as The Cailleach, of which Cailich is variant, though there are many more stories and place names associated with her in the latter, as was pointed out by the great folklorist Katherine Briggs over fifty years ago.

The idea that The Cailleach was imported into Scotland from Ireland is another instance of reality contradicting accepted notions. If the Cailleach did in fact originate in Ireland why do we in Scotland have so many more stories of her?

Her name in Gaelic means the hooded, or veiled one and after Christianity arrived became the accepted term for a nun. This has led to an interesting situation where confusion arises between a figure who was part of ancient Mother Goddess belief and Christian nuns. In ancient belief she was particularly known for spreading the harsh weather of winter and for living on mountain tops.

Within oral tradition people told the stories of their mythology and legend within their own environment and thus there are Cailleach stories and placenames in much of Highland Scotland, and in many of the Hebridean islands. On the east of Scotland where the Scots language developed parallel to Gaelic she is known as the Carlin, who is sometimes known as the Queen of the Witches.

While the idea of Cailleach meaning nun is a simple reflection of the hooded wimples nuns wore in terms of the original Cailleach the idea of hooding or veiling has another meaning. A mountain top wreathed in cloud can be considered veiled. Local weather lore throughout Scotland, and still extant in some parts, is full of references to cloudy summits having a ‘cap’ on – and this would appear to contain the same idea.

Mountains on which she was said to have lived include Ben Nevis, Ben Wyvis, Ben Breac, Ben Cruachan, the Paps of Jura, Schiehallion and Lochnagar has its Allt-na-Cailleach, a burn, and Caistel Caillich, her castle. And there is of course Beinn na Caillich in Knoydart and another in Skye. These are all high prominent hills, particularly Ben Nevis, the highest point on the British Isles.

Such hills attract weather – clouds cluster round them before spreading out over surrounding countryside which could be interpreted as the Goddess spreading the weather out. Her role in bringing on winter includes a tale of her riding out from Ben Nevis with eight sister hags to hammer the frost into the ground. This grouping of nine mythological or legendary females is extremely widepsread both within and outside Scotland and I have looked atit in detail elsewhere (McHardy 2003). The Cailleach is also in many places credited with creating the landscape – hills, islands etc. This is one of the basic ideas of mythology – it explains the physical world in human terms and is therefore probably truly ancient indeed. Most of the Cailleach placenames in the Highlands are up high and some, like on Lochnagar are part of a cluster of significant placenames and specific physical markers – the massif has two clear breast shaped peaks, Meikle Pap and Little Pap, Such peaks appear to have been the focus for various kinds of spiritual or sacral belief and activity in the far past. We shall consider this later.

The Corryvreckan Whirlpool

Earlier we looked at the story of the Cailleach washing her plaid in the Corryvreckan whirlpool between Jura and Scarba. Whirlpools are one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring sights in nature. These magnificent spinning cauldrons are formed where tides crash or sea water is forced into narrow vortices.The Corryvreckan is one of only seven major whirlpools in the world. These magnificent examples of nature in the raw have long held a particular place in the human psyche, and have myths and legends associated with them that seem to come from the edge of time. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool
The Corryvreckan Whirlpool  Pic Source

The Gulf of Corryvreckan is over 300 feet deep but when the whirlpool is at full power the depth of the water is less than a hundred feet. The particular cause of this awesome power is a subterranean spike, called An Cailleach, off the coast of Scarba which causes the great Atlantic waves to form into a giant vortex and create the Corryvreckan whirlpool.

It is a dangerous place and local fishermen and sailors have a wealth of stories of its dangers. Even on calm days the swell of the Corryvreckan can be several feet. The effect of the whirlpool is quite dramatic. For hour after hour when the Atlantic comes in great spirals of water are thrown into the advancing tide.

