Scotland 2013: The Cailleach

The Wise Old Woman of the Scottish Landscape,
and Climate Change Now: Oct. 8–20, 2013

I don't regret my lust and rage,
for even had I been demure
I still would wear the cloak of age.

The cloak that wooded hillsides wear
is beautiful; their foliage
is woven with eternal care.

from The Earth Mother's Lamentation, translated from the Old Irish by Anthony Weir

Meeting the Cailleach in Oban

A ship in Oban Bay

On our journey to Scotland in October 2013, we quickly met the spirit of the cloaked one, the landscape, the wise old woman, the cailleach. She presented herself to us on our first full day when we were gathering on the Oban waterfront to take the ferries to Mull and Iona. The off shore winds were fierce and the message she sent us was that we needed her permission to sail on the sea; we spent most of the morning and afternoon beside the other stranded travellers' vehicles. Inside our vans we drummed and sang frequently to the sea people, while the reports came ashore that we were going to be delayed and delayed again, and then finally that we would not be sailing on that day, October 9.

NancyBecause we are seasoned pilgrims we knew we had to honour the callieach behind the force of the elements, make offerings, and court her in the ways that she had "lost" when the above Lamentation was written. With the coming of Roman Christianity to Ireland and Scotland the wisdom of the cailleach was considered less often so it was not just her youth she mourned, but the honour that kings and their subjects gave to her. We needed to restore the practice of consulting with her on the ground before a voyage. We negotiated with her in order to travel the lands and seas, and whether as a result or not, we had clear sailing every single day of the many days that we were on a boat after that; local people around us remarked on the unusual October sunshine, blue skies and placid waters.

In surrendering to her wisdom, we had to change our plans and seek a place to stay in Oban. Fortunately Brenda found us a lovely B and B on the harbour close to Dunollie Castle. This proved to be where we needed to be, not where we thought we would be, and it became the gathering spot for collecting energy that we actually needed, to prepare for Iona. We first visited the lovely little museum house run by the MacDougall heirs. The castle keep Inside the keepThen we climbed the hill to the Dunollie Castle ruins. Like eagles we had a brilliant overview of the bay at Oban and of the history that started in Pictish times with a stronghold on the site, up to present times with Clan MacDougall. We drummed within the crumbling walls of the fortification and shared our intentions for the pilgrimage.

The October 2013 pilgrimage had a unique circumstance; we all knew one another from being in the same spiritual circles, stretching from Central to Atlantic Canada. We had established many tender ties before joining as pilgrims and there was a great deal of previous spiritual practice and experience in the group.

Oban Bay from Dunollie Castle Celtic cross on castle grounds Group gathering

Viking shipOn the walk back down the castle hill, one of our party was startled to recognize the manifestation of a boat that he had seen in a shamanic journey he had been in before even coming to Scotland. (see photo) If anyone needed proof that we 12 were meant to be together for common purpose, that was it, We had decided before we even left that the energetic container of our pilgrimage would be built as if it were a boat, with song keeping us within the container that moved us along. That boat at Dunollie was a manifestation of our pilgrim vessel and because it was handcrafted, it meant that it was made with love.

Sacred Ground in Iona

Nunnery ruinEveryone anticipated Iona because of its reputation. The name Iona may be connected to the Gaelic Io, or Yew tree. It was an island of druids in pre-Christian times and some say Brigid was there. After Columba, Collum Cille landed from Ireland in the sixth century, it became a sanctuary of the Christian faith. Columba created protection for the island with St. Oran as a sacrifice much as pagan Bran was sacrificed to protect Britain. Columba was a Celtic Christian at a transition time when ritual from his own druidic knowledge would have bridged the shift to Christianity. It was not unusual for the first few generations of Celtic Christians to know druidism. Roman Christianity was more centralized (urban) and held nature itself as serving man, rather than a partner (divine feminine) in this life on earth. Iona thus weathered the changes in beliefs from its misty edge of the world. Gardens During Columba's time it became the centre for evangelizing across Scotland and for holding Light during the turbulent years of what has been called the Dark Ages. Iit was a centre of learning and a sanctuary, probably a burial place for kings and a place to contemplate God away from the rest of society. Iona was chosen then and is chosen now because we needed a "place apart" to begin our inner journeys as well as the intention of the pilgrim to follow in the steps of those who went before us.

