Sacred Mountain: OS Grid Reference – NG 601 232
Seems rather daft giving directions for a mountain, but… For incomers, cross the bridge onto the island and keep on the A87 road to Broadford. A couple of mile the other side of the village westwards, take the small left turn in the trees and go to the dead-end. The hill reaching up above you (west) is the legendary mountain to walk up!
This giant old mountain has been associated with the primal female creation figure, the cailleach, for many a moon. And strangely – for me anyway – I’ve not ventured to sleep with this old place in my passings here as I usually do wherever the cailleach resides.
It doubtless has many more tales than the one A.A. MacGregor (1937) mentions in his superb Peat-Fire Flame. Here he tells the story of,
“the cairn situated on the summit of Beinn na Cailleach, not far from Broadford… This cairn is believed to mark the site of burial of a Norse princess who died at Ord. On her deathbed this princess commanded her attendants to convey her, when dead to the top of Beinn na Cailleach, and to bury her there, in order that she might lie in the wake of the winds from Norway.”
MacGregor then follows the tale with a lovely note on some boring old dood he obviously had little respect for, saying:
“It is the traditions associated with this cairn that MacCulloch, the geologist, in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, asks to be excused from repeating, since he considers them, one and all, to be unworthy of regard. But, then, MacCulloch was a most tiresome fellow; and he seems to have imbued most of his writings with something of the same tiresomeness”!
On the lower northeastern slopes of this great mountain we find another of the old woman’s abodes, the ‘Lochain Beinn na Cailleach’, where this great hag would no doubt wash her linen, as many old myths tell she did at other pools of the same name.
A slightly different version of the folktale was told by Archibald Geikie in his Note-book of a Field Geologist from 1858:
“The top of Beinn na Cailleaich is flat and smooth, surmounted in the centre by a cairn. Tradition tells that beneath these stones there rest the bones of the nurse of a Norwegian princess. She had accompanied her mistress to “the misty hills of Skye,” and eventually died there. But the love of home continued strong with her to the end, for it was her last request that she might be buried on the top of Beinn na Cailleaich, that the clear northern breezes, coming fresh from the land of her childhood, might blow over her grave.”
An early essay in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1841 tells the grave atop of the mountain to have been the resting place of the Norwegian King Haco’s wife or his nurse. Derek Cooper (1970) meanwhile told us that whilst the cairn was “erected as a memorial to a Skye chieftain,” the cailleach of the mountain, or “the old woman is reputedly Saucy Mary, who laid a chain between Kyle and Kyleakin to exact toll from passing ships.”
There are other mythic place-names scattered around the edges of this mountain with hints of ancient female deities, or pagan goddesses — whichever way one cares to see them.
Cooper, Roy, Skye, Routledge: London 1970.
Geikie, Archibald, The Story of a Boulder, MacMillan: London 1858.
MacGregor, Alisdair Alpin, The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands, Ettrick Press: Edinburgh 1937.
o’ Crualaoich, Gearoid, The Book of the Cailleach, Cork University Press 2003.
Swire, Otta F., Skye: The Island and its Legends, Blackie & Sons: London 1961.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian