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Myth explains the story of winter – and spring’s rebirth – on the shores of the Cromarty Firth

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In the depth of winter it can be hard to remember that it won’t last forever.
In the depth of winter it can be hard to remember that it won’t last forever.

She is a blue-faced old hag with a magic staff which freezes the ground at every tap. Her title “the witch of winter” is said to stem from the shores of the Cromarty Firth where, in winter storms, locals reckoned she was trampling her blankets, writes Bill McAllister.

At this time of the year, it is perhaps fitting to reflect on Cailleach Bheur, or Bheira, whose identity predates even the Celtic mythology of which she is a part. Highland folklore says she existed “from the long eternity of the world”.

Cailleach is the Gaelic for “old woman” and she is the winter goddess, the dark mother, the bringer of storms.

As winter closes her icy grip, we reflect that our area has been the base for many myths. Caoineag was a banshee-like spirit attached to Highland clans. When she wailed at the bottom of waterfalls it spelled death or catastrophe. Ciuthach was a Highland cave dweller while Crodh Mara were Highland fairy water cattle.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie was a noted author on mythology. Born in Cromarty he owned and edited The North Star, in Dingwall, before heading south to write many books.

Mackenzie wrote that Bheira was hailed in the Celtic pantheon as the “mother of all gods”.

In the dark hours of Samhain, the Celtic festival from which Hallowe’en stems, the Cailleach is said to have washed her plaid in Corryvreckan, the whirlpool north of Jura, and when her plaid emerged shining white, she used it to cover the Highlands in a blanket of snow.

All through the winter, Bheira walks the land, striking ground and trees with her staff to crush any growth. She scared animals into hiding in winter, guaranteeing their survival. In the Highlands she was called Mhor Nan Fiadh, protector of the deer, and hunters welcomed having a healthy deer population to provide food and pelts.

Bheira is the sharp and biting wind – Bheur means sharp – and the Cailleach had one eye, giving her the ability to see over vast distances.

She is said to have waded the length of Scotland dropping large boulders from her apron to make the islands, and scattering rocks and stones to create mountains. Skye, for instance, has a mountain called Beinn na Cailleach while the Callanish standing stones on Lewis are said to have been dropped by her.

She is associated with the Beara Peninsula in West Cork and is mentioned in the Book of Lecan around 1400. A wintry female figure existed in the beliefs of many ancient groups and Donald Mackenzie suggested Celts migrating to Europe brought with them the Cailleach based on Kali, the Indian goddess.

The heads of Highland families would carve a piece of oak into the face of Cailleach Nollaig, or Christmas Old Wife. Representing cold and death, this carving would be thrown into the fire on Christmas Eve, its burning safeguarding the house and ensuring spring’s return. This custom was still observed here in the early 1900s.

Bheira was feared. She is said to have kept prisoner Bridget, the spirit of springtime, inside Ben Nevis. Angus, a son of Bheira, successfully freed Bridget, who became Queen of Spring while he became King of Summer.

As a result, Cailleach Beira threw her staff into whins, which are thus sacred trees, and turned herself into a standing stone, to remain that way until the next Samhain. Thus the cycle of light and dark, the changing of the seasons, and the fertility of the land are preserved.

As we enter a Cailleach-style chilly New Year we can look forward to the wheel turning, and spring bringing warmer, better times.

• Sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.

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