A Look at a Landscape

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An Introduction top Geomythography

A look at a landscape

At a conference in February 1996 Dr Emily Lyle presented an analysis of matrilineal succession in which the two functions of warrior and priest represented as red and white alternatively marry into two female lines. These are represented as yellow, the line of sovereignty and black which constantly provides the King mother. This idea gives a clear model for how matrilineal succession might have functioned within Pictish society. However is does more than that. The representation of the dual female line as yellow and black finds striking correlation within Scottish folklore. The colours of black and yellow give us the clue. Yellow, seen as the colour of sovereignty in the model of matriliny, is also the colour most strongly associated with the figure of the goddess Bride, later euhemerized as St. Bridget (McNeill, 1953). Similarly the Cailleach Bheur, or Hag of Winter is strongly associated with black (Mackenzie,1928 139). As Davidson points out there are instances of both dual and triple goddesses in northern Europe (1998;84),

“It seems that the tradition of two or three Mother Goddesses of different ages was known to the inhabitants of both Celtic and Germanic territories in the early centuries A.D.”

This matches the youthful Bride and the ancient Cailleach and Scotland of course has both Celtic and Germanic traditions through Gaelic and Scots and Norse. Given that one ancient understanding of time in Scotland and Ireland divided the year into the time of the Little Sun and the time of the Big Sun there seems to be a recurrent dual aspect here.

This dual aspect inherent in matriliny can be presented in the figures of Bride and the Cailleach as two faces of the one Goddess figure in her Summer and Winter aspects respectively. The Cailleach in Gaelic tradition is matched within the Scots tradition by the figure of the Gyre Carlin, a figure like the Cailleach who is closely associated with various levels of foundation mythology. (Mackenzie,1928. McNeill,1977) The relationship between the Cailleach and Bride is in at least one instance clearly exemplified

On the Eve of Bride, the Cailleach repairs to the Isle of Youth, in whose woods lies the miraculous Well of Youth. There, at the first glimmer of dawn, before any bird has sung or any dog barked, she drinks of the water that bubbles in a crevice of rock, and having renewed her youth, emerges as Bride, the fair young goddess at thr touch of whose wand the dun grass turns to vivid green, starred with the white and yellow flowers of Spring.” (McNeill, 1959 2,21)

Mackenzie (1928 138) quotes a story connected with the Fians in which the Cailleach changes to a beautiful woman after sleeping alongside Diarmaid. This motif recurs in both Scottish and Irish material and in some cases the young aspect of the female is referred to as Soveranty. While we might expect this event to take place at Beltain rather than Imbolc, there is here a clear explication of the dual nature of the Mother Goddess figure as both Cailleach and Bride.

Both the Cailleach and the Carlin are regularly associated with witch tales suggesting the possibility of some sort of continuity from the time of goddess to when the witch persecutions took place. It is hardly coincidental that the persecution of witches – often spaewives or wise women who had a deal of healing lore – coincides with the growth of modern, male-controlled medicine. Whatever other lore or knowledge was held by these powerful female figures can now not be known.

However if they did represent some form of continuity with ancient, possibly even pre-historic belief, the possibility exists that there is other evidence of such a continuity. That evidence is in the landscape and survives today. Throughout the Scottish landscape there are referents to geographical features which resemble the sexual characteristics of the female body. The Paps of Jura, the Paps of Fife, Bennachie and Lochnagar, both originally Beinn a Ciochan, all draw attention to breast shapes in the visual landscape in both Gaelic and Scots traditions. Lochnagar of course has Meikle Pap and Little Pap showing the intermingling of ideas and concepts between the two separate language communities. Given the predominance in Early Europe of the Mother Goddess figure as delineated by Gimbutas (1977) this should not surprise us and it is quite likely that the concept of the goddess is inherent in all such placenames for geographical features. I would suggest that the appearance in the landscape of a feature reminiscent of the female form could be interpreted as a sign to humans from the goddess herself, particularly if these humans had a belief in some form of Mother Goddess, the fount of all life.