The spirals start with waves shooting up form a relatively flat surface with a great booming sound. When the whirlpool is at its wildest at the beginning of winter the sounds can be heard twenty miles away and more. The spirals thrown into the advancing Atlantic tide are just like those we find carved on megalithic sites in many parts of Europe and it is not diffcult to imagine the awe that this wonder of nature aroused in the hearts and minds of our ancestors. The fact that the spike that creates the whirlpool is called An Cailleach is clearly linked it to the ancient mythological explanation of the first snow fall we considered earlier. And through the Cailleach and her plaid the story links to Ben Nevis. Here we have the most dramatic geophysical event in Europe and Britian’s highest mountain linked in ancient story through the person of the Cailleach. As we shall see the mountain range to the south of Ben Nevis, the Mamores, part of the area said to be covered by her plaid, also carry a link to the old beliefs in a Mother Goddess.

The Cailleach and Deer

Traditionally the red deer of the mountains were known as the cattle of the Cailleach. A story from as recently as 1773 occurs in Scrope’s Days of Deer-stalking, p198ff. In this two hunters set out south from Braemar in search of red deer. They headed over towards the forest of Atholl and were overtaken by a snowstorm coming from the north which soon cleared. They managed to find some deer and shot and wounded a hind. They were trailing her by the blood-drops in the snow when the snow returned, but this time much stronger. Luckily they had their plaids with them and managed to find a shelter in the lee of some rocks where they settled down to pass the night, eating the oatcakes and drinking the whisky they had brought with them. Come the morning things were little better and thoughts of deer were replaced by the need to concentrate on one thing, survival. The wind was still blowing from the north and with the visibility no more than a few yards they could do little other than keep the wind at their backs, as they struggled on. Unknown to them the wind began to veer to the east and keeping it at their backs meant they were heading west instead of south. There were no landmarks visible to help them at all.

By nightfall their provisions were running out and they were facing another night sheltering among rocks when they saw an old sheiling bothy ahead of them. These were the traditional summer dwellings for the lads and lasses who went to the high pastures with the cattle and they expected it to be deserted. It would provide them with much needed shelter.

The Blue Hag

The Blue Hag

Pic: Picture Source

Just as they came near, to their great surprise the door opened and there stood an old woman of wild and haggard appearance who beckoned them in, told them she had been expecting them and that their supper and beds were ready. They were astounded at this but went in to the bothy. There they sat as the old woman, crooning a song in a language they could not recognise poured out soup for them.

Cold and hungry as they were still they realised that something uncanny was happening and were reluctant to begin eating. She told them that she herself had the power over the weather as they sat there petrified. She held up a rope with three knots in it and these are the words she said as given by Scrope:

‘If I lowse the first [knot], there shall blaw a fair wind, such as the deer stalker may wish; if I lowse the second, a stronger blast shall sweep o’er the hills; and if I lowse the third, sic a storm will brak out, as neither man nor beast can thole; and the blast shall yowl down the corries and the glens, and the pines shall faw crashin into the torrents, and this bare arm shall guide the course o the storm, as I sit on my throne of Cairn-Gower, on the tap o Ben-y-Gloe. Weel did ye ken my pouer the day, when the wind was cauld and dedly, and all was dimmed in snaw – and ye see that ye was expectit here, and ye hae brought nae venison; but if ye mean to thrive, ye maun place a fat hart, or a yeld [barren] hind in the braes o’ Atholl, by Fraser’s cairn, at midnight, the first Monday in every month, while the season lasts. If ye neglect this my biddin, foul will befaw ye, and the fate of Walter o Rhuairm shall owertak ye; ye shall surely perish in the waste; the raven shall croak yer dirge; and yer bones shall be pickit by the eagle.

The hunters gave their word to do as she asked , ate and fell asleep, waking in the morning in a deserted bothy with no sign of the old woman. The storm had ceased and they made their way off the hill.

