Celticsprite’s Blog

Samhain Goddesses: Nicneven and the Cailleach
November 21, 2011, 6:06 pm
Filed under: Celtic Celebrations, Celtic Symbolism, Thomas The Rhymer
The night of Samhain, in Irish, Oíche Samhna and Scots Gaelic, Oidhche Samhna, is one of the of the most important festivals of the Celtic calendar, and falls on October 31, symbolizing  the final harvest… time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies to survive the winter.
Due to it’s meaning of endless birth, life, death, and rebirth, the time of the solstice is often associated with deity and other legendary figures. 
The Cailleach
In Irish and Scottish mythology, the Cailleach (Irish pronunciation: [ˈkalʲəx], Irish plural cailleacha [ˈkalʲəxə], Scottish Gaelic plural cailleachan /kaʎəxən/), also known as the Cailleach Bheur, is a divine hag, a creatrix, and possibly an ancestral deity or deified ancestor. The word simply means ‘old woman’ in modern Scottish Gaelic,[2] and has been applied to numerous mythological figures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man
In Scotland where she is also known as “Queen of Winter”, she is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys, and is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods.
The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of Winter: she herds deer,  she fights Spring, and her staff freezes the ground.
In partnership with the Tripple Goddess Brigit or Brighid (exalted one) , the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between the Celtic Festivals of Samhain and Beltaine …  while Brighid rules the summer months between Beltaine and Samhain. 
It is interesting to quote that Brighid also retains “creative” qualities : She is the goddess of all things perceived to be of relatively high dimensions such as high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas; and of activities and states conceived as psychologically lofty and elevated, such as wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship (especially blacksmithing), healing ability, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare.
Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brighid  as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltaine and reverting back to humanoid form on Samhain in time to rule over the winter months.
Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (February 1) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (March 25), or Bealltainn (May 1) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde.
Là Fhèill Brìghde is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on February 1 is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if February 1 is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.
On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Bride’s day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.
In Scotland, the Cailleachan (lit. ‘old women’) were also known as The Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They were said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A’ Chailleach.
Nicnevin or Nicneven Scottish Samhain Goddess(whose name is from a Scottish Gaelic surname meaning “daughter of the little saint”)
In the Borders the name for this archetype was Gyre-Carling whose name had variants such as Gyre-Carlin, Gy-Carling, Gay-Carlin amongst others. Gyre is possibly a cognate of the Norse word geri and thus having the meaning of “greedy” or it may be from the Norse gýgr meaning “ogress”; carling or carline is a Scots and Northern English word meaning “old woman” which is from, or related to, the Norse word kerling (of the same meaning).

Even so, the elder Nicneven or Gyre-Carling retained the habit of night riding with an “eldritch” entourage mounted on unlikely and supernatural steeds. In Fife, the Gyre-Carling was associated with spinning and knitting, like Habetrot; here it was believed to be unlucky to leave a piece of knitting unfinished at the New Year, lest the Gyre-Carling should steal it.

Ben Nevis is sacred to both Nicneven and the Cailleach. The tale of Nicevenn riding out with her host on Samhain is reminiscent of the tale of the Cailleach riding out from Ben Nevis with eight sister hags at Summer’s End to hammer the frost into the ground. While Nicevenn lives on in folklore, only a shred of her mythology has survived.

When the lore of Gaelic Scotland comingled with the the Norse, Danish and Anglo-Saxon lore of Lowland Scotland, Northern England and the Orkneys, Nicevenn became known as the Elfin Queen of Elphame, the subterranean Scottish fairyland, or Otherworld. She also appears in Christian confessions and several traditional supernatural ballads, including Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, in which she is variously depicted as attractive and demonic. She is so pristine to Rhymer’s eyes, the bard mistakes her for the Virgin Mary.

Other Christian confessions depict Nicevenn as the darker, more threatening Scottish fairy queen Nicneven, “daughter of the little saint,” a reference that may be based on women who were put to death for being witches before they were given to the Queen of Fairy.  In the ballad of Tam Lin, the Elphen Queen is also a much darker figure, who captures mortal men and entertains them in her fairy mound, then uses them to pay a “teind to Hell.”

In the Borders of Scotland, Nicneven is referred to as the Gyre-Carling, which may mean “old female ogress” in Scots Gaelic and Norse. 

In later folkloric tales, Nicnevenn is cunning in charms and joins ranks with European witches in her ability to sail the seas in a sieve.

An old tale still told by the Galloway Scots preserves Nicevenn’s prowess as an ancient Celtic goddess. One Samhain, during night ride at the head of the hunt, the ocean highcaps snare some of her fey company’s low-flying mounts. Furious, the Huntress strikes out with her slachdan and magically transforms the local geography. 

The Galloway story reminds us of the connection between Nicevenn the Huntress and the Cailleach, Hag of Winter. Both goddesses are elemental powers who grow stronger as the days grow shorter; and they both ride forth from Ben Nevis on Samhain eve, carrying a slachdan, a wand of power with which they can shape the land at will.

Related Sources:
Donald MacKenzie, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life. (Blackie, London, 1935)
Images: http://wiccancountess08.deviantart.com

>Thomas The Rhymer : Rhymes On Places and Prophecies
March 31, 2011, 7:02 pm
Filed under: Thomas The Rhymer


Many of the rhymes on places and prophecies in Scotland are attributed to Thomas the Rhymer, Sir Thomas was born in Erceldoune (also spelled Ercildoune – presently Earlston), Berwickshire, sometime in the 13th century, and has a reputation as the author of many prophetic verses. Little is known for certain of his life but two charters from 1260–80 and 1294 mention him, the latter referring to the “Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun”.
et’s take a glance to some of them. Posted from the book The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland” CHAPTER XVIII. PLACE RHYMES by THE REVEREND WALTER GREGOR, M.A. LONDON: PUBLISHED FOR THE FOLKLORE SOCIETY BY ELLIOT STOCK. 62, PATERNOSTER ROW, E.C. [1881] (Obtain this full work and many more backups by clicking here!)

