Dancing the Cailleach

Carrying the Fire, Samhain, Rannoch Moor, 2015. You can see a full photographic report about the event here

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Last month on the road to Holt in Norfolk a man came across a deer as he was speeding homeward. It was a fully pregnant doe. The man did an unprecented thing: he slit open the belly of the dead creature and delivered a live fawn.

I am holding a copy of the Eastern Daily Press where the story has just made the front page, in spite of all the terrors and hostilities clamouring for attention. The tiny fawn looks calmly outward, suckling on a bottle of milk, held in the large tattooed hands of the man. When asked what made him stop that morning he said:

‘It is perhaps something you will never come across again in your lifetime and I am just thankful that I knew what to do.’

The instructions were simple. Catch the 16:21 train from Glasgow to Fort William. Get out at Corrour and follow the stag.

Some part of us knows that beneath the noise and strife of the modern world, beyond the headlines, there is a deep place where our presence on the Earth is not for nothing. That when we come across it on an empty road at dawn we will know what to do. For thousands of years our negotiation with life was understood in terms of our relationship with the horned beasts we once lived alongside, and a mythical being, sometimes known as the Mistress of the Deer. In Scotland, and particularly in this part of the Highlands, she is known as the Cailleach (pronounced Call-y-ack). Samhain – All Souls, Day of the Dead and Halloween – is the time when the Cailleach, Queen of Winter, takes over the mantle of Earth from Bridget, the bright one, in a similar way the Oak cedes to the Holly at the summer solstice in England.

The instructions were simple. ‘You’re going to be the Cailleach’ said Dougie, ‘and dance to a piped lament on the moor.’

‘It will be dark then,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Very dark. And maybe raining’.

So that was it how it was when we set out on a moonless wet night: Jack (the Stag), Wilf (the Wolf), Dougie and I on 30 October to walk the track toward Corrour station. I will bring up the rear, Dougie said. Martha (the Cook) remained at the hostel to hold the hearth. I was left on the hillside with instructions to light the fire (rags soaked in citronella) and start the music (in a box hidden by the rock) and do my thing.

I don’t really know what I am going to do of course. I have a red velvet dress on and a furry cape and a large fashion hat I have wreathed in birch twigs and barn owl’s wings. A midge veil is covering my face – not that there are any midges at this time of year, though there are roving and rutting stags. One is out there. We have just seen him. He was massive and did not move away when Jack flashed his torch.

I have done some challenging gigs in my time, but this has to be the mother of all of them.

ctf hostel

Carrying the Fire is a series of events created by artist and Dark Mountain curator Dougie Strang. So far there have been three, all set at Wiston Lodge on the Scottish borders. They have been small gatherings, for about 60 people, shaped in a similar way to the Uncivilisation Festivals – workshops, music, performance, discussion and of course a storytelling fire. This year’s was a departure. It was for a smaller group (20) built around the festival of Samhain and located deep in the heathery heart of Rannoch Moor. We would be based at a wooden hostel, once the boathouse of the shooting lodge, beside Loch Ossian (Osh-een) at the foot of Beinn a’ Bhric, the Cailleach’s mountain. The nearest road is 18 miles away.

The structure for the event was woven around three mythic stories embedded in this territory, which Dougie would tell over the weekend: on arrival beside the crackling stove with mugs of cocoa, by the Samhain fire, and on the platform of the highest station in Britain as we departed. On Saturday we would be taken by Neil Harvey (of Wild Journeys) up the mountain trails to do a ‘Whakapapa’ – a walking exchange between pairs of people, sharing our lifestories and geographies. On Sunday I would lead a workshop based on the Earth Dialogue and send folk out into the hills on their own. They would come back and relate what they experieced to each other in groups of four and then draw a collective dream map.

Like all Carrying the Fire events the fire would be a focal space where people sing and tell stories and pass round a bottle of malt. This part is mapped out. What we don’t know is that Gavin will also pass quartz rocks around, so we can make sparks in the dark; that Ben and Darla and Tamsin will teach us a Georgian song taught to them by Ivan who used a giant staff to protect orphaned children; or that Jonny will read a passage about the last wolf making her trek across the snow fields of the north where the swans sleep. And out of the darkness a skein of whooper swans will fly over the loch, calling.

