Friday, October 12, 2012

How Spring Came to the Hebrides

Some traditions of the Highland Scots said that their land had been made by Winter, Cailleach, otherwise "the Hag of the Ridges." The great whirlpool of Corryvreckan, off the Isle of Jura, was her washtub, and her footprints could be found throughout the islands. Life in the Scottish islands was sustained by sheep, cattle, and fishing,and the unpredictable spring weather was crucial for all three. A late winter storm during lambing meant hunger for poor shepherds, and it might mean death for fishermen who had gone out to sea too soon.

The islanders had names for each week of spring, capturing its changing quality: Gobag, the dogfish, was a week of heavy rains; Feadag, the Plover, was a week of whistling winds. Then came the weeks they called Cailleach, the last gasp of winter:
In Mull and Skye the Cailleach held sway for many months. She was terribly ugly, with only one eye, a blue face and tusk-like teeth, but she was a most important person and the weeks were her servants. Whenever the Cailleach leaves the Isles to see if Corryvreckan (her wash tub) is boiling fast enough, Spring comes up behind with mild winter days. This annoys her intensely and she returns hurriedly to drive him off. After several such short visits to her washing pot, during each one of which Spring gets busy in the Hebrides and has to be driven out, She usually ends by staying too long testing the temperature of the water, and the grass really begins to grow. When the Cailleach notices this she rushes back to Skye and begins to hammer down the grass with her mallet. (For "March grass won't see summer.") She works very hard for some days and finally, despairing of controlling the young growth, attacks Spring in person: for three days they fight in the Cuilin Hills and the air is full of her cold rage, storms sweep the land, then Spring conquers, the Hag throws down her mallet (frost) under a holly tree and flounces angrily off to Mull. While she hammers at the grass she can sometimes be heard singing and the sound of her song is lie the sough of the wind:
It escapes me up and down,
Twixt my very ears has flown.
It escapes me here and there,
Twixt my feet and everywhere;
This 'neath holly tree I'll throw,
Where no grass nor leaf shall grow.
The Cailleach dies of rage after reaching Mull, and her husband, a great sea-beast, comes to lament for her. His tears are the bitter showers of early spring.
--Otta Swire, The Inner Hebrides and their Legends.

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