‘There is power in them’: mysterious stone figures to be moved in Gaelic winter ritual | Folklore and mythology

The stone family huddle by their turf-roofed shelter, looking eastwards to the shrouded summit of Meall Daill, Perthshire, as the mists roll down from the burnt orange mountainside. The tallest of the figures, still under a foot in height, is a water-worn rock with a feminine torso and slim neck. She is the Cailleach: a seasonal deity in Gaelic mythology who bestrides the winter months, known variously as an earth-shaper, wise woman, storm-raiser and mistress of deer. Around her are ranged her husband, the Bodach, and their children.

This weekend, at Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season, according to a modest local custom that may span centuries, the figures will be returned to their quartz-studded shieling – a basic shepherd’s hut – to spend the winter months undercover. They will be brought back outside, as they are every year, around Beltane, next May.

The unique ritual has deep roots in folklore: after the Cailleach and her family were offered shelter during a snowstorm, she was so grateful that she left their likeness in stone with the promise that, as long as they were well cared for, the glen would remain fertile.

As for its modern execution, those directly involved in keeping the stones treat inquiries with understandable caution, concerned that the integrity of the site should be preserved and honoured and anxious lest the area become a place of modern pilgrimage heedless of local sensitivities.

The shieling where the figures spend the winter months.
The shieling where the figures spend the winter months. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Tigh Nam Bodach.
The stone figures. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Inside the shieling.
Inside the shieling. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Still, while curiosity may thrive online, accessing the place known both as Tigh Nam Bodach (house of the old man) and Tigh Nan Cailleach (house of the old woman) on foot is a far greater challenge, demanding a five-mile (8km) trek into a wild and empty glen north of Loch Lyon over rough track and slippery river ford.

The stones have fascinated historians and folklorists for decades. The archaeologist Gavin MacGregor, an expert on the heritage of the central Highlands, first learned of them while excavating at similar shielings on nearby Ben Lawers more than 20 years ago.

“There was a tradition of special stones in this part of the Highlands, including charms and healing stones, and excavations have found a group of very similar water-worn stones in Glen Quaich, so they are not anomalous but part of a wider culture.” Similar stones can also be found on the church gateposts in the village of Fortingall.

“There’s no evidence that they date back to pre-Christian times, but the stones have clearly remained in memory and probably in active, if perhaps intermittent, tradition for hundreds of years.”

As the local author and traditional storyteller Jess Smith describes it: “Water stones mould rather than break up or go jaggy, so they can take on the form of a human or an animal, and there is power in them.”

Smith spent much of her childhood on the road around Glen Lyon: “We heard about the drovers throwing meal and bread to the stones or their cattle would get sick. Places like this are very important. They live within the part of our psyche where we keep our respect for the ancients.”

The first published reference to the site is in a Perthshire history book from 1888, which suggests it was associated with a nearby monastic community, St Meuran. Some believe the writer avoided acknowledging their possible earlier origins for fear of upsetting the kirk. Others suggest 18th-century shepherds created a dolls’ house or seasonal shrine out of stones from the nearby stream, while there are those who dismiss it as a 20th-century folly constructed by estate workers.

In 2011, local historians successfully campaigned against a hydro scheme that threatened to disturb the shieling. And while the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s Canmore database records the stones as a simple pagan shrine, earlier this year Historic Environment Scotland decided that there was insufficient evidence to designate the site.

For MacGregor, whether moving the stones is an unbroken historical ritual is but one element of their charm. “Whether you listen to the folklore or consider it a modern invention, the rhythms of tending to the stones also relate to our elemental relationship with the land and the change of seasons. Perhaps one reason the site remains so powerful is that there are multiple truths and stories.”


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