As winter approaches let's explore a famous Scottish woman of legend and lore who is interchangeably known as a goddess, hag, queen and mother.
In Scottish folklore, Beira (also known as Cailleach) is said to be the goddess of winter and often displays several traits befitting the personification of winter: she herds deer, she fights spring, and her staff freezes the ground.
According to the folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie, who published the Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend in 1917, Beira was not merely a goddess of winter, but also the “mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland.”
She is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her basket. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. For this reason she is often depicted carrying a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys.
On the west coast of Scotland Beira is said to usher in winter by washing her great plaid in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. After three days she is done, and the tempest subsides. At that point her plaid is pure white, and snow covers the land.
Some legends hold that Beira gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter on the first day of February (Là Fhèill Brìghde). If she intends to make the winter last a good, long time, she will make sure the weather on that day is bright and sunny so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As you can imagine, people are relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a foul weather day.
Some say the longest night of the year marks the end of her reign as ‘Queen of Winter’ because that is when she visits the well of youth and drinks of its magic water. Every day after that she grows younger day by day until Spring.
In Glen Lyon in Perthshire there is a stream which runs into Loch Lyon. According to legend the locals at some time during the past gave shelter to Beira and her family. While Beira lived there, the glen was always fertile and prosperous. When they left, Beira gave them stones that resembled miniature human beings. She told them that as long as they gave them shelter during the winter and placed them where they could look out over the glen come spring, their glen would continue to be fertile and prosperous. This ritual is carried out to this day.