This is clearly the Cailleach herself. And the knotted string links her to the various wise women the length and breadth of Scotland who used to sell winds to sailors into the nineteenth century. Scrope tells the story as if he believes it happened but it is reminiscent of ancient beliefs regarding the Cailleach. The are many locations throughout Scotland where she is closley associated with the red deer and it was suggested in the 1930s that there was a deer-goddess cult and that there might have been deer-priestesses.


Elen of The Ways

Pic: Picture Source

Again this is something I have looked at elsewhere (McHardy 2003) and it is worth noting that many Pictish symbol stones have deer carved on them. Some are deer heads which look like masks and there are some grounds for thinking that there may indeed have been deer-priestesses in Scotland, perhaps performing rites like the one that still continues at Abbot’s Bromley in Staffordshire in England. It is thought by many to be a survival of pagan practice. The dressing in deer skins, antlers etc has been interpreted as being linked to shape-shifting, something which occurs amongst various female groups in traditional lore

Modern thinking is that this is further linked to the practices of shamanism in which the practitioner ‘becomes’ another being to undertake a spirit journey. This type of belief is widespread and also very ancient. The Paps of Jura have already been mentioned and on the side of one of them is the Sgriob na Caillich, her furrow or score which she made down the side of Ben an Oir. Jura is famous for its population of red deer and the island’s name means Deer Isle and comes from the Norse.

Another aspect of the importance of the deer motif appears in some of the stories of the great Gaelic hero Finn MacCoul, many stories of which have been found in Western Scotland. His original name was Demne, which some have interpreted as meaning little deer, his first wife, Sadv, was changed into a deer by a malevolent Druid and it was pursuing her in this form that Finn found his son Oisin, whose name means fawn. Given the number and spread of the Finn MacCoul stories they were clearly important to all the Gaelic-speaking people and this deer symbolism at their very heart underlines the importance of the deer as a symbol in ancient belief in Scotland.

From Quest for the Nine Maidens

The Cailleach is strongly associated with mountains. Bear in mind that before the growth of major cities people were more aware of their natural environment. They would have observed mountains as the points around which changes in the weather originated. An early meaning of Cailleach means the veiled one. This meaning of veiled led to the term becoming the word for a nun in modern Gaelic. If you watch the clouds gather around Scottish mountains at almost any time of the year you will see this idea made remarkably explicit in the landscape. And not just Scottish mountains …

Just as the Cailleach is veiled so is the mountain she inhabits. The Cailleach is strongly associated with Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles and notable for its dramatic and ever-changing weather patterns.

The Corryvreckan, the remarkable whirlpool on the west coast of Scotland between the islands of Scarba and Jura, is said to be where the Cailleach washed her plaid (traditional garment of the Highlands, generally tartan) in late autumn and then spread it out over the mountains to dry.

As she was the oldest creature her plaid was pure white: so the story explains both the period of heaviest activity of the whirlpool and the first serious snow fall of the year. The Cailleach is also said to have created Scotland by dropping a creel full of peat and rocks. F. Marian McNeill tells us in The Silver Bough:

The Cailleach is the genius of winter and the enemy of growth. Her chief seat is Ben Nevis. She ushers in winter by washing her great plaid in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan [Coire Bhreacain = the Cauldron of the Plaid]. Before the washing, it is said, the roar of a coming tempest is heard by people on the coast for a distance of twenty miles, for a period of three days until the cauldron boils. When the washing is over, the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white.’ [2 p.20]Here the Cailleach’s cauldron is the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan. The cauldron is associated with other Nine Maidens groups in other areas. Surviving folklore also refers to this whirlpool as being the breath of the Goddess beneath the waves.Only since humans have achieved space flight has it become known that the oceans contain eddies, up to 20 kilometres across, which circulate warm surface water into the depths thus releasing life-sustaining nutrients. Cailleach
Cailleach Pic Source

This gives the motif of the whirlpool as the cauldron of the Mother Goddess a whole new level of meaning. Mythology explains the physical universe and its attributes in human terms. Such material can often contain sophisticated observations and insights. In order to give lore and tradition the strongest possibility of being remembered, and ensuring the moral lessons as well as its practical applications would be appreciated, tradition bearers would present their material within the environment familiar to their listeners. This accounts for the widespread instances of names in the Scottish landscape like Allt na Cailleach (Stream of the Old Woman), a name that can be interpreted as originally meaning the stream of the Goddess. The Cailleach’s relation to the physical world, to seasonal change and to weather, shows we are dealing with a fundamental mythological statement.

