In Scottish mythology, Beira, also known as Dark Beira, was the great mother of the gods and goddesses. She was also known as the Cailleach, or the Cailleach Bheur in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and the Isle of Man. According to Donald Alexander Mackenzie, she was usually described as being very tall and very old and could be terribly fierce when provoked. Her anger could be as strong and bitter as the cold north wind and as wild and unforgiving as the storm laden sea. Every winter Beira reigned undisputed on Earth but as spring approached her subjects grew restless and rebellious against her stern, harsh rule. They looked forward to the pending return of Angus of the White Steed who was the Summer King and Bride his beautiful consort and Queen.
The King and Queen of Summer
Angus and Bride were loved by all for their arrival brought an end to the dark cold days of winter heralding the return of spring and warmer and lighter days of abundance and happiness. The weakening of her power and the inevitable arrival of the King and Queen of Summer enraged Beira greatly. Although she did what she could to prolong winter by raising spring storms and sending blights of frost eventually winter had to give way to spring and summer as her power weakened.
The Green Island and the Well of Youth
Beira was ancient having lived for thousand of years. She kept herself alive by drinking from the Well of Youth that has its wellspring on the Green Island of the West. The Green Island was a floating island and a place where there was only summer. The trees were always laden with blossoms and fruit and the days were sunny and clear. The island floated freely in the North Atlantic Ocean and the seas around the west coasts of Ireland, sometimes drawing close to the Hebrides.
Although many bold sailors have tried to find the island few if any have ever succeeded as it is hidden by mists. It is possible, even on the calmest and brightest of days to sail past it thinking it was just a bank of sea mist in the distance without realising that the magical Green Island is concealed within. It can sometimes be glimpsed from shore but it will vanish when being gazed upon. Sometimes it will sink below the waves to conceal it’s forbidden sights from human eyes. Nevertheless, Beira was not human and she knew how to reach the forbidden island when the time came. She knew that the waters of the Well of Youth were at their most potent after the winter solstice. Therefore she would always visit the Green Island to drink the waters of the Well of Youth the night before the first lengthening day which was the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter.
It was important to drink the water at precisely the right time so she would arrive early and sit in darkness waiting for the very first glimmer of light in the east. This was the signal for her to drink from pure water of the Well of Youth as it bubbled forth from a crevice in a rock. It was essential that she should drink of the waters in silence and alone, before any bird or animal. If she should fail in this she would die, shrivel and crumbling to dust.
As soon as the water passed her lips she would begin to grow young. She would leave the island and return to Scotland where she would fall into a long, magical sleep. Eventually she would awake as a beautiful girl with long blond hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks to find herself in sunshine. Having rejuvenated herself she was now, with the exception of Bride the Summer Queen, the fairest goddess in the land. She would wander through the land dressed in a robe of green and crowned with different colored flowers.
The Aging of Beira
However, as the months passed by so the year aged and Beira aged with it. She would reach full womanhood at midsummer and when autumn came the first wrinkles began to appear on her brow and her beauty could be seen to be slowly fading. With the return of winter she was transformed fully into the old withered hag and become Queen of Winter. She was often heard on stormy nights as she wandered alone through the bitter wind singing a strange and sorrowful song,
Although the young rejuvenated Beira of the summer was a joy to look upon the aging and bitter Beira of the winter turned into something horrific. She only had one large eye but her vision was sharp and clear while her complexion was of dark blue giving her a dull and dank appearance. She had rust colored teeth and long, lank, white hair that covered her shoulders like a bright frost. Her clothes were grey and she carried wrapped around her shoulders a dun coloured shawl which she pulled tightly around herself. Sometimes she was often heard singing sad songs to herself.
Days Gone By
It was said that Beira was so old she could remember how changes had come to the land. She could remember that in some places where there was water there had once been land. Furthermore, she remembered how places that were now land had once been covered by water. She was once asked by a wizard how old she was and replied,
“I no longer count time in years. I will tell you that where the rock of Skerryvore that is the haunt of seals lies in the sea I remember as a mountain that was surrounded by fields. I remember how people worked in them, plowed them and cultivated them and I remember how the barley grew tall and thick and laden with sunshine. I remember the loch over yonder that but a small tricking spring. In those days I was young and blithe but now I am old, weak, dark and in misery!”
Creating Loch Awe
The stories tell how Beira freed many rivers and made many lochs. She made all the mountains and glens and all of the hills Scotland. One legend tells how there had once been a well on Ben Cruachan in Argyle which Beira habitually used daily. Every morning as the sun rose she would lift it’s lid off and in the evening when the sun went down she would replace it. One evening she forgot to replace it at sunset and this disturbed the natural order of the world.
With the sinking of the sun water gradually began to bubble forth from the well. The lower the sun sank the more water burst from the well. Soon a great flood was rolling pouring from the well and streaming and roaring down the mountain into the valley below. The next morning when the sun rose Beira found the valley to be completely flooded in water and in later days this place became known as Loch Awe.
