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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