Twilight of the Celtic Gods?

Tigh nam Bodach, Glenlyon, 1992 (Copyright David Clarke)

A posting on the Modern Antiquarian Forum has highlighted a threat to what some have called the last surviving “ancient and uninterrupted link to our Celtic heritage.”

Plans have been lodged for a series of huge hydro-electric schemes on the Auch Estate in Glenlyon, Scotland, a wild area that includes Gleann Cailliche (the Crooked Glen of the Stones), a place that has special significance to me.

After graduating as an archaeologist I spent nine years working on my Ph.D in folklore and my specialist subject was the controversial question of the possible survival and continuity of ancient pagan beliefs and traditions from the past in the present day. One of the very few traditions I examined during my fieldwork that I felt was genuinely ancient, and possibly evidence of some form of continuity in belief, was in Glenlyon.

The glen is home to the ancient shrine of Tigh nam Bodach, a modest stone house (measuring 2m x 0.4m) that contains a family of water-worn stones from the river bed of the Lyon. According to ethnologist Dr Anne Ross, until the early 20th century this little house was annually thatched on May Eve (the feast of Beltane) and the stones brought out to watch over the flocks. The stone family were then put to bed on 1 November (the feast of Samhain), with the thatch removed and replaced with moss to keep the stones warm for the winter. Following the death of its last “guardian” no one appeared to know if the tradition continued, although the stones continued to be treated with respect. According to local lore, strange and terrible things will happen to anyone who disturbs the lair of the ‘the old woman.’

The largest stone represents the Cailleach (Old Woman) and she was accompanied by the Bodach (Old Man) and their daughter, Nighean, when Dr Ross visited the shrine during the 1950s. Despite being recognised by some as “the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual [site] in Britain”, I’m amazed to learn that Tigh Nam Bodach is still – to this day – not protected as a scheduled ancient monument.

The Cailliche and her brood, 1992 (Copyright David Clarke)

The site does appear on the Scottish Sites and Monument record (RCAHMS) that refers to it as “a simple pagan shrine”. The entry notes the figures “are pieces of sandstone weathered into rough resemblance of human figures…” and continues “…shielings in the area were in use until after 1782 and the inhabitants regularly thatched [the house]…the biennial re-thatching of the shrine continued down to the present century…[the gamekeeper] still puts the figures inside the hut in the winter and takes them out in the spring. This action has vague associations with good weather.”

Having learned of its existence from Dr Ross, I visited Glenlyon with two friends in 1992 during the writing of my book with Andy Roberts, Twilight of the Celtic Gods. In the resultant book (published in 1996) I wrote how: “…we arrived after a lengthy trek across a treacherous bog and rushing burn before an ascent into Glen Cailliche brought us to a triangular stone suspended upon a rock outcrop. This was a specially placed marker, pointing towards the lair of the Cailliche. There were in fact not three but six stones in the family, all gazing down the glen, as they have done for centuries….”

These are the colour photographs I took during that visit nearly 20 years ago. They appeared in the book and on the cover of the paperback edition of Dr Ross’s book The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands (2000).

Since that time I have heard little about the welfare of the site until Jamie Grant, secretary of the Glenlyon History Society, announced the stones could be threatened by plans for four hydro-electric schemes in the glen.

He says that if these go ahead Glen Cailliche will be transformed: “…existing tracks will be upgraded to take heavy traffic. Power houses will be constructed, borrow pits dug and fresh tracks will be carved into the steeply sided slopes to weirs. An overheard power line will be run past the Tigh nam Bodach and down the side of Glen Lyon.” The deadline for objections to the plans passed on 18 March 2011 but the latest developments can be followed on the Glenlyon History Society website here.

Hydro electric schemes certainly have green-friendly benefits, but Grant shares my concern  “… that a few of our wildest places should be kept free of industrial development. Surely Gleann Cailliche, with its unbroken link to our deep past, is one of them.”

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