Cailleach Doll by the shores of Loch nam Ban Mora
I don’t have to tell you that right now we are in dark times. Each day seems to unleash new unbelievable moves in what seems like a game where no one is playing by the rules. I feel overwhelmed and have to balance this madness by unplugging. Unplugging from the world of social media, from being online, from human interaction and reach down into my roots which connect me to an ancient lineage of women.
The Scottish Island of the Big Women?
There is a little island off the west coast of Scotland who for me is rooted in an ancient female power, its name is the Island of the Big Women. There are several legends of big women both on and around the island – from the original Big Women said to be a mythological race of giant women, big enough that they could easily enough step across the small islands to their dwelling in the centre of Loch nam Ban Mora (Loch of the Big Women). One island over on the Isle of Skye is the home to Scathach, the Shadowy One – who trained the very best celtic warriors and then there is the story of the female warriors of the Pictish Queen Moidart. The stories of the original Big Women and the female warriors seems to have become so fused together it’s impossible to untangle them and say which belongs to which.
Pictish Queen by artist Leonie Gibbs
The story of the female warriors sets place in the 7th century CE when a Christian monk called Donnan arrived on the island on a mission to convert Pagans into the new faith of Christianity but as Dressler (1989) explains the religious annuls recorded that the establishment of a monastery on Eigg was not welcomed by the ruler of the island, the Pictish Queen of Moidart in whose territory Eigg was included and which was reported by Columban chroniclers as keeping such pagan practices as observing Beltane rather than Easter and worshipping serpents.
‘Legend tells that from her dun in Glenuig, the Queen of Moidart ordered the monks to be killed: ‘I am keeping herdsman to herd my milking cattle on the face of the Corravein, not to be herded themselves by a monk’. When the newly converted islanders reused to obey her orders, she flew into a red-hot rage and sent her own warrior women over to Eigg. They came upon Donnan and his monks as they were singing mass in their oratory on 17th April 617, but the saint beseeched them to wait until they had finished their prayers. As they left the church, Donnan and his monks were beheaded one after the other, their bodies piled up and burnt’ (Dressler, 1989).
The Story Behind the Story
But the story did not end there and it is said that unearthly voices were heard chanting bewitching the warrior women who found themselves compelled to follow the lights as they were lead up towards the Loch. The lights rested above the little island in the middle of the Loch and the warrior women it is said entered the water with their eyes fixed on the lights each of them drowning below the surface (Dressler, 1989).
As the saying goes history is written by the victors and in this story the monks got the last word. I can’t help but feel this wonderful story of the lights appearing which bewitched the female warriors to their death is perhaps a story borrowed from the Big Women. Is what we are reading something the monks borrowed in a way to invert the story on its head as the did with so many Pagan tales?
Who were the Big Women, big is another way of saying respected, looked up to or important. Maybe they were human women with special skills such as prophecy or healing. Maybe they were mythological beings much like the oldest crone of Scotland the Cailleach. As an artist I am drawn to the story of the lights and the bewitching elements as in Celtic belief water held the sacredness of the Goddess. Was the Loch throughout generations a sacred place – it is high up in the middle of the island and it’s quite a climb to get there but when you do take that pilgrimage you feel your entering into another realm.
Views from around the Loch
While some people take holidays to Spain and sun themselves on beaches, I find myself scaling mountains answering an ancient calling. May 2016 found me back on Eigg, again in one of the hottest days of summer. May is always a good time to visit anywhere in Scotland even although the beginning of the month may bring snow the midges haven’t arrived yet! This trip may turned out to be HOT and while I’d brought many layers I cursed quietly for not bringing a sun hat. There are times when I see a snapshot of myself – i’m not lying on a beach in Spain but heading up to a mountain loch with the extra layer i’d packed now wrapped around my head as an attempt at shading myself from the sun. Finally after several visits over the years I’m making this trip alone and there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining and there is barely a cloud in the sky.
In the waters of the Loch of the Big Women – a perfect swirl of water between my feet
I’m not quite sure what this pilgrimage has in store but I’m following the call. I reach the loch and the sun is shining straight ahead of me as the water surface glitters in thousands of bright lights dancing on the surface. I sit and just be in this place soaking the silence and the sun then suddenly feel I’m being watched. I look around but can’t see anyone and then I realize it’s not folks from this world who are watching me its folks from the other world! I feel I’m being watched by women – maybe it’s the generations gone who honored the mythical Big Women or maybe it’s the Big Women themselves? Big I remind myself is another word for respect or look up to and maybe that’s who the Big WOmen were – seer’s or wise women who people traveled to in a time of personal crisis.
Daughter of the North WInd
Then slowly is dawns on me what this pilgrimage requires and I’m a little taken back at the idea of submerging myself under the loch waters, yet when the old ones beckon who am I to resist! And so gingerly I take off layers and while I’m surprised that the water is warm (it’s relatively shallow and has been warmed by the sun all day) the bottom of the Loch is covered in very small extremely sharp stones. I have visions of a brave me diving in under the surface of the water down into the depths of the middle of the loch but in actuality I’m terrified of water with dark peaty depths and so I gingerly step out to waist height water, take a deep breath and fully submerge myself under the surface. I look back on that split minute in my head with slow motion as if there were otherworldly eyes on the shore watching me and in the water with my as I submerged myself. I felt radiant when I emerged – as if I really had swam into the middle of the loch dove down and reclaimed some ancient treasure. I had reclaimed something – I had reclaimed a sense of purpose and deepened my connection and relationship with these old ones for in dark political times like these we need to create new ways of working and being in this world that are rooted in an ancient spiritual bedrock to keep us anchored and fed.
Join Us on a Journey to the Lands of the Big Women
Without roots we are lost and so this May a circle of women are taking a very special spiritual journey. A journey that will require some to cross an ocean and for all of us to take a train journey, one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world – the West Highland Way and travel through the heart of Scotland’s wilderness. Then we will leave mainland Scotland by ferry and cross the waters over to this little island where we will tap into the stories of the land and work with these ancient female forces so we can come back into the world replenished and inspired for the work that lies ahead.
In Part two of Scottish Amazon Women Rising we will be traveling as the crow flies its roughly ten miles to Tarskavaig on the Isle of Skye to the ruins of Dun Sgathaich Castle (Castle of Shadows) and once home to renowned Celtic warrior Scathach.
Join Jude on her Ancient Mothers of Scotland Retreat which includes a visit to the Loch of the Big Women where there is an optional submergence ritual under the water which is a significant ritual in reclaiming lost parts of ourselves, in particular embracing our wild self and is an initiation, or a rededication to our own and unique ancestral soul path we take in this world.
Dressler, Camille. (1998). Eigg The Story of an Island. Polygon, Edinburgh, Scotland.