The name of Thomas the Rhymer even yet is well-known in the North, and his sayings are spoken of with much deference by many of the old folks. These sayings have now lost their virtue. They were to stand true only till “the saut cam abeen the mehl,” that is, till the price of salt exceeded that of meal. This was the case at the time a heavy tax was levied on salt. So high was the price of salt that the poor could not afford it; and those living on the sea-coast were in the habit of using sea-water in the boiling of potatoes, and such other articles of food. Hence the proverb, “to set one up wi’ saut.”

Aikeybrae is a small hill in the parish of Deer. On it there was, at no very distant period, a number of stones, which bore the name of Cummin’s Craigs, near which one of the Cumyns, Earl of Buchan, was, according to tradition, thrown from his horse, and killed. He called Thomas the Rhymer Thomas the Liar. Thomas, upon this, uttered the doom of his slanderer in the following words:–

“Tho’ Thomas the Lyar thou callest me,
A sooth tale I shall tell to thee:
By Aikey-side
Thy horse shall ride,
He shall stumble, and thou shalt fa’;
Thy neck-bone shall brack in twa,
And dogs shall thy banes gnaw,
And, maugre all thy kin and thee,
Thy own belt thy beir shall be.”

The site of the stones is now believed to be occupied by a quarry.

The following is the tradition about the lands of Auchmedden in Aberdour. Thomas the Rhymer’s prediction was that–

“As long’s there’s an eagle in Pennan,
There will be a Baird in Auchmedden.”

For long a pair of eagles built their nest in the cliffs near the village of Pennan, and the Bairds protected them with the greatest care, and fed them by placing daily on a ledge of rock near their eirie a quantity of food.

William Baird joined Prince Charlie, and was an officer of his bodyguard at Culloden. He continued in hiding for some years, and afterwards took up his abode at Echt House, where he died in 1777. Auchmedden was not confiscated, but Mr. Baird was obliged to sell it in 1750 to relieve himself of the debt he had contracted to support the cause of the Stuarts; it was bought by the Earl of Aberdeen. At that time the eagles left their home. Lord Haddo, eldest son of the Earl of Aberdeen, married Christian Baird of Newbyth. The eagles returned, and continued to build their nest till the estate passed from the Aberdeen family to the Honourable William Gordon. Again the birds disappeared. When the estate came into the hands of Robert Baird, about the year 1855, one eagle took up its abode in the Pennan Rocks, but it soon after disappeared.

“The water o’ Awn (Avon) rins sae clear,
It wud deceive a man o’ a hundred year.”

The river Avon flows in a strong stream, clear as crystal, from Loch Avon, a lonely loch hemmed in by Cairngorm, Ben Maedhui, and Benamain, in the top of Banffshire. It flows past Inchrory, Tomintoul, and falls into the Spey. During its whole course it is remarkable for the clearness of its water. Many cases of drowning are said to have happened arising from the ignorance of those who attempted to ford it at places where the water is much deeper than it looks, owing to its clearness.

Banff forms the subject of various proverbs. One in use in the North is:–

“Gang t’ Banff
An buff ben-leather.”

Another is:–

“Gang t’ Banff
An bottle skate.”

The one in use in the West of Scotland is:–

“Gang t’ Bang and bettle [or bittle] beans.”

In Lothian the saying is:–

“Gang t’ Banff and bind bickers.”

“Gae to Banff
An buy bend-leather.”

“Banff it is a boroughs toon,
A kirk withoot a steeple,
A midden o’ dirt at ilky door,
A very unceevil people.”

Whatever may have been the truth of this saying at one time, it has lost its sting now. Its church has a handsome steeple. The town is a model of cleanness. Another version puts the assertion in the last line in another light, and in the true light:–

“Bang it is a boroughs toon,
A kirk withoot a steeple,
A bonnie lass at ilky door,
And fine ceevil people.”

“Gang t’ Birse
An bottle skate.”

In parts of Banffshire this is spoken to one who is importunate in asking, to get rid of him.

“Boyne fouck; Buchan bodies;
Strila lairds; barfit ladies.”

This saying, no doubt, has come from the Boyne, and shows in what estimation the “fouck” of the Boyne held their neighbours.

“Buck, Belrinnes,
Tap o’ Noth, an Bennochie,
Is four laun marks fae the sea.”

This is a saying applicable to the Moray Firth.

The rhyme about the Cabrach, attributed in the district to Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon, is:–

“I hae a kintra caa’d the Cabrach,
The folk’s dabrach,
The water’s Rushter,
An the corn’s trushter.”

The Rushter, or Royster, is a stream that flows about a mile north of the church, having its source in the heights to the westward.

“Cairnmuir an Cairnbyke,
Rumblin Steens and Stoney Dykes.
Atween the centre an the pole
Great Cæsar lies intil a hole.”

On Cairnmuir and Cairnbyke, which are in the parish of Pitsligo, were at one time several tumuli. Who Cæsar was cannot be divined.

“Caul Carnousie stans on a hill,
And mony a fremit ane gangs theretil.”
Carnousie is a fine estate with a neat old-fashioned mansion, situated on a height above the Deveron, in the parish of Forglen. It has been thought that the words of the last line have reference to the frequent change of owners.

“A’ the wives o’ Corncairn
Drilling up their harn yarn;
They hae corn, they hae kye,
They hae webs o’ claith forbye.”

Corncairn is a district in Banffshire, not far from the Knock. The rhyme praises the thrift of its goodwives.

The rhyme about the parish of Cruden is:–

“Crush-dane the field and parish then were styled,
Tho’ time and clever tongues the name hath spoiled.”