In pre-literate society the importance of the landscape itself in the transmission of belief cannot be overestimated. The need to educate children into the realities of their own culture and social existence, required that the storytelling tradition be understandable and accessible. Therefore any mythological or legendary material would be presented within the known environment. In pre-industrial societies travel was limited and for the majority of people, their entire life could be lived within a handful of miles of their birthplace or, in the case of marrying out, in two small areas. In pre-industrial society people lived more within their environment than we do today with a consequent increased awareness of that environment, including the changing seasons and the weather. As Mackenzie points out (1928) the Cailleach as Winter Hag is strongly associated with dramatic weather and the mythological explanation of the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan shows this relationship remarkably. In this tale the Goddess figure is clearly exemplified as the creatrix of winter itself.

There are shapes in the landscape which refer directly to the female form such as Cailich na mointich – the Old Woman of the Moors, south of Calanais. The shape referred to in the landscape provides the specific backdrop within which the standstill of the moon can be seen from the Calanais stone circle every 18.6 years – perhaps the reason for this precise location of the stones; the Sleeping Giant of Benartney which I am convinced is female; the Sleeping Goddess near Ben Cruachan. The existence of these referents underlines the ancient concept of a Mother Goddess, made manifest in the landscape and thus becoming the focus of a variety of cultural artefacts. However the instances of referents to breast shapes are much more widespread though there is the possibility that there are other instances of the goddess in the landscape we have not recognised as yet.

What is striking about these locations is that all of them have clustered around them cultural artefacts of diverse kinds. There are wells, archaeological sites, and early ecclesiastical sites which are important because of the Christian policy of re-use of pagan sites. Other referents are to mythological female beings, deer, hares and other animals symbolically linked to this Goddess figure. See Appendix A


We should be aware that in dealing with the remnants of earlier levels of culture that in pre-literate societies symbolism was very important and often complex. While today we are beginning to be able to suggest various interpretations of Pictish Symbol stones for instance (McHardy 1996) as yet little attempt has been made to analyse the symbolic nature of placenames. In pre-literate societies the role of symbolism was inherent in all language and it is at least arguable that the more one was taught the deeper the level of symbolic meaning one could appreciate in either symbol or word. Cailleach is in itself an example. The modern meaning is nun or old woman but a close look at the old material we have in e.g. the story of her boiling her plaid in the Corryvreckan (MacNeil.1953) shows we are dealing with a being who is of significant mythological importance – she is in fact the Mother Goddess (Mackenzie,1928). Another relevant instance of her mythological importance is the story of her creating Scotland and spilling her apron full of rocks to create the Hebrides. (Given that there are strong grounds for seeing the Cailleach as one half of a dual goddess figure with Bride, the Summer goddess as the other half, this might raise the possibility of the popular tradition of the Hebrides deriving from I-Bride, the islands of Bride, might have some credibility.) If one is aware of this, one can see a feature named after her in the landscape and thus look for the clusters I discuss here. Without the knowledge of this older meaning of the word one is totally unaware of the possibilities.

The Cailleach is often associated with mountains and specifically with deer (Mackay 1934) and as Mackenzie points out (1928) she is also associated with the weather. This is because bad weather in particular often begins to gather around the highest peak in any given area. As noted above this is a significant mythological aspect of the winter hag. Her many locations are possibly due to no more than the need for oral transmission within a relatively closed environment to be contained within that environment, in order to hold the attention of the listener. This would be particulary important when dealing with children in such societies. Both Bennachie and Lochnagar are mountains round which storm clouds often gather. Given the antiquity of the concept of the Mother Goddess as exemplified by Gimbutas (1977) and others, the beliefs underpinning the material must surely precede the possibility of any particular linguistic analysis, at least within the theoretical limits of the Indo-European language theory as it currently exists.