Walking off the ferry Boat named Iolaire of Iona Stone row houses

When we got to the island on the foot passenger ferry we met as a group at St Mary's Abbey ruins. After a sharing circle everyone had a couple of hours of walking meditation while I drummed on the highest spot on the island, Dun I.

Abbey on Iona Pilgrims gathering at Iona The top of Iona

The veils between the world are thin on Iona and each pilgrim got to experience that for her or himself until the call back was felt.As people from our group approached the hill they joined in circle and started to drum together. Other pilgrims from all over the world, on the way up or down on Dun I, threaded their way through and around us. There was a common feeling of blessing in our coming together in that way. One group sang," Climb Every Mountain" and it was really cheering to feel our commonality with them. Each pilgrim that comes to Iona gets to appreciate the site that is still powerfully drawing us all to leave the comfort of our homes and to go to Iona's earthly portal that leads to the Otherworld.

Info plaque about Sacred Soil cemetery View of a croft back on Mull

After a time away from ordinary reality and in the mystical realms of antiquity, we were energized to celebrate a birthday party back in Oban! We helped the birthday boy, David Havelock, dance the night away at a pub where the staff toasted us, and a wee dram or two kept the foot fleet and the heart warm.

Memories in Glencoe

Glencoe mountainWe went north to Fort William the next day, passing through the stunning landscape that Scotland had been promoting for 2013: Year of Natural Scotland. It was as remarkable as promised; it amazes me when we can still see much of the scale and the grandeur of the original terrain withstanding the inroads of our modern world.


Town of GlencoeSinging and chanting through the winding byways always kept us uplifted, knowing that we would need to embrace whatever was ahead. And sometimes that was very challenging. Our history as humans includes a bloody past. We travelled to Glencoe and the site of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692. We needed to go into this very spot where the MacDonalds were murdered in their beds and where the fleeing wives and children died of exposure during the night of Feb 12.

In addition to the immediate horror of the attack of British-directed soldiers on the clan members, the long term effects of the massacre impacted upon the laws of Gaelic hospitality. During that cold winter night one of the most dependable customs of the indigenous Gaels had its back broken by transgression of the law of hospitality. In the harsh Highland conditions it was imperative to offer shelter to anyone, friend or foe, out of compassion for the circumstances of weather Monument Inscriptionand lack of commercial stopovers. The MacDonald loyalty to the clan custom of extending shelter even to one's enemies while they were guests, cost them their lives. It meant that the English were able to stay two weeks with the MacDonalds, rise in the night upon a secret order, and start to slay the people they were staying with.

This breach of trust meant that the old ways were being transgressed and the newcomers to the Highlands would not be bound by those ancient laws that were kept for the common good. This change went in hand with the actions of the British directive that the Scottish lords be educated in the South, which resulted in them gradually becoming more and more disconnected from the land and their clans. In the traditional way, when the chieftains lived more simply on the land among their people, the heart connection kept them in service to the greater good of that clan. Group As you can see by the photographs, it was a very sobering start to our day. We could tell that Glencoe was an enticing place to live in and it would have seemed very protected, but the breach was made from the inside through treachery.

Place names of the cailleach were all around us in the mountains and lochs, just as they are in Ireland. As we travelled around Fort William, Skye, and in the inner and outer Hebrides we recalled the legends of the cailleach forming the landscape. She is such an integral part of the land that she has practically merged into it without a separate identity. She is the ultimate shapeshifter and resides in the mist and rocks and sea.


