Her trails through the dust of Atlantic European folklore are as subtle as they are vast, almost erased by centuries of exposure to alien religious philosophies. She is called by a title:
All the names appear slightly different when written, but phonetically they are linked – linked to a time before christianity and the empires of men bought the written word…
Dictionaries and literature of the Gaelic languages provide us with a number of etymologies for the word ‘Cailleach’: Caill means not only a veil or covering (the English equivalent is cowl) but also ‘injury’ or ‘damage’. Cailleach can also mean ‘Cockerel’ (think Kellogg’s Cornflakes) or ‘Hen’, and there are several birds bearing the Gaelic name ‘Cailleach’ (the owl is Cailleach Oidche (Sc.G) for instance). Cailleach is an ‘old woman’ or ‘nun’, whereas Caillin is a young girl. Caillean (Sc.G) also means ‘seed’ or ‘husk of grain’. Caillte means ‘lost, ruined, damned’ (Armstrong). All of these terms evoke aspects of the Cailleach legends – that she destroys, that she takes a bird form, that she carelessly lost things she carried to form the landscape, that she veils the mountains in cloud and the land in snow…
More modern onomastics often use the word cailleach (or its variants) in the context of post-Dissolution explanations of placenames in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, to mean ‘Nun’. This is perhaps based on the tradition of women wearing veils which was common until the early modern period. However, Gaelic placenames with supposed ‘Nun’ associations are often based upon oral traditions that lack archaeological or historic evidence to back them up. Where there is evidence of nunneries giving places ‘Cailleach’ placenames, then there is always the consideration that these monastic establishments (as was so often the case) were set to ‘guard over’ former pagan sites and provide a Christian interpretation which eventually worked its way into the local oral culture replacing paganism.
Idol stones? ‘Celtic’ crosses?
With this stewardship of paganism in mind, another etymology of ‘Cailleach’ can be derived from splitting the word in two: Cail- and -leach, the second part of which can mean ‘a stone’ (leach or liagh) as in ‘standing stone’ or ‘pillar’. The word ‘Cailleach’ might therefore even refer to an idol stone, possibly one what was once given a covering to wear (as on Inniskea, and in the ‘Lament of the Sentuinne Berri‘). The often bizarre ‘early christian’ crosses of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man might be a little older than supposed… have you ever wondered at how their shape relates to the ‘Celtic’ seasons and model of the renewing year?