Culblean was burnt, and Cromar harriet,
And dowie’s the day John Tam was marriet.”

In explanation of these lines tradition has the following to say. During the wars of Montrose and Dundee, the district of Strathdee was visited by bands of MacGregors from Rannoch, and Grants and Macintoshes from Badenoch, to reduce to order the disaffected. After a time they themselves took to evil ways, and plundered wherever they could. The marriage of one of the Cromar men was to be celebrated with great pomp, and the indwellers were invited to a man. This was known to the freebooters, and a foray on a grand scale was planned. On the marriage day, when the country was left defenceless, they swept over the district, carried off the cattle and flocks of the inhabitants, and burnt several of their dwellings. This aroused the vengeance of the people, and they arose to drive their enemies from their hiding-places. The only effectual way of doing this was by setting fire to the forest of Culblean.

Another tradition says that it was Mackay, after the battle of Killicerankie, that set fire to the forest, in forcing the Pass of Ballater, and at the same time wasted the Strath of Dee with fire and sword, and levied a contribution on the day John Tom was married-an event set forth in the lines:–

“Wo to the day John Tom was married,
Culblean was burned, and Cromar was harried.”

Cullen, in Banffshire, seems to have stood low in public opinion:–

“Aiberdeen ’ill be a green
An Banff a borrows toon,
An Turra ’ill be a restin place,
As men walk up and doon;
Bit Cullen ’ill remain the same,
A peer fool fisher toon.”

“Fin the ween cums aff o’ Cullycan
It’s naither gude for baist nor man.”

This is a weather-saw current in Macduff. Cullycan is a headland to the east of the borough. The saw embodies the evil effects of the east winds.

“Daach, Sauchin, an Keithock Mill,
O’ Tam o’ Rivven owned the will;
Balveny, Cults, and Clunymoire,
Auchindroin, an many more.”

“Tam o’ Rivven” was Thomas Gordon of Ruthven, who fell fighting against the Abbot of Grange. Tradition says that

Thomas Gordon, of Ruthven, laid claim to certain lands that belonged to the Abbey of Grange, on the Balloch Hill. The Abbot of Grange was not a man to stoop to give up what belonged to the Church, and he made ready to uphold his claim in the only way open to him by arms. Tam, with his followers, met the brave Abbot and his men on the north shoulder of the Little Balloch. Both Tam and the Abbot were killed. The spot where the Abbot fell is called the Monk’s Cairn, and is about 300 yards north-cast of the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill is a hollow called the Gordon’s How, to which Tam was carried wounded to death. Here, beside a spring of water, the Gordon died. The words of the rhyme show the wide extent of Tam o’ Rivven’s domains.

“When Dee and Don shall rin in one,
And Tweed shall rin in Tay,
The bonnie water of. Uric
Shall bear the Bass away.”

The Bass is a pretty artificial mound, perhaps a Hill of Justice, on the banks of the Urie, near Inverurie.

When a church was in the act of building at Deer, owing to some cause no one was wise enough to account for, no progress could be made. At last a voice was heard crying:–

“It is not here, it is not here,
That ye’re to big the kirk o’ Deer,
But on the tap o’ Tillery,
Where many a corpse shall after lie.”

“A church accordingly was built on a knoll or small mount, embraced by a semicircular bend of the Ugie, and, as was customary, a piece of ground was set apart for a burial-place, so that the weird is fully verified in the great numbers of interments that have taken place during the lapse of centuries in a wide and populous parish.”

“Dipple, Dindurcas,
Dandilieth, and Devey (Delvey),
Is the four bonniest haughs
On the banks o’ the Spey.”

“A mile o’ Don ‘s worth twa o’ Dee,
Except for salmon, stone, and tree.”

The following extract from “View of the Diocese of Aberdeen” explains this rhyme. “The banks of the Dee consist of a thin, dry soil, abounding with wood and stone, and overgrown frequently with heath; whereas those of Don consist of soil more deep and fat, affording good corn-fields. Some even go so far as to affirm that not only the corn, but also the men and beasts are taller and plumper on Don than on Dee.”

The Old Bridge of Don–the Brig o’ Balgownie–was, built five centuries and a half ago. Byron refers to it in “Don Juan” in the following lines:–

“As Auld Langsyne brings Scotland, one and all,
Scotch plaids, Scotch swords, the blue hills, and clear streams,
The Dee, the Don, Balgownie’s Brig’s black wall,
All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams.”

He adds this note–“The Brig of Don, near the Auld town of Aberdeen, with its one arch and its black, deep, salmon-stream below, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I may misquote the awful proverb which made me to pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with childish delight, being an only son, at least by the mother side. The saying, as recollected by me, was this, but I have never heard nor seen it since I was nine years of age:–

“Brig o’ Balgownie, black’s yer wa’;
Wi’ a wife’s ae son, and a meer’s ae foal,
Doon ye shall fa’.”

Another version of the first line is:–

“Brig o’ Balgownie tho’ wicht be your wa’.”

The second line has another version.–

“Wi’ a mither’s ae son, and a mare’s ae foal.”

“Caul may the ween blaw
Aboot the yits o’ Eden.”

This saying relates to the old castle of Eden, a lonely keep in ruins, not far from the present mansion on the banks of the Deveron. The tradition is that a vassal of the laird of Eden had incurred his lord’s displeasure; he was condemned to die, and no entreaty of his wife was able to soften the lairds heart. When entreaty failed she uttered curses, and one of them was the words given above.

According to the following Fochabers must have enjoyed all unenviable notoriety:–

“Aw sing a sang, aw ming a mang,
A cyarlin an a kid;
The drunken wives of Fochabers
Is a’ rinnin wid.”