The instructions were simple. You go out and stand in the land, you come back and relate what happened. What you say, what you do with what you know, is the thing that the Earth waits for. Your gift. What is that story? You forgot it. Ah. Here is a hint.

Arrive in the dark.
Follow the stag.
Wait for the people to come round the hill.

ctf 5-walking-gavin

When Jack comes round the corner his flambard has gone out. Luckily I can see a tiny infrared beam from his head torch. I leap into action — light fire, switch on music — and begin to sway, arms moving about like antlers and birch trees in the wind, boots anchored on the slippery rocky slope. I can’t see or hear anything through the veil. I don’t know whether anyone is there, or whether they have gone past. I keep dancing until I hear people howling and laughing in the distance. They have discovered Wilf! I gather everything up and go to find him. I feel exultant.

‘You looked about ten foot tall!’ exclaims everyone, when we walk back in (without costumes). ‘And then you would disappear! And reappear. It was scary. It was magical!’

‘Is dance your practice?’ asks another. ‘You were so rooted!

‘No.’ I laugh, ‘but I do love to dance’. (I didn’t like to say I couldn’t move my feet in their massive boots on that rock in case I fell over).

DSC_0383Samhain is a door. It is a door to the ancestors, and this is what we are doing up here, connecting with the ancestor that lives in our bones, out in the wild places. The Cailleach is the ancestor creator of these high places. Out of her creel she once tossed big stones that became the peaks that now tower above the golden deer grass and shiny lochans of the valley floor. She brings the cold sharp winds of winter, commands the weather and wildness. Her face is blue and sometimes veiled like the mist. In the spring she washes her plaid in the Corryvreckan whirlpool between Jura and Scarba, and then she turns into a rock.

We walk over this springy rocky rainsoaked moor, sprinkled with the flowers of heather and milkwort like a fading summer dress. I pocket the last of the year’s bilberries and bearberries and Martha shows me some fragrant crackly leaves from a plant I haven’t seen in years, bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale, and says she will make a tea from them all. A tea that will have the bitter taste of farewell.

ctf 17-samhain-map-gavinSamhain is a door. Sometimes you need a set and a setting, a space, permission to do things differently: to dig deep, to sit alone, to dance in the night with a veil over your head. You don’t know what will happen except something will happen. A small thing that makes sense of everything. That expectancy, that sharpness, that not-knowing is part of its territory.

I could tell you about the people who came, and the laughing around the tables as the feast of venison and pumpkin was served, or the sight of twenty pairs of boots hanging from the rafters, or the drama of crossing the stream, or how my Whakapapa companion, 18 minutes into his 20 minute story, told me that something dark happened on the mountain when his friend slipped and fell to his death. There were always hills and mountains, he said, that came at a pivotal point, that changed the direction of everything. The Dales, Mont Blanc, Glencoe. How that all our lifechanging territories and encounters that we recount on our return make some kind of collective pattern: woods which were torn down for houses, a tsunami in Sri Lanka that nearly drowned a family, a broken road in Iceland that snapped a connection between people,  housing estates in Britain where art and writing reforged them.

I could tell you how how I woke to find Venus and a sickle moon in a clear sky and swam into the cold waters of the loch. How I watched the sun creep downwards from the peaks, turning the dun hillsides gold, the mountains like beasts crounching, attentive, so alive I could almost touch them.

How the star Sirius rose over the mountain, as it has always risen over the mountain, heralding winter.

ctf deerskin

When Donald of the Brown Eyes hunts his last deer he slits open the belly and finds a ball of wool. It is the beginning of sheep herding in the Highlands and a domesticated relationship with the creatures. In modern Scotland deer are killed on the road, deer are shot by blood-hungry elites and deer (and sheep) chew every last tree standing. When the wolves and the Cailleach roamed on these mountains and the people met around the fire everything was held in balance. Something of that balance, what is sometimes called medicine, is contained in these old stories and in, we are hoping, this event.