Monument Bonnie Prince Charlie Bonnie Prince Charlie's landing spot

We wanted to go from Cameron territory to MacKenzie territory before evening so we travelled, via Glennfinnan where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed with his standard for the Stuart cause. There is a monument to the prince with a viewpoint from a platform reached by inside stairs. (see photo) The number of visitors within the monument is limited, (see photo) so we divided into two groups, those inside creating our signature singing and sending the old "airs" and lyrics across the waters, across time. At the base on the ground a local guide who is descended from the ancient bloodlines of the Picts, shared his stories and his ancestors' history with us, For David Cameron that was as good as a visit to a Cameron castle, as he got to hear the "other half" of the 450 year story of the Cameron's invincible fighting spirit. The Camerons were the the most largely represented clan at Culloden and their bravery is uncontested. However, David got to hear about the Camerons from the receiving end, of those who were attacked by them in the past, and the guide recalled those days with horror and loathing. For him, "The Cameron" was a scourge! Speculation: If you have ever wondered why the 60's love era, which is David's generation, are called the generation of Peace and Love, it may be because they came to accept the karmic consequences of their ancestors's actions, and endeavour to have compassion for "both sides." David felt that he had enough sense of his clan's history in that moment to appreciate his own personal history and choices.

Steam train over bridgeThe Harry Potter train came through the hills like a dragon while we were there, puffing and snorting, connecting myth, legend, and contemporary times. And may I note that It was absolutely necessary to eat ice cream and to stock up on chocolate as antidotes to all the sobriety of our history! Absorbing all this past energetically and integrating the stories and and rituals and memory of the land creates a hungry crowd.

MacKenzie stronghold Maria in front of the MacKenzie strongholdAt the MacKenzie stronghold near Gairloch, we came upon the impressive castle that is surrounded by water and open to the public. (see photo) We found an old cellar hole in the ground near the shore for an ancestral ceremony(see photos of castle). We asked Maria MacKenzie-Cann to help lead our circle in honour of her people and requested prayers were included that came from those people who were following our journey in Canada. The spirits of our foremothers and forefathers were embodied in us as we drummed and sang and told stories for the MacKenzie clan, putting to rest any separation between our own ancestral clans and those from the homeland, including today's living descendants.

The Outer Hebrides

Our next stop was the ferry terminal to take us to the Outer Hebrides. We took our appetites to the quay restaurant because there was some delay and shift of schedule and then it changed again and everyone had to practically run out of the restaurant to the ferry that took us to Harris from Skye. You have to imagine that we also kept singing in the two vehicles whenever we could; it was a reminder of how our ancestors put love into their day and it renewed the energetic container for our journey.

That particular crossing from Skye and all that followed it were so calm that people kept commenting on the unusually beautiful weather. We just kept thanking the cailleach, the spirit of the land. And we had a truly heartelt stay at the Blackhouses where we were welcomed by a host who loves what she does. She got us into our first of several discussions about the Referendum for Scotland coming in 2014. She was happy to hear that David and I remembered John the croft weaver from that area, so together we honoured the memory of a good man from the traditional community.

Blackhouses on LewisAt the Blackhouses on Lewis, everyone was taken by the feel of the coast and by the rugged way of life of the people. We noticed the design of the snug double walled black houses, and imagined what it was like to be in those small villages of a century ago and more. It is obvious when you are there that the connection to land and sea is at such a deep level that it can hardly be comprehended from our modern experience and point of view. We could see how natural materials, weather, tides, seasons, songs, stories, and a strong communal culture could hold folks to stay there for generations. It is not just a romantic concept but a response to survival that used the human imagination and spirit to create a legacy for the earth that does not destroy her.

Standing stones at CallanishWe stayed to see the main Callanish circle in that area and since it was Sunday there was no visitor centre open. That also meant that we were there alone for quite a while. Eliza and standing stoneThe stones supported our spirit journey together and we merged with the energy of land, sea and sky. Then fortune smiled and we were greeted by an elder who happened to be coming back with her family to isle of her birth. She ended up dancing with us, so light on her feet and so ready to play, young in spirit at nearly 90 years old. it was a blessing to have such a one among us, that had experienced the time not very long ago when the smell of peat fires used to tell folks that they had arrived on Lewis and say, "Welcome Home."