Of Fraserburgh, now the great centre of the herring fishing on the north-east coast, the rhyme is:–

“Aberdeen will be a green,
An Banff a borough’s toon,
But Fraserbroch ’ill be a broch
When a’ the brochs is deen.”

There are two versions of a “prophecy” about Fyvie Castle:–

“Fyvyns riggs and towers
Hapless shall your mesdames be,
When ye shall hae within your methes,
From harryit kirk’s land, stanes three–
Ane in Preston’s tower,
Ane in my lady’s bower,
And ane below the water-yett,
And it ye shall never get.”

“Fyvie, Fyvie, thou’se never thrive
As lang’s there’s in thee stanes three:
There’s ane intill the highest tower,
There’s ane intill the ladye’s bower,
There’s ane aneth the water-yett,
And thir three stanes ye’se never get.”

The tradition is as follows: The walls of Fyvie Castle stood wall-wide for seven years and a day waiting for the arrival of Thomas the Rhymer. At last he appeared before the walls, and a violent storm of wind and rain burst over the place; round the spot where Thomas stood, however, there was a dead calm as he spoke the fate of the castle. The tradition goes on to say that two of the stones have been found, but the one below the “water-yett,” that is, the gate leading to the Ythan, has as yet baffled search.

“If evyr maydenis malysone
Dyd licht upon drye lande,
Let nocht bee funde in Furvye’s glebys,
Bot thystl, bente, and sande.”

Furvie, or Forvie, was at one time a separate parish; it now forms part of the parish of Slains. Much, if not most of it, is now covered with sand. Tradition says that the proprietor to whom the parish belonged left three daughters as heirs of his fair lands; they were however bereft of their property, and thrown houseless on the world. On leaving their home they uttered the curse contained in the foregoing words. In course of no long time a storm, which lasted nine days, burst over the district, and turned the parish of Forvie into a desert of sand; this calamity is said to have fallen on the place about 1688.

A pair o’ new sheen,
Up the Gallowgate, doon the Green.”

Both the Gallowgate and the Green are in Aberdeen.

“The Grole o’ the Gehrie (Garioch),
The bowmen o’ Mar:
Upon the Hill o’ Benochie
The Grole wan the war.”

This seems to refer to some skirmish between the Marmen and the Garioch men that was fought out on Bennochie. Tradition has no voice in it.

“Fin a dyke gangs roon the Bog o’ Gicht,
The Gordon’s pride is at its hicht.”

Much of what now forms the beautiful policies of Gordon Castle was the “Bog of Gight,” and the common saying in years not very long gone past was, that the last Duke of Gordon died about the time the “Bog” was wholly inclosed.

“Twa men sat down on Ythan brae,
The ane did to the tither say,
‘An what sic men may the Gordons of Gight hae been?'”

The castle and the estate of Gight, in the parish of Fyvie, came about the year 1479 into the possession of William Gordon, third son of the second Earl of Huntly, by a sister of the Earl of Erroll. He was killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513.

“When the heron leaves the tree
The laird o’ Gight shall landless be.”

On the 12th May, 1785, Catherine Gordon of Gight married the Honourable John Byron. The estate was sold soon after the marriage. Tradition says that about the time of the marriage the falcons, which had built their nest for many a year in a fine tree near the castle, left and took up their abode in the woods of Haddo House.

Another prophecy was:–

“At Gight three men a violent death shall dee,
And after that the land shall lie in lea.”

In the year 1791 Lord Haddo fell from his horse on the “Green of Gight,” and was killed. Some years after a servant on the home farm met a violent death. The third violent death took place not many years ago. The home farm was to be turned into lea. Part of the house had to be pulled down. One of the men engaged in this work remarked that the prophecy had not come to pass. Shortly after, part of the wall fell upon him, and crushed him to death.

“The guile, the Gordon, an the hiddie-craw
Is the three worst things that Moray ever saw.”

“The guile” is the marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), only too plentiful in some of the lighter sandy soils of Morayshire, and hinders in no small degree the crops. Pennant suggests that “the Gordon” may refer to the plundering expeditions of Lord Lewis Gordon, a son of the Marquis of Huntly, and the companion of Montrose in his wars.

“A misty May and a dropping June
Brings the bonny land of Moray aboon.”

Much of Morayshire is of a sandy nature, and the crops in May and June require a good deal of moisture, or else they become stunted.

Inverugie, in the parish of St. Fergus, was the seat of the Earl Marischal. Thomas the Rhymer had his saying against the family, which he uttered from a stone which stood near the castle:–

“Inverugie by the sea,
Lordless shall thy land be;
And underneath thy hearth-stane
The tod shall bring her birds hame.”

Concerning the stone the prophecy is:–

“As lang’s this stane stands on this craft
The name of Keith shall be alaft;
But when this stane begins t’ fa’
The name of Keith shall wear awa’.”

The stone was removed in 1763, and built into the church of St. Fergus, which was then in course of erection.

In 1715 the property of the Earl Marischal was attainted. The estate of St. Fergus was then bought from the Crown by the York Buildings Company. The trustees of this Company sold it in 1761 to George, Earl Marischal, son of the attainted earl. It was bought in 1764, the year after the stone was removed, by Lord Pitfour, one of the senators of the College of Justice, and it remains in the possession of that family.

“Fae Kilbirnie t’ the sea
Ye may stap fae tree till tree.”
Kilbirnie is not far from the Ord, a few miles to the west of Banff. The rhyme indicates a very different state of matters in by-gone days from what now exists. The tract of land at present between Kilbirnie and the sea is all under the plough, and few trees are growing to adorn the landscape.

“He (or she) is like the dogs o’ Keith, he’s aye on hoch.”

This saying is applied to one who is much given to going about in an idle way.

“Marna shall be claid in reed
An Mormond hill rin doon wi’ bleed,
An a’ the peace that ever’ll be
’Ill be atween Mormond an the sea.”