If we can accept the strong likelihood that the referents to female breasts are an aspect of Goddess worship, or at least due to an awareness of the goddess as a symbol of life or nature itself, we must posit some questions. Did people see these geophysical manifestations of femininity as being put there by the goddess for them to respond to? Did they in some cases enhance natural geographic features to make them even more striking? Can we in any way hope to decipher cogent meanings from such clusters?

Before attempting to answer these questions there are other phenomena that we should consider. Having developed the idea of “clusters” as groups of cultural artefacts in some as yet undefined methodology of marking out sacred space, I found myself considering the role of dens. This came about through a visit to Dunino Den in Fife and the discovery that the living rock had been sculpted in a variety of ways that suggest the possibility of this being a prehistoric ritual site. One outcropping of rock overlooking the den has cut into it, steps, a basin and what might be a foot shape similar to the well known ones in the Western Isles. Such foot shapes were used in rituals of inauguration which have come down to us as coronations, though the concept of kings within contemporary societies is anachronistic. The next outcropping has a deep hole which could have supported a wooden cross or other portable structure and further down the den is a strange Pictish style Celtic cross of uncertain date. The point here is that the place seemed naturally a place of sanctity – an enclosed space with running water – and other dens have associations with sanctity – a few miles away is Kennoway den with a host of serpent associations hinting at a connection with Bride, whose chthonic symbol in Scotland is the adder. These sites and others led to the intriguing possibility that our distant ancestors, untainted by the Christian concept of sin might have also worshipped the goddess through geophysical referents to her primary genitalia.

One particular referent in the Ochil Hills that was drawn to my attention by a student is Fannyhill. This was original Fawneyhill, which given Mackay’s suggestion as to deer cults (1934), and Gimbutas’ evidence of the importance of the deer as symbol (1977), can in itself be interpreted as a reference to a symbol of the goddess. In the immediate area of this name we have several other referents that form a cluster as suggested. The name Tormaukin south of Fannyhill, at a V-shaped confluence of two glens is particularly significant. The Concise Scots Dictionary gives maukin as “1. The hare ” – a well known witch symbol and even more significantly as, “4. the female pudendum”. This latter meaning is given as coming from the 16th century and interestingly the OED gives the variant “malkin” as “1b. the proper name of a female spectre or demon”, quoting Shakespeare among others,” I come Grey-Malkin”, Macbeth1.i.9. This is I believe firm evidence for the location of primary female genital characteristics being perceived in the landscape.


There is no reason to believe that one meaning is all that can be discerned. In pre-literate society as noted, there is a strong likelihood that names can be as symbolically complex as visual symbols. Within a few miles of the location of Tormaukin we have: a Maiden’s Well which might have particular significance (Hope, 1972 35ff): the early Christian ecclesiastical site of Gleneagles with a nearby dedication to St. Mungo, a figure, under his given name Kentigern, with strong Arthurian connections and St. Serf’s Bridge, St Serf being associated variously with Culdees, Dragons and Beltain suggesting a pre-Christian origin. We are also in Glendevon here and as Watson has pointed out,

“Glen Devon in the Ochils is…..probably for an early British Dubona or Dobona; compare Dubis, the river Doubs in France, and its other form Dova (for Doba),’ black one’. This is a goddess name, of which Duibhe may be a Gaelic rendering..”

Interestingly the Glen through which the originally named allt-na-Cailleach on Ben Nevis runs is Glen Domhina which may in turn be related to the Irish Corca Duibhne or people of the goddess, a name still extant in the Dingle peninsula. Ben Nevis as the highest mountain in the British Isles has particular weather significance. In passing it is worth noting that Mackenzie(1928) refers to a clearly mythological tle of the Cailleach of Ben Nevis riding out to bring Winter to the land with eight sister hags. Elsewhere I (McHardy 2003) have looked at the widespread motif of Nine Maidens and noted the link to notable hills in Lowland Scotland – Dumbarton Rock, Edinburgh Castle rock, Stirling Castle Rock, Traprain Law and others.

