Winter! That time of year when thoughts turn inwards, when we all seek respite from the cold and get ourselves cooried in until spring. The work of harvest is over and there’s time yet until planting so traditionally this was the time for storytelling.
George Mackay Brown, the great Orcadian storyteller talked of tongues “touched to enchantment by starlight and peat flame”. Families would gather round the hearth to be thrilled by stories – such as that of the Cailleach Bheur who used her birch staff and her iron hammer to shape Scotland’s valleys and mountains. The Cailleach brought winter every year, her breath was the chill wind and her blanket was the snow. She would search the land and cull anything whose time it was to die, but she would also seek out and protect the buried seeds of life, guarding them until spring. She was the protector of the wolf and the deer – because sometimes the last kindness she could give to a starving winter stag was the embrace of the pack.
Like many folk tales, there is a message contained within. The Cailleach is fierce and unforgiving but nothing she does is out of malice, she takes what she must, for the good of all. She has the wisdom to let go of what is no longer needed and the seeds she guards give hope and confidence for the future.
To honour the Cailleach Bheur we should tread lightly through the world, respecting life and empathising with its struggle. We should not be afraid of change and renewal, instead we should let go of our past troubles and look for and guard the signs of spring to come.