Marna lies in the parish of Strichen; and Mormond, partly in Strichen, and partly in Fraserburgh and Rathen.

“The four great landmarks on the sea
Is Mount Mar, Lochnagar, Clochnaben, and Bennochie.”

These are all hills in Aberdeenshire, and two of them are well known in poetry.

There is a shorter version of this saw which contains the names of but two hills. “The chief hill here (in Garioch) is that of Bennochie. It has seven heads, the chief of which, being a round peak, is called The Top; which, being seen afar off, and also affording a wide prospect to one who stands upon it, has given occasion to the name; for Bin-na-chie signifies The Hill of Light (though others expound it as The Hill of the Pap, because of the resemblance The Top bears to a nipple): and accordingly there is an old verse which says:–

“There are two landmarks off the sea,
Clochnabin and Bennochie.”

“Pit fae ye, Pitfodels,
There’s men i’ the Mearns.”

It is difficult to tell what is the meaning of those words.

“The Pot o’ Pittentyoul,
Fahr the deel gya the youl.”

The “Pot o’ Pittentyoul is a small but romantic rook pool in a little stream called the “Burn o’ the Riggins,” which flows past the village of Newmills of Keith. On the edge of the pool are some hollows worn away by the water and the small stones and sand carried down by the stream. These hollows, to a lively imagination, have the shape of a seat, and the story is, that the devil at some far-back time sat down on the edge of the pool, and left his mark.

“Fin the rumble comes fae Pittendrum,
The ill weather’s a’ t’ cum;
Fin the rumble comes fae Aberdour,
The ill weather’s a’ our.”

This is a saw respecting the weather sometimes heard repeated in the parish of Pitsligo. Pittendrum lies on the east side of the parish, and, when a storm is approaching from the east, the swell of the sea, which comes before the storm bursts, breaks on the beach not far from Pittendrum. Hence the noise. Aberdour lies to the west of the parish.

Rattrayhead is a ridge of rocks running out into the sea on the. coast of the parish of Crimond; it is dangerous to shipping, and has seen many a wreck. Its safeguard has been put into the following lines:–

“Keep Mormond Hill a handspike high,
And Rattray Brigs y’ill not come nigh.”

“The road t’ the Kirk o’ Rivven (Ruthven),
Fahr gangs mair dead nor livin.”

Ruthven, in Cairnie, had once a church, and the churchyard is still in existence.

“At two full times, and three half times,
Or threescore years and ten,
The ravens shall sit on the stanes o’ St. Brandon
And drink o’ the blood o’ the slain.”

The stones of St. Brandon, the patron saint of Banff, stood on a field about a mile to the west of Banff. Tradition has it that a battle between the Scots and the Danes was fought on this field. Near the same place is the Brandon How (pronounced locally Brangin How), where long ago St. Brandon’s Fair was held; this fair is now held in Banff. Rain, called “the Brangin sob,” is looked for about this time.

In the parish of Cruden, not far from the Hawklaw, There is a well dedicated to St. Olaus, whose virtues are set forth in the words:–

“St. Olav’s well, low by the sea,
Where pest nor plague shall never be.

“The Brig o’ Turra
’S half-wye atween Aberdeen and Murra.”


“The Brig o’ Turray
’S half-way between Aberdeen and Elgin in Murray.”

Turriff was noted for a skirmish between the Royalists and Covenanters.

“This infall (known afterwards commonly by the name of ‘the Trott o’ Turra,’ in derisione fell out May fourteenth, 1639, earlye in the morning.” “Weary fa’ the Trott o’ Turra” was for long on the lips of the folk as a kind of proverb.

The two streams that form the Ugie meet in the parish of Longside, on the Haughs of Rora.

“Little Ugie said to Muckle Ugie
‘Where shall we twa meet?’
‘Doon in the Haughs of Rora
When a’ man is asleep.'”

Another version of the first line is,

“Ugie said t’ Ugie.”

>Celtic Symbolism in Folk Songs: "Tam Lin" – Part Two
March 30, 2011, 4:15 pm
Filed under: Celtic Symbolism, Faerie Lore, Thomas The Rhymer


What are we to make of the central theme of the song? Shapeshifting? , The winning of the Otherworld lover?, Initiatory Rituals? The inner conception of birth/creation? Hereby the sequel to the first part of this cute essay by the assistant editor of the magnificent “Inner Keltia” Magazine, Deirdre Green. All rights reserved by the author.

A meeting of the ways is the meeting of the Worlds; this world, and the land of Faery intersect out of time and place, in an undifferentiated “betwixt and between” state which eludes rigorous structure or classification – a state which is (as it were) in permanent transition or fluidity – hence the magical shape-shifting, as we shall see later. (Anthropologists such as Van Gennep and Victor Turner have pointed out the importance of such “betwixt and between” or “liminal” states in rites of passage, initiation, ritual, and so on. Remember the numerous incidents in Keltic Mythology where some character has to perform an action neither mounted nor on foot, neither on water nor on land, neither inside a house nor outside, etc.

According to some versions of the ballad, Janet, arriving at Miles Cross at midnight, has to cast a magic circle with holy water, the idea doubtless being that by staying within the circle she, and Tam Lin once she has pulled him from his horse, are protected from Fairy influences.

Then Janet pulls Tam Lin from his horse, he goes through a series of transformations in her arms as he / passes from one world to another, The exact transformations vary with the versions of the song, but an ask (water newt), a snake or adder; a lion, and a bear are usually included, and sometimes also a toad, eel, swan, dove, greyhound, black dog, Lailly WornT and others. Many of these animals have precise symbolic connotations in Keltic Lore,.

