Matriarch of the glen: walking the Highlands’ hidden pilgrim trail

In a remote Highland glen, inaccessible by car, lies a unique and hidden treasure. Glen Cailliche – most easily reached through the only marginally more accessible Glen Lyon – is home to a little-known shrine to a pre-Christian deity and to the remnants of a tradition of honouring it which folklorists believe dates back centuries.

Rising up organically out of the peat, as all such people’s temples would once have done, is the house of the Cailleach (pronounced KAL-yach): the archetypal Old Woman of Scottish and Irish mythology. The old tales say she created and shaped the land, and fiercely guarded animals and wild places against human predation and excess. Her stories are strung out across the country like the necklace of rough granite boulders that she wore, according to myth. And as I began to hear of more and more women around the world raising their voices to protect the Earth and its wild things, it seemed to me that Glen Cailliche would be the perfect place for a pilgrimage.

So it was that I found myself, one gloriously crisp, clear autumn morning, parking by the Lubreoch Dam at the end of the single-track road through Glen Lyon, the longest enclosed glen in Scotland. I set off on the dirt road along Loch Lyon’s northern shore, heading west on the five-mile hike to the Cailleach’s glen. Even on this rare rain-free day, I felt as if I was walking through a waterworld. The loch glistened on my left and waterfalls and tiny streams tumbled down the mountains on my right. A merlin sped across my path at head height – one of many rare birds, including golden eagles, which are known to breed in the area.

It’s a long enough walk but not especially difficult; the only challenge presents itself when you come to Allt Meran, a plucky little river that has to be crossed before you can carry on west into Glen Cailliche. On this particular day there were no serious watery incursions into my walking boots, though you’d be hard-pressed to safely cross if you arrived after heavy rain. I’d have been bitterly disappointed if I’d come so far and then been forced to turn around.

Peak and mix: adventure activities in Glen Coe, Scotland

Once I had forded the river and walked on a mile or so, I found the shrine down near the fast-flowing Allt Cailliche, to the left of the narrowing path. It’s known as Tigh nam Bodach (probably, in pre-modern Gaelic, “house of the cotters”, or “countryfolk”) and is a simple, miniature thatched stone hut in which there is a small family of stones shaped by water into sort-of human forms. The biggest stone, with a large squat base that narrows into a thin neck and is topped by a roundish head of pink stone, represents the Cailleach; the other two stones represent her husband and their daughter.

The folk tradition here says that the Cailleach and her family were once given shelter in the glen during a period of heavy snow; they liked it, and so stayed a while. So grateful was the Cailleach for this hospitality that she left these stones at the house she’d occupied – with the promise that, as long as they were cared for, the glen would always be peaceful and prosperous. This small shrine was constructed by the local people and every Bealtainn (1 May, the Gaelic May Day) the three stones that represented the three deities would be taken out of the house and placed facing down the glen. There they’d stay until the house was rethatched for the winter, and they’d be moved inside again at Samhuinn eve (31 October, the Gaelic end of harvest festival).

In Scottish folklore, the Cailleach 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. But here, in her green, fertile and tranquil glen, I discovered only her gentle side. As I sat for a while by the carefully constructed dwelling, my only companions were a few curious sheep and a pair of thuggish ravens clattering around the slopes of Beinn a’Chreachain.

As I walked back along the lochside, weary now and sore-footed, I carried with me the strength of these old ancestral stories; I’d found in them the perfect role model for the times. An older woman who stands firm, who holds strong against the plundering of the land and its creatures.

Tigh nam Bodach is marked on OS Landranger map 50 (NN381427). Sharon Blackie’s collection of short stories, Foxfire, Wolfskin and other Stories of Shapeshifting Women is out now (£14.99, September Publishing). To order a copy for £13.99 go to The Guardian Bookshop

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