The figure of the Cailleach in Gaelic tradition is paralleled in Scots tradition by the Gyre Carlin, also often portrayed as a winter hag and linked to the traditions of the witches which survive in many areas. Donald Mackenzie in Egyptian Myth and Legend writes:

One of the many versions of the Scottish Hag story makes her the chief of eight big old women or witches. This group of nine suggests Ptah and his eight earth gnomes, the nine mothers of Heimdal the Norse god and the Ennead of Heliopolis. [xxxviii]

Nine Maidens

Nine Maidens

Pic Source

In this association of the Cailleach with a group of nine she is one of the nine whereas most of our Bride references are to Bride and nine others. Mackenzie goes further and compares this group to the nine mothers of Heimdall in Norse myth and the Ennead of Heliopolis in Egypt. He makes the point, ‘ A people seldom remember their early history, but they rarely forget their tribal beliefs … ‘.).

This is a particularly relevant statement for Scotland where Celtic-speaking warrior tribes were in existence till 250 years ago and had in many ways retained many of the characteristics of Iron Age society.

More support for the Scottish provenance of Bride in Scotland comes from John Leslie who writes in his 16th Century Historie of Scotland:

The Scottis, Peychtes, Britanis, Inglismen & Irishmen with sik veneratione in ilk place have honoured S Brigida, that innumerable kirkes erected to God, amang them ale, to her, ye sal se; yie and mae to her than to ony of the rest: the Irland men contendes that her haly body thay have with thame in that toune quhilke thay cal Dun, in quhilke place the body of thair Apostle S. Patrik is keipet. our cuntrey men ascrynes the same Glore unto thame, quha thinkes, that hitherto thay have honouret it in the Chanrie of Abernethie, & richtlie have done thay think. [1p.229]

The Scots, Picts, Britons, Englishmen and Irishmen with such veneration in every place have honoured St Brigid, that innumerable churches erected to God, among them all, to her, you shall see; yes and more to her than to any of the rest The Irish people contend that her holy body they have with them in that town which they call Dun, in which place the body of their Apostle St Patrick is kept. Our countrymen ascribe the same Glory unto themselves, who think, that hitherto they have honoured it in the Chanadry of Abernethy and have done so rightly to their own thinking.[translation]

In referring to the different tribal confederations/kingdoms of Dark Age Northern Britain, he is differentiating between Britons and Englishmen. By Britons he appears to mean the P-Celtic people of the kingdom of Strathclyde, and possibly the people of Manau Gododdin, known to the Romans as the VotCeini and inhabiting the lands from East Lothian to possibly as far as the headwaters of the Forth. He is making it clear that St Brigid was known to both the P and Q-Celtic tribes and to the Germanic speaking peoples in what we now call Scotland. This supports of the idea of Bride being indigenous to Scotland and clearly points to a cult of St Bridget among Christians in Scotland in the pre-Reformation period. The belief that Brigid is buried at Abernethy in no way precludes the her Irish provenance, but, taken together with the other evidence, this appears to be part of a continuum of belief which was indigenous to Scotland.