Finally, there is a transformation into a red-hot bar of iron. Wee know that iron was often used as a folk charm against unwanted fairy influences, and we might assume therefore that at this point Janet has won through her battle of holding Tam Lin tight in her arms through-out these frightening changes of shape :

“They’ll turn me in your arms, lady
Into an ask and an adder
But hold me fast, and fear not,
I am your bairn’s father. “

The physieal contact produced by this close embrace is a means of “earthing”, of promoting disenchantment. A more common motif found in many fairy stories and folk tales, also showing the importance of physical contact, is disenchantment by a kiss (the hideous hag, when kissed, turns into a beautiful lady, or the frog into a prince; although this motif also has other meanings, which cannot be gone into here).

In some versions the bar of iron is then transformed into a burning coal, but in either case, Janet has to plunge the red-hot, fiery iron or coal into water or milk – an important magical means of restoring someone or something to its original shape.

The fire metamorphosis is counteracted by the opposite element of water. Tam Lin is then transformed back into his human shape, naked, and Janet has to cast her green mantle over him. This is also significant, for green garments of various kinds are often the mark of fairy peoples or of mortals who have visited Faery, while mantles or robes are connected with magical transformations (compare the common motif of a cloak that makes the wearer invisible).

So Janet wins her lover, and the Fairy Queen, enraged, declares that had she known of this plan, she would have taken out Tam Lin’s eyes and heart, and replaced them with “twa een o’ tree” and a “heart o’ stane”.

Keltic folklore is replete with examples of people who, having once seen the fairies, have their sight taken away. Usually it is just the “inner sight” that is lost, the power to see the fairy people, but sometimes physical sight is lost as well.

The heart has frequently been seen as the centre of the soul or self. Perhaps, then, the Fairy Queen means that she would wish to deprive Tam Lin of his power to see the fairy folk from then on, and furthermore to bind his soul by magical force. Perhaps on the other hand, she simply means that if she had known of this plan before hand, she would have taken out Tam Lin’s eyes so that he could not see Janet, and his heart so that his lack of human emotion would mean that he would have had no desire to return to her, and thus the Queen would have kept him in the Otherworld.

So what are we to make of the central theme of the song, the transformations that Tam Lin undergoes in Janet’s arms?

To begin with, it should be noted that shapeshifting, or magical transformation, is a general Otherworldly characteristic, and may signify different things in different instancea. The abil-ity to appear under different forms is a characteristic not only of fairy peoples, but also of certain magicians, gods, goddeáses, witshes, Druids, kings, great heroes, early Keltic Saints, and supernatural beings of all kinds.

Sometimes shape-shifting is connected with initiatory myth and ritual, as in the Welsh myth of Kerridwen and Gwion, of which another folksong, ‘The Coal-Blaek Smith” (also known as ‘The Two Magicians’) would appear to be a reflection. Sometimes it is connected with the natural cycles of the seasons.

Sometimes it is related to rebirth or reincarnation in animal form. In ‘Tam Lin’, however, it is connected with the winning of an Otherworld lover.

This connection can be found in other examples from Keltic myth, as well as in other traditions, for example in Greek Mythology (in the story of “Oenghus and Caer” Caer ohanges from a maiden to a swan, or vice versa, each Samhain,) we can also find a connection between shape-shifting and creation/conception, conception and birth being a form of creation on the micro-cosmic level, its analogue in the human being.

In Tam Lin’, Janet is with child, and wins her lover back from the Otherworld to be her child ‘s father. In the Welsh myth, Kerridwen pursues Gwion through many transformations until finally she, as a black hen, swallows him in the shape of a grain of wheat, and later bears him as the child who is to become the great Bard Taliesin.

In Irish mythology, Tuan, the last survivor of Partholons company, after successive animal transformations, is eaten in the form of a salmon by the wife of King Cairell and reborn of her .

Mongán, Pryderi,and Arthur are all conceived through the magical shape-shifting of their natural fathers, although here the change of shape is into another human form, and no animal transformations are involved.

In the Hindu tradition, a creation myth of the Erihadaranyaka Upanisad relates how all living beings are created from the successive animal transformations of the first male and first female, who were originally one androgynous self. She becomes a cow, he a bull; she becomes a mare, he a stallion, she a ewe, he a ramand so on. The Coal Black Smith too, while its main significance seems to be that of the transformations of initiatory ritual (as in the myth of Kerridwen and Gwion), contains also the theme of conception/creation in that the smith pursues a maiden with the intent of “gaining her maidenhead”. She becomes a fish, he an otter; she becomes a hare, he a dog; she becomes a fly, he a spider, and so on till the end of the chase.

Hare and hound, fish and otter, are also found in the transformatory chase of Gwion and Kerridwen, although here it is the Goddess that pursues the male hero, and many writers have argued that the earliest form of this mythical theme is the more matriarchal version, where the female pursues the male.

With the initiatory pattern, we can see the shape-shifting transformations as representing the trials, tests and degrees of initiation -the transformations which we all have to undergo in order to attain higher levels of consciousness.

Gwion undergoes his transformations after tasting of the Water of Inspiration from Kerridwen’s Cauldron, which was an essential part of initiatory ritual; and the various shape-shifting changes thereafter can be related to other parts of the ritual.

It is tempting to see ‘Tam Lin1 as containing vest iges of initiatory shape-changing too. After all, Tam Lin has spent seven years in the Otherworld – a time period often connected with initiaton» (Thomas the Rhymer spends seven years in Faery, and returns with the gift of composing rhyming prophecy) .

Initiatory myths and rituals also often contain the symbolism of fire and of water, by which the initiate is transformed and purified, and these could be compared to Tam Lin’s transformation into red-hot iron/coal and his inmersion in water/milk. (Cuchulainn, after his initiation as a warrior, is placed in three vats of cold water to extinguish his burning ardour, his inner fire», although this is not part of the actual initiation process itself.