Carrying the Fire’s name is taken in part from the dystopic novel, The Road, where the father explains to his son that the purpose of being human is ‘to carry the fire’ and that if that spirit is lost the art of being human is also lost. The Cailleach is not human: she is a mythic being that lives deep in our bones and sinews, the parts of us that resonate with stones and wild weather. She reminds us of human beings’ original bargain with Earth. Sometimes we need a reminder that she is still there, so we can carry the fire, come what may. So, in spite of living in a 24/7 world, we can mark time; in spite of living in a world where we are told we do not belong, we can make ourselves at home.

I took eight stones out of the loch and laid them on Jack’s deer pelt. Here is a medicine wheel, I said: the blue stones represent the Earth cross and red stones represent the sun cross. The eight work like doors, marking gateways you go through. In the Americas the medicine wheel is about space and the directions that bring different challenges and riches. The north is where the ancestors live.

‘The wheel of these British islands however is all about time. The stones mark a clock on which you can measure the time of the year and your own time and the time we are all in now – which is a time of breakdown and decay. What old forms need to go and what ancient roots need to hold fast in this time? What are we all doing here together at this moment with the ancestor mountain behind us and the lake of the bard before us?’

Everyone leaves and goes out on the pathways toward the hillsides. Some crouch down beside the loch or the roots of the birch trees at the back of the hostel. Some walk out of sight.

I go out and sit on a rock striped with white quartz, and sing a chant to the mountain: it is a song that comes from the Andes, that comes from the Sierra Madre, that come from a sky island known as the Place of Many Springs. No one taught me that song.

beinn a bhric

Sometimes you contact something from the dark peaty layer, as Dougie calls the Cailleach’s territory, that bursts through the dimensions, through time and space. It calls you to attention: the part of you that knows what to do when you find a dead deer on the roadway. You can deliver the fawn, you can do your thing in the dark and the rain. You can remember. Remembering can take you away from the light of the fire and the kitchen, and yet in the dark you feel you belong, you matter, in a way no culture, no family, no work, no political ideology, can ever make you feel. I am not sure I can take you there with words. I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself:

‘It was not a psychological or therapeutic setting’, wrote Caroline Ross, afterwards,

but a deeply connected almost mythic space.  As I have only seen properly described in the words of Riddley Walker, or perhaps the books of Ursula K LeGuin, People are not the only people there. Land, rocks, mountains and lakes, beings and heroes of the past, forces and gods are at the fireside too…

…if you showed me a far-off society where Samhain was celebrated as we did at Carrying the Fire, I would go into exile from this country to live there with those good people and become part of that culture. Ceremony, gathering together and marking the passage of the year and of our lives are so lost in the wider human culture in Britain from which I am mostly alienated, and manage to evade by living moored beside a tiny island in the middle of a river.

My heart was at home over Samhain, and through unparalleled good fortune, I was at home both culturally and geographically. People are made refugees every day and must leave their hearths for uncertain futures. Even within this country, Britons are displaced from the beneficial aspects of their culture and nature, by the market, homelessness, delusion and a thousand other causes. 

But the deer are still here, and so are the mountains, and the wind, and there is still enough wood to make a fire. There are people who can still remember the stories that makes sense of everything, and the movements that are the shape of antlers or a tree moving in the wind. And if on a winter’s day in the Highlands you hear a raven croak behind you, the Cailleach will still be there to show you her misty face that is sometimes blue.

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Way out

Images by Gavin MacGregor, Sarah Thomas, Jon Randall and Charlotte Du Cann.

Charlotte Du Cann is an editor/art editor and distributor for Dark Mountain books. This weekend she is taking part in a series of DM workshops and talks, curated by co-founder Dougald Hine in Sweden. This month’s will be based on her story about the Underworld The Seven Coats (Issue 6). charlotteducann.blogspot.co.uk.

Keep an eye out for next year’s Carrying the Fire/Dark Mountain gathering. Details to be announced next year.

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2 thoughts on “Dancing the Cailleach

  1. Dear Charlotte .. So thankyou , deeply for your words , on this day on the other side of our blue planet . Know that the red dress and cape matter , that the eight stones and the stories matter ,that the dance matters and all that unknown country, the shadows , the light , the revelations ,the small things , the old gods and the ancestors. That this morning for the first time in a few weeks it all makes sense again .That spirit , that was partially hidden has flooded in with your words . Heart felt thankyous .

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