Further evidence in Glendevon might be found in a reading of the nearby name Fossoway which has been interpreted as fasadh fiadh, the sanctuary of the deer (Johnson and Tullis, 1989, 28) and also in the local name Yetts o Muckhart, with the reference to swine, the sow in particular being associated with goddess figures in various Celtic sources (Markale, p93ff). As this area was Pictish and the Picts are generally assumed to have been P-Celtic speaking it is at least probable that they shared aspects of their belief with other P-Celtic speakers and therefore that the Muc reference can also be interpreted as alluding to the goddess. There are several placenames containing “white” in the area (see Appendix B).

If the suggestions here as to the layering of symbolic meaning within words/placenames similar to visual imagery has any merit, another possibility arises. Gimbutas drew attention to the chevron or V-shape as a goddess symbol (1996 113ff). The location of Tormaukin is set within a V-shape where two glens meet and is also directly within a V-shape formed by the hills of Seamab Hill to the west and Lendrick Hill to the east. Tormaukin might initially have been the name of Downhill which is clearly Dun – hill and this seems to be like many similar laws a small pointed hill. The perception of such features as fairy hills is common and in some cases they may be an enhanced geophysical feature. Given its specific location within two Vs and the suggestion that pre-Christian peoples had no problems in seeing all aspects of female human physicality within the landscape as referents to the Goddess, perhaps what we are seeing in the small hill of Tormaukin should be read in Greek – Kleitoris.


Gimbutas,M. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe London 1996 (repr)

Hope,A.D. A Midsummer’s Eve Dream Edinburgh 1972

Johnston,T and Tullis R. Muckhart, Clackmannanshire, Stirling 1989.

McHardy,S.A.The Folklore of the Picts in stones, symbols and stories Proceedings from the Conferences of the Pictish Arts Society 1992 Edinburgh 1994

McHardy,S.A. The Wee Dark Fowk o Scotland in The worm the germ and the thorn, Pictish and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson Forfar 1996

McHardy,S.A. The Quest for Arthur Edinburgh 2002

McHardy,S.A. The Quest for the Nine Maidens Edinburgh 2003

McKay.J.G. The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the ancient Caledonians in Folklore 1934.

Mackenzie, D.A. Scottish Folklore and Folklife Glasgow 1928

MacNeil,F.M. The Silver Bough   London 1977 (repr)

Markale,J. Women of the Celts Vermont U.S.A. 1986 (repr)

Watson,W.J. The Celtic Place Names of Scotland Edinburgh 1993 (repr)



Appendix A


Initially Beinn a Cioch, the hill of the nipple or pap.

Craigshannoch, Rock of the Samhain Fire

Maiden Stane

Maiden Causeway

Mither Tap

Stone circles at Chapel of Garioch, Chapel o Sink, East Aquhorthies and Hatton of Ardoyne.

Standing stones at Hatton of Ardoyne, Monymusk and Tombeg

Symbol Stones at Logie




initially Beinn a Ciochan, the Hill or Mountain of the Breasts

Alltcailleach Forest

Caisteal na Caillich

Carn an t-Sagairt Beg and Mor. Cairns of the Priest

Cnapan Nathraichean, The Knoll of the Adders (Bride or Druidic reference?)

Coire na Ciche, Corryof the Nipple or Pap

Glen and Loch Muick, from Muc, a pig or swine

Little Pap

Meikle Pap

White Mounth

Paps of Fife

East and West Lomond Hill. Acc CPNS Lomond means beacon

Maiden Bower – geophysical feature used in fertility rite

Maiden Castle – not a fortification

The Carlin and her daughter – geophysical feature: Carlin is Scots for Cailleach

Devil’s Burdens – geophysical feature

Early church site at nearby Orwell

Earthwork in Glen Vale

Early Christian Symbol Stone with fish and cross on W. Lomond Hill

Fort on East Lomond Hill

Scotlandwell and its priory

White Craigs

Paps of Jura

Jura is originally Norse and means Deer Isle

The Paps are three mountains one of which is Beinn Shantaidh, the Holy Mountain.