But whether we see ‘Tam Lin’ as containing remnants of initiatory ritual, it is clear, at least, that shape-shifting results from contacts between this world and the Otherworld. It occurs in the context of initiatory myth, where the Otherworld is revealed to the candidate; and it occurs in ‘Tam Lin’ as the hero of our song makes his passage from one World to the other.

The transformations of Gwion and Kerridwen occur after Gwion has tasted of the draught from the Cauldron, that is, after he has penetrated the secrets of the Otherworld, which he later as Taliesin relays to the world of humanity. In many mythologies, when the hero has won the secrets of the Otherworld, he has to cross the threshold back to this world – as Tam Lin does – and magical shape-shifting results from a contact between the two worlds.

What we can say, at least, is that whether we see the shape-shifting of Tam Lin as connected with initiation, or with conception/creation, on either case the transformations into different shapes are an obvious and natural symbol of a change of state or form, while the underlying force or energy remains the same.

Shape-shifting is a characteristic of that which is not fully manifest – of something which is in the process of becoming manifest or actual, something which is betwixt and between one World ( or level of being) and another. Things can only shift shape if they are not fully formed, if the energy which is their being is in a state of potential, creative, dynamic, unstructured free-flow. Tam Lin undergoes his transformations out of time, out of place, out of structure, between the Worlds – at Samhain, at midnight, at a crossroads.

Whilst he is undergoing them, he is neither one creature nor another. As Janet effects his disenchantment by the “earthing” of physical contact, the unstructured energy which is his being, which is manifesting under so many different forms, slowly takes on its original structure and is given stable form as he is restored to human shape.

Perhaps we can sea the fluid composite zoomorphic forms of Keltic Art as pointing to the same reality as do the animal transformations – the reality of the Otherworld, where things are fluid, boundaries and categories indistinct, dualities transcended. Of course, it is also worth considering the specific symbolism of each animal in any series of animal transformations, and the deity that any particular animal may be connected with.

It is characteristic of all true symbols that they are inexhaustible. They relate to many different layers of meaning at once, and their wealth cannot be exhausted in any article, but reveals itself ever deeper to us when a symbol is meditated upon and lived through.

There are many other questions that we can ask ourselves about the symbolism of’ ‘Tam Lin’. For example : Who is the Otherworld Lover? A god or goddess with whom we have a special relationship? Or another human being with whom we may find Spiritual fulfillment?

For different individuals, it can be any or all of these but whichever it is for us, we can be sure that, as in Tam Lin’s story, many deep transformations will have to be undergone to bring the relationship to its full flowering and to bring about the inner conception and birth/creation. And that in order to hold on tight through these transformations, we will need sometimes to step ouside our usual structures and classifications, our preconceived boundaries and categories, into another World.

>Celtic Symbolism in Folk Songs: "Tam Lin" – Part One
March 28, 2011, 5:48 pm
Filed under: Celtic Symbolism, Thomas The Rhymer


I had the chance to get an approach to the magnificent “Inner Keltia” magazine through Wendy Newton from Green Linnet Records who kindly send me some volumes as a present by the 80’s. Thus I got acquainted of the outstanding work of J.A.Johnston (also known by his druidic name Kaledon Naddair ) who was it’s editor and reviewer. If you wish to purchase more of Kaledon books and works please feel free to visit the official website of Keltia Publications. In this opportunity I would like to share with you a cute essay by the assistant editor Deirdre Green. All rights reserved by the author.

It is widely recognised that Mythology enshrines Spiritual truths in symbolic form, but less credit is given to the fact that the same is true of folk tale and folklore generally and hence of folk music. Needless to say if it does not follow that all who sing those songs, or who have sung them in past centuries, are aware of their dooper meanings. But the songs can be seen as survivals (however much altered or diminished) of traditional beliefs.

When we read between the lines, they can be found to contain veiled references to esoteric teachings, no doubt only dimly remembered or half understood by many who have played a part in their transmission down the ages. Yet the very fact that the teachings are veiled, hidden under obscure layers of symbolism, means ühat they have survived where other more explicit wisdom would have fallen on prey to persecution. The inner kernel of truth is thus presierved for those in any age who can crack the shell.

I shall begin with some comments on the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin”, a moet interesting song which illustrates various magical and Otherworld beliefs of the ancient Kelts. The most important aspect of these beliefs shown in the song, is the transformatory shape-shifting which makes up the main body of the ballad, and which I will discuss in detail later.

First, though, it may be as well to summarize Tam Lin’s story for those who are not familiar with it, and to point out other magical elements found in the song. There are many variants of the song, and I shall take my references from a number of different versions so as to give the fullest possible synopsis.

“Tam Lin” tells the story of the winning of an Otherworld lover, a widespread theme in Keltic Mythology. The heroine, who in most versions is called Janet, is with child by her lover Tam Lin who has spent se ven years in the realm of Faery. She first meets him at Carterhaugh, a Fairy domain which can still be located today at Bowhill, near Selkirk; while Miles Cross, where Janet later has to pull Tam Lin from his horse, is nearby.

Folk tradition has preserved the belief that certain “Fairy Rings” upon the plain there were caused by the immersion of Tam Lin into milk or water, which will be discussed later.
When Janet first arrives at Garterhaugh she wanders about picking roses and/or red and green flowers (according to the version). This might seem insignificant enough, until we remember that mortals on their visits to the Otherworld are frequently warned not to pick or eat certain kinds of flowers or fruit (Thomas the Rhymer, another Otherworld traveller also from the Borders, is told by the Fairy Queen not to eat the apples of the Earthly Paradise); and indeed, Tam Lin immediately warns Janet not to continue plucking the flowers.

The rose is a highly symbolic flower with many inner meanings, and was sometimes also regarded as being under the protection of fairies; while red and green are both eolours symbolically associated with fairy peoples.

