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The Cailleach: Two Tall Tales From The Cèilidh House

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The Cailleach and her hammer. Image © www.mythopedia.com

Before the time of humans and history, there were giants living in Harris!

One of these giants was particularly ferocious and was known as The Cailleach, which is the Gaelic word for an old woman or witch. She was very fond of eating limpets, and if you’ve ever tried gathering them yourself you’ll know how difficult it is to dislodge them.

The Cailleach had a huge stone hammer, the size of a bus, and as she wandered the shores of our island she swung it at the limpits clinging to the rocks. One day, she was striding along Aird Nisabost, leaving huge footprints in the sand, when she spotted a particularly large and delicious-looking limpet.

Limpet rocks at Aird Nisabost, Isle of Harris.

So, she swung her stone hammer at the rock with great haste, but the limpet didn’t want to budge. She gave it another blow, this time with an even bigger swing of her strong arms, but the hammer simply bounced off.

Gathering all her strength she gave an almighty roar and struck the limpet so hard that her hammer broke into three pieces.

Such was the force of the blow, one piece flew across the sea to Taransay, the other along the shore to Scarista, and the largest piece landed on the hill behind her.

These three stones can still be seen today. The larger one at Nisabost is known locally in Gaelic as Ord Bhairnich which means limpet hammer, but more usually as Macleod's Stone.

The Macleod Stone, or Ord Bhairnich, at Niseabost, Isle of Harris.

After losing her favourite hammer, the Cailleach decided to try fishing instead. She carried a huge chair made of stone to the top of a cliff at Scadabay, sat down, and would cast her huge fishing hook, the size of an anchor, far across the Minch sea each day.

Across this strait of water was a place called Trotternish on the Isle of Skye where another giant lived, and they became great rivals at casting and catching fish.

One day they were both out fishing from their cliff-tops, separated by over twenty miles of rough water. Such was their rivalry and strength that day that their casts met in the middle and the fishing lines got tangled up together.

Clach an Teampuill, a piece of the hammer which landed on Taransay.

The Trotternish giant gave his rod an almighty pull, and the Cailleach fell from her chair, which tumbled down the cliff below her.

Enraged, the Cailleach pulled back so hard on her own fishing rod that the Trotternish giant was dragged clear off the cliff and into the sea where he drowned.

Today, if you visit the shore between Reibinis and Plocrapol in Harris you will see a big rock shaped like a chair, called Seidhhir na Cailleach – the Cailleach’s Chair, lying just where it landed so long, long ago...

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Story adapted from Bill Lawson's excellent book 'Harris In History And Legend' and appears in our Harris Cèilidh Book available to download free from here.