One of the others Beinn an Oir, has Sgriobh na Cailich where a hag is said to have slid down the side of the mountain.

This location is also associated with the Seven Big Women of Jura, who in tradition had the Glaibh Soluis, the Sword of Light. They may have originally been 9 in number (see McHardy 2003).

Jura is probably the site of the Columban Hinba.

The Corryvreckan at the north end of the island has many Goddess associations and traditions and is one of the world’s seven significant whirlpools. Its spiral shapes, thrown into the Atlantic Tide are the Breath of the Goddess under the Waves and may have inspired northern European use of the spiral motif.

On the east of the island at Small Isles Bay there are Rubha (point) na Caillich and Rubha Bhride and Eilean Bhride.

Paps of Lothian

Used to describe North Berwick Law and Arthur’s Seat

North Berwick Law is a major landmark and linked to 17th century witch activity.

Arthur’s Seat has wells, hill-forts (?), a chapel and an ancient fertility site, the Sliddery Stanes..



Appendix B Clusters


Significant elements in locating potential Goddess sites. It is suggested the significance of these elements increases with frequency and proximity.

Wells – particular noteworthy dedications are St.s Brendan, and Bride, Ninewells but wells are significant in themselves.

Antiquities – most hilltop sites are given as forts but their significance as Beltane/Samhain fire sites may be more significant; likewise earthworks of various kinds and cairns can be of significance, particularly if associated with specific names –e.g. Shennach, a variant on Shannach, the Scots for Halloween. Stone circles are always a sign of a sacred site whereas without other supporting evidence it is impossible to be so definite about single standing stones.

Early church sites – particularly when on mounds – virtually proof of a previous site of sanctity.

Dens – many dens are associated with early saints, witches, supposed serpent worship. Their continuance as places of local activity can be construed as an example of social continuity.

Landmarks – instances like figures in the natural landscape or particular shaped hills reminiscent of the female body often have a placename element referring to this significance – or have associated ideas/tales in local history and folklore.

Islands – in both lochs and sea islands, probably because of being surrounded by water – water is the stuff of life and this can be seen as the virtual blood of the Goddess, underlining the importance of wells.


Placename elements.

White/Fin – white is traditionally seen as the colour of sanctity.

Nevay/Navay/Navie – as a separate word or word ending this refers back to nemeton – a sacred grove. Can be difficult to spot as in Slocknavata in Galloway.

Bride/Bridget /Breedie – can be first or last element. A Mother Goddess, symbol of fruitfulness and regeneration, specifically associated with Summer and independently existing in England, Ireland and Scotland.

Cailleach/Cally –in many forms.

Ban – particularly as in nam ban , of women.


Dun – generally assumed to mean fort but see above.

Law – often distintively-shaped and standing alone, many laws have folklore associations or distinctive names, suggesting they have a meaning beyond “hill”.


Nathrach – meaning the adder.

Pap – there are quite a few of these and like e.g Mither Tap on Bennachie often have “colusters” around.

Seat/Suidhe – again these names tend to have specific significance.

Witch/Witches – significant if associated with other elements.

White in placenames occurs frequently near ancient sacred sites throughout the UK

Note. At Bennachie there is the name Bruntwood Tap and at the back of Fannyhill near Muckhart we have Burnt Wood. This could be a reference to the burning of ceremonial fires at Samhain and Beltane as Lomond surely is.


2 responses to “A Look at a Landscape

  1. Really enjoying your screivins. I read your book on the Pechts and was impressed by your “bottom up” view of how they and others of that time resisted Romanisation. I am no historian, but I have often wondered why so many of our own historians appear so blinded by the glitter of Roman weapons that they haven’t asked who were these barbarians that confounded the great Roman Empire building machine. Maybe a couple of other questions might be how did they manage it and why bother? Obviously, they could see the “benefits” of the empire just down the road, why not embrace it? Clearly, they saw something that repelled them. Pity we didn’t have the same visual acuity a year ago.

    All the best

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