At about this point in the song, in some versions, we also discover Janet circumambulating (a widespread Keltic ritual practice) and trying to discover her lover’s “true name”, doubtless as a means of winning him back from the Otherworld :

” She turned her richt an’ roon about
Tae ask her true love’s name
But nothing heard, an’ nothing saw
An’ a’ the woods grew dim,”
She does not discover it at this point, and Tam Lin, it seems, has disappeared. But later, he tells her his name, and she makes magical use of it at Miles Cross when, according to one version of the song, she has to cry out his name whilst holding him tight through his magical transformations :

” They next shaped him in her arms’
Like the laidliest Worm of Ind
But she held him fast, let him not go
And cried aye ‘Young Tamlin”

After thalr meeting and the inevitable seduction, Janet asks Tam Lin if he was ever “in holy chapel, or sained in christendie” – in other words, she wants to know if he is really a mortal, or a fairy. Tam Lin replies that he was born of earthly parents, but that for the past seven years he has been dwelling in a Fairy Hill since his capture by the Queen of Fairies.

He then tells her his “true name”, the name by which he is known in the Otherworld, and it is the knowledge of this name, amongst other things, that gives Janet the power to later win him back from Faery:

” ‘First they did call me Jack,
‘ he said, ‘And then they called me John,
But since I lived in the Fairy Court
Tamlin has been my name’ “
Tam Lin then tells Janet that every seven years the Fairies pay a”tithe to Hell’ – a sacrifice – and that he is afraid that he may be chosen for this. He says that if Janet would win him back from the Otherworld, she must be at Miles Cross when the Fairy Court rides past at midnight on Hallowe’en (Samhain). Samhain is, of eourse, the tune in the Keltic calendar when the Fairies (the Sidhe) are believed to be particularly active, a time “out of time” when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thln. In particular, it is a propitious time for the recovery of mortals from Faery, and especially for the winning of Otherworld lovers. (Oenghus wins his Fairy Bride Caer at Samhain.)

>Suggested Albums for folk band versions of "Thomas the Rhymer" and "Tam Lin"

>FairyLore concerning the Otherworld have always nurtured the folk music ballads, and the characters of Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer are not excluded.

In the case of Tam Lin I gladly recommend versions from Fairport Convention‘s “Liege and Lief“, featuring the vocals of Sandy Denny w/ arrangement of “Tam Lin” by Dave Swarbrick, and from Steeleye Span’s “Tonight’s the Night,” featuring a rocking version by Maddy Prior.

Regarding “Thomas The Rhymer” I recomend once again the work of Steeleye Span – they have recorded two different versions for the “Now We Are Six album“, and Re-recorded (differently) for “Present–The Very Best of Steeleye Span” album.

There is a cute rendering of this ballad under the name of “True Thomas” by my friend Danny Carnahan on his solo album w/Robin Petrie “Journeys of the Heart“.

Hereby a quotation of his booklet liner notes and own version for the lyrics:

” I wrote this song around a very old Child ballad based on the 13th century legend of Thomas Rymer of Ercildoun. Thomas was said to have visited the land of Faery and returned with the gift of prophesy and a tongue that could not lie. Most recent versions of the ballad leave off at the point where Thomas is taken to the other world, but one 14th century version in Middle English recounts what happened afterwards and how Thomas returned to earth. I based my lyrics on this older story.”

True Thomas

(from “Journeys of the Heart”)

Thomas lay upon the grassy banks
And beheld a lady gay
Come riding o’er so brisk and bold
All on the ferny brae

And her skirt was of the silk so green
And her cloak the velvet fine
And at each toss her horse’s mane
Rang fifty bells and nine

And Thomas did salute her,
Bowing down upon his knee
And he’s said, ‘Well met, enchanting one,
You’re the flow’r of this country’

And as he’s gazed upon her
Oh, so blind with love was he
That he has kissed her ruby lips
All ‘neath the Eildon Tree

‘Oh, now you’ve kissed me, Thomas
You must ride away with me
To serve my will for seven years
Whate’er your chance may be’

And she’s mounted up her snow-white steed
And pulled Thomas up behind
And aye, each time her bridle rang
They flew swift as the wind

And on they road and farther on
Till they spied a garden green
And she’s said, ‘Light down, dear Thomas
For we near my fair country

And take this bread and wine
And lay your head down on my knee
For when your fill you’ve eaten
I will show you fairlies three

See the narrow road to Paradise
How it winds through thorn and tree
The broad road leads to the gates of Hell
Though fair it seems to be

But see you not yon farther road
Winding round the lily lea
That is the road to my fair land
Whence you must go with me

But hold your tongue, dear Thomas
And answer only unto me
For should you speak unto another
Your own home you ne’er will see’

When Thomas came into the hall
Oh, a well-bred man was he
They asked him questions one and all
But not one word spoke he

It’s of woven clouds she’s made the roof
And of flowered vines the walls
And jewels did shower down as rain
That night among them all

And each day brought Thomas wonders
Never seen be mortal eye
And each night brought Thomas wonders
As next the lady he did lie

But she’s rose and said, ‘Dear Thomas,
Now it’s time you were away.
For seven years have passed and gone
Though it seems but seven days’

‘If it’s seven years, my lady,
Since my face on earth was seen,
Pray give to me some token
That I may prove where I have been’

And it’s on they rode and farther on
To the Huntley Banks rode she
And she set him down upon the ground
Beside the Eildon Tree

‘As you’d have a token , Thomas,
A rare token shall it be,
For the gift I give you, Thomas,
Is a tongue that cannot lie’

But he’s cried, ‘I pray you, lady,
And give not this gift to me,
For how may I counsel prince or lord
Or court a fair lady?’

‘Be careful in your silence
As you’re careful what you say,
May your truth outlive them all,’ she said
As she turned and rode away

© 1984 Danny Carnahan/Post-Trad Music