Winter Solstice morning sun over the River Clyde, Scotland
It was a gray and cloudy, rainy Winter Solstice morning. We didn’t see the sun till a few hours after dawn. In the photo above the winter solstice sun appears over the river Clyde, the watery realm of the Goddess Clutha. Clutha Isn’t just associated with the river she is the entire water cycle, from the rains coming in from the west and into Loch Lomond which flow into the river Leven and then into the mighty River Clyde om their journey to the sea.
This Winter Solstice I was on a pilgrimage to visit a very ancient figure. A journey which took two trains, three buses and two coaches. A journey across to the other side of the country to the east coast and the city of Edinburgh.
I was off on a pilgrimage to meet an ancient 2,500 year old wooden figure called the Ballachulish Goddess. She is also called the Goddess of the Straights and this is a point where the waters of Loch Leven flow into the sea. For folks travelling by water this can be a turbulent passage. She was found in November of 1880 with the digging of the foundation of a house.
The Canmore Record suggests that she represents a Scandinavian deity - as she is very similar to many, although smaller, Scandinavian carvings. They also state that her pedestal suggests that she may have been mounted in the prow of a galley. The historian Anne Ross, however, suggests that the figure is Celtic in origin, comparing it with several similar figures.
(Text taken from the National Museum of Scotland)
The life size carved wooden sculpture of a female is cut from a single piece of alder wood and has quartzite pebbles for eyes. It dates from approximately 600 BC and is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The mysterious Ballachulish figure is a roughly life-sized figure of a girl or goddess, carved from a single piece of alder, with pebbles for eyes. It was found during building work in November 1880, under deep peat. It was lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven. It might originally have stood beside a pool. The figure has been radiocarbon-dated to around 600 BC, making it over 2,500 years old, and belonging to a period when iron was beginning to be used in Scotland.
Details of the carving are hard to see, but are clearest on the old photograph. The slender body is naked, and seems to be hairless. The lower part is definitely female, but the chest is flat, so the figure may represent a girl or young goddess. She is shown clutching a container of some sort, with pointed objects sticking out of its top. She also holds, in each hand, something that looks like a man’s private parts. Her pebble eyes stare out and her mouth is slightly open. The legs end in a solid block of wood, with a rectangular hollow carved into its front. The height of the figure, when found, was around 145 centimetres (just under 5 feet).
Pebbles found embedded in the bottom of the block suggest that the figure had originally stood on the raised beach, and had fallen over – or been deliberately toppled over – before the peat formed. Under and above the figure were found intertwined branches and twigs, with a few straighter poles. These could be from a wickerwork container, or a little shrine surrounding the figure.
A supernatural being?
Although the figure is unique in Scotland, other wooden figures dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages are known from Britain, Ireland and the Continent. Often these are found in special places – beside a spring, or where a trackway crosses the wetland – and they are thought to represent supernatural beings. Ballachulish is a special place too: the figure would have overlooked the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea. Perhaps this odd-looking figure represented the goddess of the straits, to whom prehistoric travellers would need to make an offering if they wanted to be sure of a safe crossing.
A rich prehistoric landscape
The area is rich in archaeological remains. Within half a kilometre there are several Bronze Age burial monuments, and some years before the figure was dug up, a peat-cutter discovered ‘several barrow-loads’ of worked flint, inside a round building, deep under the peat. The Ballachulish Moss area is nationally important for its archaeology, and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
A conservation nightmare
Today, the Ballachulish Figure looks very different from when it was found. There were no scientific techniques to preserve waterlogged wood in the 1880s, and although people wanted to keep the figure wet, they could not find a container large enough, so they decided to let it dry out. It was taken to the (then-named) National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh over two weeks after its discovery, and during the journey it broke at the legs. When it dried out, it warped and cracked, and a large piece broke off.
A Story of Place
Each ancient deity is born of place. This figure could well be the Cailleach as the crow flies - see the above map for several of her sacred sites on the west coast of Scotland:
Tigh na Cailleach - Cailleach Shrine
Hill of the Cailleach, Isle of Eigg
Inch Cailleach - Loch Lomond
This figure is also called ‘The Goddess of the Straights’ which is the point where the waters of Loch Leven flows into the sea. A nearby mountain is called Beinn a’ Bheithir, or ‘hill of the thunderbolt’ and is associated with a local old crone - Cailleach Bheithir. The Cailleach has many qualities but of course she is associated with the wild weather of winter. Her story has changed over the years from the closest we have to a creation story to today where she is looked upon in pupolar culture as an evil and cruel old woman. Her ancient role is the renewal at winter. She strikes life down, sending it back to its roots for without death there would be no rebirth in spring. So hers is an essential role and yet a culture fixated on youth with a ? ?? fear of death onviously shuns and old crone with her message of death and renewal.
It is possible that she is the Cailleach of Ballachulish yet the beleif of the people had changed and morphed by the time she was sculpted.
Another site not too far and situated on the west coast is Loch Awe and the story of the Cailleach and how Loch Awe was formed. This Cailleach is known as Cailleach Bheithir
The Cailleach would wander the hills with her herd of deer (her fairy cattle). Every morning she would head to the summit of Ben Cruachan and remove the capstone from the well, letting the water flow out. After a day of wandering the hills and letting her herd graze she would head back to Ben Cruachan and put the capstone back on the spring. But one night, tired after wandering the hills all day she feel asleep in the last hours of daylight, sleeping so soundly she slept on into the night forgetting to put the capstone on. The capstone was a huge boulder and so normal mortal folks wouldn’t have the strength to move it. So the water kept flowing and gushing down the mountainside, it flowed through the pass of Brander forcing its way into houses and drowning the people asleep in their beds, it drowned all their cattle and other animals and then it gathered in a large hollow and formed Loch Awe. When she awoke she heard the water running and was horrified to see she’s forgotten to replace the capstone and her grief was so deep to all the death she has caused that in her mourning she turned to stone.
Her reading is open to interpretation as we red her with our own perception. personally I don’t see the ‘basket’ she is holding, I see a well defined ‘pubic’ area, to stress her femaleness, although the left hand side of this groove does move above this area.
She is a stark figure, looking out from her quartz pebbles, stones which have metamorphosed in the heat and pressure of the earth. She is wild and untamed, she was important enough to be carved and put in an exact position.
Her temple is outdoors, it’s the thunder and rain-clouds, mist and the call of the seagulls. But on this Winter Solstice day her temple was the National Museum in Edinburgh. To walk down the corridor to meet her was a procession, I took each step slowly and with purpose. I could feel the energy building as I got closer. I hadn’t brought offerings, I had brought myself. I wondered of folks would have laid her offerings - they would have known her well enough to know what offerings were suitable.
She is wonderful. Dark and mysterious. The life that she has seen. I don’t know how she feels about being cooped up in a museum, yet she has the vision to see through the walls, see through the layers of time, see into what matters. I don’t know her well enough to leave offerings - maybe she’d like a nip of whisky or perhaps a hunk of bread that little feathered ones can eat - but instead I have my yearnings to learn her mysteries.
I have nothing new to add to her story, just merely the opportunity to retell her story and my journey to meet this quartz eyed woman - for I am sure she and I will meet again on a wild and windy hillside.
Click here to visit the Ballachulish Moss - Canmore record