For more information about this writer, storyteller, folklorist, historian lecturer, musician and poet, please see Stuart’s Website at


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Nov 27 2012

Gruagach – Fairy Queen of the Highlands by Stuart McHardy

Queen of the Bad Faeries by Brian Froud

Queen of the Bad Faeries by Brian Froud

The Scottish supernatural helper, the Gruagach, has generally been presented as a form of the better-known “brownie”. In fact what we seem to find in the Gruagach are remnants of traditions that are of extreme antiquity and are perhaps directly linked to ancient pagan belief in the specific form of Mother Goddess worship. Much of the material considered here came to my notice in the research for a study on the Nine Maidens, a motif that occurs with startling frequency in Classical, Celtic, Norse and other mythological and legendary sources. In the course of my researches I came across references to the Gruagach as possibly being linked to other beings and was intrigued..

In Old Scottish Customs, E.J. Guthrie (1895, repr.1994) introduces the Gruagach:

“Some time ago the natives of some of the Western Islands firmly believed in the existence of the gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies, to whom the dairy-maids made frequent libations of milk. The gruagach was said to be an innocent being who frolicked or gambolled among the pens and folds. She was armed solely with a pliable rod, with which she switched any who would annoy her either by using bad language, or depriving her of her share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770 the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda [off Skye], were in the habit of placing daily a quantity of milk on a hollow stone for the gruagach. Should they ever neglect this duty they were sure to feel the weight of the brownie’s rod on the following day”.

F. Marion McNeill in The Silver Bough (1957) tells us of these creatures:

In Tiree, Skye and elsewhere, the tutelary spirit of both cattle and cattle fold is called the Gruagach, and in Skye, Gruagach stones, where libations were formerly left, are still pointed out. One of these is at Sleat, formerly the residence of the Lords of the Isles, and the Gruagach attached by tradition to the Castle is said to have been frequently seen in the vicinity of the stone”.

Several commentators have suggested that this helper might in fact be a decayed belief of a previously more substantial figure. J.A. McCulloch (The religion of the ancient Celts, 1911) had this to say:

“Until recently milk was poured on ‘Gruagach stones’ in the Hebrides, as an offering to the Gruagach, a brownie who watched over herds, and who had taken the place of a god”.

Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) also describes the Gruagach, again stressing the link with cattle:

The fairy queen who watches over cows is called Gruagach in the islands, and she is often seen. In pouring libations to her and her fairies, various kinds of stones, usually with hollows in them, are used. In many parts of the Highlands, where the same deity is known, the stone into which women poured the libation is called Leac na Gruagaich, ‘Flag-stone of the Gruagach’. If the libation was omitted in the evening, the best cow in the fold would be found dead in the morning”.

There are many instances of the association of cows with powerful female figures in the traditions of the Celtic-speaking peoples, one of the most significant perhaps being the cow at  Calanais who came from the sea in a time of famine and gave all the locals sufficient milk to survive, until a greedy witch, disappointed in not getting more than her share milked the cow using a bottomless bucket, which caused the cow to disappear.

Tales of such supernatural cattle occur in many European and Asian locations as shown by Hilda Ellis Davidson (Roles of the Northern Goddess, 1998). The importance of cattle in Scottish Highland society has been well-documented and like the many instances Davidson mentions, appears to be of considerable antiquity. Evans-Wentz tells us that the Gruagach “is often seen”. This was written in the first decade of the 20th century and suggests that the belief in the Gruagach was still extant at that time, or shortly before.

In J.F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860/1) he writes of a spirit called locally ‘Greogaca’ which is clearly the same as the Gruagach but here the helper is presented as male. In this story, the Gruagach helps to look after the cattle, but only if an offering of warm milk is left for him in a nearby knocking-stone. This repeats the familiar motif in which farm workers, usually the milk-maids, leave libations of milk in nearby hollow stones.

In some cases it is clear that these stones are cup-and-ring marked rocks. Such rocks are believed to have been the focus of some sort of ritual activity in the far past and are generally considered to have been carved in the Stone Age. This is as yet incapable of being proved, but archaeologists do agree on their great antiquity. This raises the possibility that the libations being placed in such stones was descended at some point either from specific rituals associated with such stones or that the sanctity of the stones themselves was the reason such practices arose.     To read more of this fascinating article visit  Goddess Alive


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