Creating Loch Ness
Beira had another well which also had to be kept from sunset until sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. One evening Nessa was late in returning to recover the well and as she drew near she saw great torrents of water flowing down so strong that she was forced to turn and run for her life. Beira, who was watching from her home on top of Ben Nevis was furious and cried,
‘You have failed in my trust in you and neglected your task, therefore now you must run forever and remain in the water!”
Immediately Nessa was changed into a river which became known as the river Ness and the loch that was formed from it Loch Ness. There is a tradition that once a year on the anniversary of the evening of her transformation Nessa appears from the loch as a maiden to sing a sad sweet song in a voice that is clearer and more melodious than any bird. She is accompanied by the beautiful music of golden harps and pipes more melodious than that of fairyland.
In the early days of the world the rivers began to break free and formed lochs and this is when Beira began making the mountains of Scotland. She carried a great basket strapped to her back filled with earth and rocks. Sometimes she would need to step over the valleys, rivers and lochs but this sometimes caused her basket to tilt to one side causing rocks and earth to fall out. These would form into hills and cause lochs to form with islands.
To help her in her task she had eight hags who each had a basket strapped to their backs which was filled with earth and rocks. One after the other they emptied it in one place so that each basketful built into a huge pile forming a mountain that reached up through the clouds.
The Sons of Dark Beira
According to folklore there were two reasons why Beira made the mountains. The first was to provide stepping stones for herself as she traversed the country. The second was because she had many sons who tended to be quarrelsome and would fight one against the other for dozens of years at a time. Therefore, to punish those who disobeyed her by fighting she would separate them and make them live in different mountain houses. However, this did not stop them fighting because they would climb to the tops of the mountains every morning and throw massive boulders across the landscape at each other. This is the reason why today we see many great boulders and rocks are strewn on the sides of the mountains or lie in the valleys below.
Beira had other gigantic sons who lived in deep caves in the earth. Others were horned like deer and others had more than one head. Her son’s were so strong they could easily lift cattle off the ground and placing them over their shoulders carry them away and roast them for dinner. Each of her gigantic sons were known as a Fooar.
The Origin of Ben Wyvis
One of the hardest tasks Beira had was the building of Ben Wyvis. She had given her hag servants tasks at other places and because she did not want to hinder their progress she was forced to work alone. After one particularly arduous and tiring day she stumbled and all the contents of her basket fell in a heap on the ground and it was this that became the mountain known as Little Wyvis.
Beira had a magic hammer that she used to help her shape the Scottish landscape. To make the ground as hard as a rock she struck it lightly with her hammer. To create a valley she struck the ground hard. After she had formed a mountain she would then use her hammer to sculpt it into a unique form so that she knew one from the other and could use them as landmarks to find her way around. After they were created she would take great joy in roaming the valleys beneath and between them and wandering over the mountain passes.
Animals and Beira
Beira was beloved by all wild animals especially in her younger form. Foxes would bark out a welcome and wolves would howl greetings from the mountains, while eagles soaring above shrieked in delight at her presence. She gave her protection to the fleet-footed deer and wide horned shaggy cattle, the black pigs and other creatures that roamed the earth in those days.
She kept goats and cattle on the mountains so that they could graze the sweet mountain grass and these she milked. As soon as the wind began to blow milky froth from the milking pails she knew it was time to lead them down to the shelter of the valleys below. The froth from the pails covered the hills and lay glimmering in the sunshine. When the rain hit the mountains in torrents and ran down the sides in streams people would look up and say,
“See, Beira is milking her today see how the buckets overflow with milk and run down the mountainside.”
The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan
Beira wore a great shaggy shawl which she sometimes needed to wash but the only place big enough was the sea in the Gulf of Corryvreckan which lies between the Western isles of Jura and Scarba. She washed her shawl so vigorously she caused a whirlpool in the sea called the Whirlpool of Corryvreckan and was known as her wash pot. There is a legend that a Scottish prince named Breckan was drowned by the whirlpool when his boat became caught in its pull or upset by the waves Beira was making as she washed her shawl. It took her hag servants three days to prepare the water to wash her shawl. When it was ready the noise of the Corry or sea could be heard roaring for twenty miles all around and Beira would commence washing her shawl.
On the fourth day she would throw her shawl in the whirlpool and trample it with her feet. She washed her shawl until it was as white as snow and then she draped it over the mountains to dry which was the sign that her reign as Queen of Winter had begun.
The Creation of the Scottish Landscape
The myth and story of Beira is the story of how the ancient Scottish people expalined the creation of the magnificent landscape they lived and the forces that created it. It provides an explanation for the cycle of the seasons in a way that people understood and could relate to. Although unscientific and perhaps raw and mischievous at times it does have a certain charm and truth that science cannot answer for.
© 19/12/2019 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright December 12th, 2019 zteve t evans