Magical photoOn our second evening together there was handcrafting, making offerings to the faeries and time to just be. During our days on Lewis and Harris there was an adventure by a couple of pilgrims to Dun Carloway broch, hiking along the coast, napping, and healing for hearts and bodies. On our way to North Uist, one vanload chose to see and buy the beautiful island crafts and the rest went to an even more remote area of bays and inlets in order to understand the lifestyle of people who have chosen to move to this part of the world from away. The winding roads and striking landscape kept beckoning us to examine thatch, check out the goats and sheep, look at unmortarted stone work, to keep in mind that in some ways 5000 years of living there had not changed and we wanted to know what adaptations had been made for this century. People living in the outlying parts of Scotland are used to considering the inhabitants of narrow roadways, human and animal, and noticing changes in wind and clouds, because weather still has great impact on life there. We were very fortunate. Our generally peaceable journey among the islands in October was a blessing of clear skies provided by the helping spirit of the cailleach and so when the weather did get rude, we were reminded of how it could be when she changed her mood.

Sheep on Lewis Weaver on Lewis Lewis tapestry

Travelling to the home of Ruthe's ancestors meant that we needed to find a stone circle for ancient connection, and one offered itself soon after we landed on the island; it was Pobull Fhinn near the open water of Loch Langass. The site is really stunning and the walk worth it. We became the missing stones in the circle, merging with the etheric energy of their presence and standing with our roots deep in the earth and and were held by echoes of the stories of people who had always lived by the signs in the skies and by the changing sea.

RestaurantWe came to Castlebay very reluctantly because it would have been easy to stay another day. We had travelled a long way and only the breathtaking view of the bay and a gorgeous meal kept our bodies and spirits from fading. We stayed in a friendly hostel in town overlooking the water; there was still the pull of so much to see, so little time, so I congratulate everyone on gathering in circle one more time because it takes a certain will to do that. RestaurantAs much as we ebbed and flowed personally every one was very committed to the group process. it was remarkable how much we could come to terms with on a moment's notice to new circumstances, and respond willingly.

The 5 hour trip back to Oban from Castlebay was a relaxing break from the road; seas were calm, and pilgrims took turns getting readings from the oracle! Coming in from the West, by boat, we had the lovely experience of sailing past the inner islands before going back to port.


We landed in Oban for the night again and headed for the oldest yew tree in Europe, at Fortingall, the most ancient "centre" of Scotland from the Foretime.

Ancient yew treeThere was a collective sigh of relaxation from most of the pilgrims as we went through the forested glens all day because although the Hebrides, where most trees disappeared long ago, was starkly beautiful, there was feeling of ease within the reaches of the well treed roads, a kind of buffer that our standing relations make for us in protecting us from the harsh elements.

Plaque reading Up ahead stands Fortingall's oldest resident, a 5000 year old yew tree.There are many beliefs associated with yew trees including their association with the cailleach's great age and with death and transformation. The yew tree in Fortingall may possibly be 5000 years of age. Perhaps as myth would have it, Pontius Pilot was born near the Fortingall yew, certainly that tree saw many changes in human culture around it, and it has endured the scavenging and chopping of it's heart even by the pilgrims that came to visit it over the centuries. (see photo of sidewalk with time line) The timeline of prehistory and our historically recorded era was incised into the sidewalk leading to the tree, giving us a chance to appreciate its age in human terms. The yew itself is now surrounded by an barricade of iron uprights which keeps people from further degrading the site. A yew tree will regenerate over time, as this one has done, and so the appearance of fragility is deceptive as the persistent branches grow in a circle around a hollow core.

We did a collective ceremony there and some of our group hung their faery offerings on the fence.

Nancy drinking tea We were reluctant to leave the peace and nurturance of that place so a rest was called for. We were received with great hospitality in a nearby hotel where we were offered tea. You can see by the photos that some of us felt very at home there under their roof and in the presence of the sheltering tree.

It would be too much for our group to stay in the same mood, so the roller coaster went up again with a breathless ride through Glen Lyon. You have heard of trust walks? This was a trust ride, with the narrow, steep roads and oncoming vehicles challenging drivers and passengers to new heights of intuition and maneuvering skill. However the road brought us to a youth hostel where we we ate breakfast served by Brenda wearing a head lamp the next morning ; she prepared it in the dark because of a power outage. A sense of humour and adventure helps on all occasions and Brenda rose to that one.


