A Halloween story published by The Guardian newspaper reveals how a group of mysterious stones continue to be venerated in a remote Scottish glen.

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Tigh nam Bodach (copyright David Clarke)

The Tigh nam Bodach or House of the Cailliche (Old Woman) is a small rocky shrine perched above a rushing burn deep in the Grampian mountains.

The tiny house or miniature shieling, and its stone family has been described as ‘the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual site in Britain’.

Some believe it is a more recent creation as the earliest written reference to the site was in 1888. Whatever the explanation it is a piece of living folklore that deserves protection.

Glen Cailliche (pronounced KAL-yach), a side branch of Glen Lyon, is home to the house that contains a number of water-worn stones from the river chosen because they have anthropomorphic shapes.

This is a place that has a special significance for me. I first learned of its existence from my friend and colleague the late Celtic scholar Dr Anne Ross, author of Pagan Celtic Britain (1967).

Anne told me that when she visited the shrine with the archaeologist Charles Thomas in 1950 the little house was thatched annually on May Eve (the feast of Beltane) and the stones were brought out to watch over the livestock.

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. Dr Ross said that following the death of its last ‘guardian’, she did not know if the tradition continued, although the stones continued to be treated with respect.

Happily The Guardian article suggests the tradition does continue today:

“This weekend, at Samhain the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season, according to a modest local custom that may span centuries, the figures will be returned to their quartz-studded shieling – a basic shepherd’s hut – to spend the winter months undercover.”

Back in 1992 I followed directions provided by Anne Ross during the writing of my book Twilight of the Celtic Gods with Andy Roberts. In the book, published in 1996, I describe how:

‘…we arrived after a lengthy trek across a treacherous bog and rushing burn before the ascent into Glen Cailliche brought us to a triangular stone suspect 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…’

The largest stone in the group represents the Cailliche and when I photographed the site in 1992 she was accompanied by the Bodach (Old Man) and a number of smaller water-worn stones.

The Cailliche stone, Tigh nam Bodach (copyright David Clarke)

At one time the tiny shieling was marked by a large quartz stone ‘shining like a seagull’ that allowed visitors to locate the shrine from the surrounding hills. Recent photographs show the quartz rock has vanished but smaller pieces can be seen inside the tiny house.

Tigh nam Bodach appears on the Scottish Sites and Monuments Record where it is listed as ‘a simple pagan shrine’. The entry notes the figures ‘are pieces of sandstone weathered into rough resemblance of human figures’.

It 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 [and] [the gamekeeper/guardian] still puts the figures inside the hut in winter and takes them out in the spring. This action has vague associations with good weather’.

According to local lore, strange and terrible things will happen to anyone who disturbs the lair of the ‘old woman’. In 2011 plans for a hydro-electric power scheme that would have run overhead powerlines along the loch beside the little shrine were dropped after a successful campaign by historians.

As author and story-teller Sharon Blackie writes ‘…in Scottish folklore, the Cailliche isn’t someone you’d want to mess with. She’s a fearsome character with white hair, a dark blue face, rust-coloured teeth and a single eye in the middle of her forehead; she whips up great storms and ice forms in her wake‘.

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  1. Mike Dash says:

    I hadn’t come across this story before, but it’s fascinating. I do wonder about the claims the tradition has really great antiquity, but I suppose there is no need to trace a line right back to the Pictish period to describe the shieling as a “pagan” site. And at the very least it would count as a remarkable and thought-provoking example of an invented tradition.

    I presume this is the same Anne Ross of Hexham Heads fame?

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