Yes, I’m awake so very early in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. On those few occassions this happens I know it’s time to observe something, to be aware of something, to know that there is something to learn and to make time for the experience. And so I headed to the garden.
As I sat there, in the distance I could see the green-grey colour mountains near Capel Curig, north Wales, mainly of slate and usually grass-covered or moss covered, with the latter prevailing at this time of the year. Indistict white clouds, that became mist hung low over the mountains, and the cotton-candy-like mist ‘rolled’ down the mountains’ side onto the low land, part of which, though some few miles distant from those mountains, formed the end of my garden. Mist enncroached. The feeling was quite delightful, very ethereal, other-worldly, and sound was muted. Liminal space.
Sound was muted that is, except in some high gorse bushes about forty feet away. There a noise could be heard, and with the wind now picking up and changing direction, it sounded like someone moving about in the gorse and occassionally letting out a low moan.
‘Only the wind’, or ‘Nothing untoward’ my grandmother would say to me when I was a wee lad.
As I sat there, with the sun just about to rise, but masked by thick cloud, looking at the gorse expectectantly. I remembered how my grandmother would tell me the story of the Gwrach y Rhibyn (pronounced ‘goo-rach ee ribb-in’. But the ‘ch’ in that second syllable is sounded like the ‘ch’ in loch, that is, a back-of-the-throat phlegm-clearing sound). See here for details.
However, this morning as I sat there, pondering how wonderful nature is, and what (or who) might be ambling around in the gorse bushes, another of my late grandmother’s stories sprang to mind.
She would tell the story of the Cailleach (pronounced ‘kie-lich’. But, again. the ‘ch’ in that second syllable is sounded like the ‘ch’ in loch, that is, a back-of-the-throat phlegm-clearing sound ) from Scottish and Irish mythology. And like the Gwrach y Rhibyn, the Cailleach was always described as an ugly old hag. Story-tellers of yesteryear didn’t mince their words. To those that are only partially acquainted with these type of stories, she was usually someone you would want to avoid, or so they would say. My grandmother, however, knew better, and though she always advised caution, she would always says such visitations can be a blessing, and the Cailleach (or Gwrach y Rhibyn as she’s known in Wales) should always be treated with respect.
Here’s the story my grandmother used to tell of the Cailleach:
The was a time when Niall Noigiallach and his brothers were travelling all together. Some time had elapsed, and they were thirsty. The began to search for water, and happenstanced upon a cottage with an ancient spring well in its garden. It was guarded by a hideous hag – the Cailleach. Her only demand for water from the well from these men was…a kiss.
Fergus and Ailil, repelled by the hideous look of the old women refused to kiss her. They returned from the well empty-handed, and still very thirsty.
Fiachra, another of Niall’s brothers, visited the well, and also saw the Cailleach guarding it. A kiss was demanded by her, and slyly Fiachra gave the old crone a mere peck on the cheek of a kiss. Did it suffice? No, the Cailleach wasn’t impressed, declared that that wasn’t a proper kiss, and with a frown sent him away empty-handed.
Niall went last, visiting the well and met the ugly hag. She demanded a kiss, and Niall gave her a kiss…..and a kiss that she wouldn’t ever forget.
While his brothers were thirsty and cold, Niall had his thirst quench with the most delightfully cool and pure spring water, and was warmed after accepting a invitation to the hearth of the ugly hag’s cottage for the night. In the morning the Cailleach woke Niall, and before his very eyes she slowly transformed into a beautiful maiden. She gave Niall more water and told him that, because of his noble action he would also have the kingship of Ireland.
An old tale, but one that embodies great truth and wisdom. My grandmother was telling me to never despise anyone because of their differences, and to be hospitable to all. We might say, ‘never judge a book by its covers’ or ‘do not judge by appearances; a rich heart may be under a poor coat’, as they say in Scotland. Or, ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2 The Book). The ancient Celts, Druids and others of old (and, still today) extended hospitality to all, and in that there is much love, wisdom and truth. Orthopraxis.
And so, I sat there for some time gazing at the high, thick, dense gorse bushes. Was it an animal scurrying about or the Cailleach? Who knows?
I couldn’t help but stand as a mark of respect, move half way to the gorse bushes, stand, bow my head momentarily, and (because no one else was about and would think me mad, because no one else would even know about this experience….well, apart from you, dear friend, and I trust you) I quietly said, ‘Whoever you are, you are most dearly welcome here’. I waited, the scurrying stopped, and then I turned back and walked slowly to the house.
Now inside, I peered at the gorse bushes through the window and wondered. ‘Was it the Cailleach?’ I don’t know, but whoever I meet today I will welcome them as though they were the Cailleach in diguise and who might give a blessing to me today, and I would commend the same to you. Wherever you are, you might encounter the Cailleach in disguise, and if you treat her (or him) well, you, too, might receive a blessing.