Grave markers in KilmartinWe headed south to Lochpilead so that we could take in a few days at Kilmartin. Our hosts gave us a genuine welcome and we had the run of the place with time to meet in the dining room by ourselves. When we went down into the Kilmartin area where the Kilmartin museum is, everyone was told to gather knowledge of the way she or he does best, by walking, having tea and chatting with strangers, going into the museum, reconnoitering around the ancient sites below the museum, lingering in the churchyard in contemplation, taking photos, wherever intuition and fancy led them. Some of our high spirited walkers took off at great speed in the rain, splashing up puddles and heading away from the town centre, others meandered into the churchyard, and a few went right for the museum's historical video and exhibits, while others inquired in the gift shop and pondered over the books and crafts. People were given time to feel the layers and layers and more layers of time through the many warrior societies of Scotland, back before Christianity, back before the Irish invasions that created Dal Riata, back through Pictish times, back to the neolithic stone circle builders. There was one stone circle, called Temple Wood, that was far across some fields below the museum and hidden in trees, and no one quite made it that far. The call came to gather and share in the cafe and be in the present before we all went back to Kilmartin on the night of the full moon to find Temple Wood.

Family grave Grave goods

The fort of Dunadd is in the Kilmartin area and we got some real surprises there (see photo left of people ascending its heights). By helping one another ascend we got to understand how easily defendible the fort was and how daunting it was for the attackers. The view from the top was that of a lookout, right out toward water. The spirits of the Ancient Ones were so palpable throughout the fort that we almost had to pinch ourselves to feel that we were in 2013. What was once a well was rocked in and it looked dry; so some of us privately made offerings and asked it to flow again.

Everyone got a chance to experience the rock where the candidate for king was allowed to put his foot into a hollow and see if it would fit. Since his sovereignty depended on the authority of the land (the feminine principle) he would have to fill the shoe print of his ancestors and to take responsibility for the care of his people; without being worthy of the title of king (the male principle) he would not be able to be crowned as leader. The transfer of the authority from the land to a Christian priest was one of the practices that separated people from their place and its feminine fertility; St Columba himself initiated that kind of change, taking part in the crowning of King Aiden of Dal Riata in 574, thinking he would bring peace with his religion and prosperity along with it. Unfortunately it eventually br ought us further from knowing what the dream of the land is and how we are to live in harmony with her. This is not an anti-Christian statement, the people that translate Christ's message are only human and we all bring our filters, our culture, our current understandings to the situation. The purity of the message of love has not changed, although our consciousness of how to express it may evolve. We actually were not mega-serious there, it was very powerful, directive energy but led people to drum, laugh and dance.

It is also not for me to say all that happened in Kilmartin, either that day or the next; I leave it to those who follow in our footsteps to spirit-track what occurred in those places, contemporary and ancient.

Corryvrecken Whirlpool, Jura

Corryvrecken Becca at CorryvreckenWhile we were still on the Kintyre peninsula, we drove nearer to Jura, where we created a communal ceremony for releasing the ashes of a friend, Keith Thompson, whose wife Becca was with us. The weather was expressing itself with the spirit of the cailleach in providing high winds, rain and waves. Becca and the feast of wild boar.Becca intuitively chose to go to that site where, according to legend, the cailleach washes her cloak in the sea each fall. It is called Corryvrecken Whirlpool, Coire Bhreacain, cauldron of the specked seas.Certainly the wind bared its teeth; there was a powerful cauldron boiling. Since the cailleach is about death and rebirth, it was a fitting spot to let Keith go, like a viking in a ship on the water, leaving us to grieve and howl and to drum his passage to the Otherworld. We toasted him over wild boar later in remembrance of his fun loving spirit and generosity.

Lori at CorryvreckenThat night we returned to Kilmartin and a Full Moon circle at Temple Wood. We only saw the face of the moon once when the veil of pale cloud was lifted; the rest of the time there was an opalescence to the atmosphere that made everyone emerge from shadow form into a shining being. Our circle was supported long distance by drummers in UK and in Canada, some of which are already mentioned on this website and some who are happy to be unnamed; without them we might not have had the powerful container that we did.

