Eight large stones sit in a field outside a hut in Scotland. The biggest one is as tall as Norman Haddow’s knee, yet he lifts it with ease and brings it inside the small turf-roofed building. He then goes back outside to collect the remaining rocks, which are ready to return to their stone shrine. No one knows exactly how many there were when the tradition started, but the small boulder selection today comes in all different shapes and sizes. The large one is known as the Cailleach.
“The smaller ones are the Cailleach’s family,” Haddow explains. “Her husband and children. Legend has it that they have a new child every hundred years or so; that’s why new stones keep appearing.”
The Cailleach is a supernatural figure associated with Irish and Scottish folklore, according to Sharon Paice Macleod, a historian and author of Celtic Myth and Religion. In Scotland in particular, the Cailleach is connected to hunting. She is sometimes depicted protecting wild animals from huntsmen, while others she assists to catch their prey. In Ireland, she is linked to the landscape, especially to rocky formations. Here in this glen, she watches over the harvest.
This ritual of moving the Cailleach rocks in and out of the stone hut, which is hidden in a valley surrounded by munros in the Scottish Midlands, has been conducted for centuries by the glen’s locals. According to Haddow, it’s quite simple: At Beltane, the Gaelic May Day Festival, the gamekeeper takes the Cailleach and her family out of their shrine and washes them in a local burn, or stream. Once they’re clean, they spend the summer months outside the hut, just to be put back inside again in the fall during Samhain, another Celtic festivity that marks the beginning of the dark half of the year.
“It ensures that the year’s harvest is bountiful,” Haddow says. “The crops would fail next year if the Cailleach is not taken care of.”
The Cailleach is well-known among the inhabitants of the glen, but is still somewhat of a secret outside the local community. The current gamekeeper and custodian of the stones, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been trying to keep tourists and spiritual groups at bay to protect the place and prevent any disrespect to the culture. He wants to keep the location of the shrine private, as people have been littering and moving the stones at the wrong time of the year.
“The Glen is very ecologically fragile and [the community] is already having problems with groups of pagans and New Agers tromping through, making up rituals that have absolutely nothing to do with the site or its culture, and then telling other people about it,” Macleod explains.
Modern pagan groups categorize the Cailleach as a winter goddess or even a triple goddess, but Macleod clarifies that there is no actual evidence that she was ever considered a deity.
“A lot of people in this day and age are very quick to label anything having to do with women or the divine feminine as part of the worship of what they call The Goddess,” Macleod explains. “People call it a goddess site or a goddess house, and I’m sure it was not called either of those things by the community. While it is possible that the folkloric figure of the Cailleach is quite old, we can’t say for sure when the stories about her began or if they have stayed the same over decades or centuries.”
Still, the locals believe the shrine is sacred. “It is a powerful place,” Haddow states. “There are so many legends about it. It’s not uncommon to find all sorts of weird objects around the area. While I was repairing the roof, I found some tiny carved skulls. I didn’t know what to do with them, so I buried them underneath the shrine.”
Haddow is not the official gamekeeper of the glen, and he is not supposed to move the stones, but today is an exception. The Cailleach shrine had been in serious disrepair for several years, so Haddow, a master dry stone waller, volunteered to fix it. With the help of the local community, he’s been working in the glen for a couple of days to re-thatch the roof and restore the walls of the shrine in time for the Beltane ritual in May.
Macleod is not from the glen, but one of the residents here invited her to visit the shrine while Haddow worked on the repairs. She and other locals helped him select stones from the burn to block the hut’s doorway. And, since she was the only one there who spoke Gaelic, the attendees asked her to sing a song to welcome the stones back into their home.
According to Macleod, the origins of the ritual and the Cailleach itself are very obscure at this point. The ceremony is likely to have evolved over the years, but Macleod thinks it’s possible it contained Christian and pagan elements. “There may have been libations poured. I feel certain there would have been at least a prayer, if not more than one prayer intoned or recited,” she explains.
Haddow and Macleod both agree that there has been an extreme culture loss in Scotland, particularly related to folk traditions and beliefs, and therefore, rituals like this need to be preserved and documented, taking special care in maintaining their authenticity.
Even though the actual shrine and the stones are off-limits to uninvited visitors, Haddow built an exact replica for Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens. It was commissioned to commemorate the people who have donated or received organ transplants, and it is open to the public.
Back in the glen where the shrine is located, it will be up to the local youth to carry on the traditions. However, with the constant exodus of residents to the cities, Haddow worries that there won’t be enough people to continue with the ritual. “Most of the population are incomers,” he explains, “so I don’t think many of them are interested in the tradition.”
Norman counts on the gamekeeper and the families that helped him rebuild the shrine to pass down the knowledge to their children and future newcomers. According to him, there are a few teenagers who grew up in the area and have always been fascinated by the local tales. He hopes that this interest is enough to keep them in the glen and inspire others to maintain the Cailleach ritual and keep the stories alive. “Museums are important,” Haddow assures, “but history is best recorded by stories.”