Completing the Pilgrimage

The 12 of us, like a 12 point mandala, surrounded the Temple Wood Circle, yet it seemed that there were many more spirits than you could count with the physical eye. Our spontaneous ritual was the completion of a community commitment to contact the cailleach's energy. Aligning with the divine feminine and the moon during eclipse at a sacred site intensified the experience considerably. The convergence of the energies from near and far, from ancestors, guides, allies and elements, elevated the power of common intent. Raising this primal energy together also assisted the pilgrims who came home to challenging transitions and prepared us for even more letting go. By going on this pilgrimage we asked to experience grief and its revelations. Dying and transforming parts of ourselves that we do not need, or a part of our life that we cherish but must leave behind is a practise in transitions, preparing us for the final transition out of this life to the next stage in the growth of the soul. The cailleach energy can help assist us: she is older than the eagle, older than the yew and has seen much in her longevity. That night some of us looked at the many levels of reality through the eyes of the cailleach. Every single pilgrim felt that the stones themselves were dancing. The message was very clear, to go home and keep doing this for the rest of our lives and on into the next plane of existence. As the veils between the world thinned the past, present and future dissolved into one.

Our last gathering day was on lovely Long Loch, north of Loch Lomond. It was a gentle restful winding down and getting ready for the next stage of everyone's journey. Some of us were to go back home, others to travel further seeking more ancestral connections. Two of our pilgrims went to the Findhorn Foundation, the intentional spiritual community that began from visioning over 40 years ago, taking our collective energy with them and bringing the weaving of both experiences back to those of us in Nova Scotia when they returned.

Map of Scotland showing our travelsOur circles of association keep resonating, changing, vibrating with the songs of our pilgrimage to Scotland in 2013; songs of our direct ancestors, music inspired in the moment, and tunes from cultures we are drawn to because of our soul connection. As someone back home put it, "Your work widened the highway between us and the ancestors, making the connections easier for those of us who are living on Turtle Island now." This pilgrimage was intended to strengthen our vitality in this lifetime by connecting with the passion of those who were willing to defend their home lands and when that failed, to leave it to seek a place where that love could grow again. By extension we are citizens of the Earth, and she is our home, our mother, our grandmother, the wise woman, who in Gaelic is the cailleach, the veiled one, the crone.

Acknowledgment and Thanks

All of our pilgrims agreed to be photographed, understanding that sharing this would go beyond the direct benefits to our group. Besides coming back from travels and telling the community who saved your place in it for you, is the understanding that the medicine is for everyone and that those that hold space at home are carrying out a service too. The trip provides self reflection that is definitely valuable to each person and so this is not an argument against privacy or individuality, but rather an acknowledgment of the culture of community that surrounds us and supports our intentions and multiplies the love.

Laura SmithIn saying that, I wanted to acknowledge Laura Smith and her "I Built a Boat", a song from her newest album, Everything is Moving. The boat song came to me as one of the clues provided for the nature of this particular pilgrimage with the cailleach. Laura lives in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, and draws some of her material from her Scottish lineage as well as from the many other experiences of her life's journey which you will hear summed up in her compelling voice . Her website:

Brenda Marita Mason was keeping the flame of Brigit's hospitality during the trip; she arranged all the accommodations, food when we needed fresh for self-catering, and munchies in the vans. She was one of our most grounding influences and could still dance with the faeries when inspired.

David C and Bill were drivers who had to go with the constantly changing flow; Jeff was our Father Map again; David H S put himself in the other navigator's seat and when he was not drumming up some energy he had the map out for us. We were asked why men were asked to be drivers and navigators on this trip. We have had many competent women drive before. This pilgrimage required that their focus in service to the divine feminine and the greater good be given in this way. They were no less present for contributing to the sharing and ceremony and healing of the body and spirit when it was needed.

Thank you to the shamanic Grandmothers, Maria, Becca, Eliza, Beth, Ruthe, and to our wise grandmother-in-training, Lori. You all contributed assistance to one another, inspiration, play, imagination, endurance, song, divination, cheerful energy, ritual, blessings, tears, prayer and substance to the power of this pilgrimage.