Cailleach an Dùdain (Old Woman of the Mill Dust)

The legendary ‘Old Wife‘ figure of the North York Moors seems to have had a sister further north who was known as the ‘Cailleach’ (both their names meaning ‘The Old Woman’), who was celebrated in music, song, and dance. Cailleach an Dùdain (Old Woman of the Mill Dust) is an old tune for pipes or fiddle, which was noted in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the mid 1700’s. The dance and tune were thought to be long forgotten, however, folk dance researchers (Flett, 1956) were able to record a version of it from an old crofter on Benbecula in 1953. The words to the tune did not survive so well, but some verses were recorded by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica (Carmichael, 1900).

Have a listen, and picture the lively scenes played out in those remote crofts and barns all those years ago…..

This was the tune to which the Dannsa Na Cailleach – the ‘Dance of the Old Woman’ was performed (an interesting topic for another time). The tune being played on the pipes or fiddle, or if an instrument was not available, then someone would sing the tune ‘Purt a Beul’ style.
Although the words to the tune as recorded by Carmichael seem quite simplistic, there are hints that they held a deeper significance for the dancers and for those watching ……

An toir thu do nighean domh
Chailleach an Dùdain?

An toir thu do nighean domh
Chailleach an Dùdain?

An toir thu do nighean domh

Dheanainns mire rithe

Ghleusainn fiodha[l] dhi

S dhannsainn cridheil rithe

Chailleach an Dùdain!
Will you give your daughter to me
Old woman of the Mill-dust

Will you give your daughter to me
Old woman of the Mill-dust?

Will you give your daughter to me

I would flirt with her

I would tunefully fiddle for her

I would dance heartily with her

Old woman of the Mill-dust!

To put these words into context it is worth remembering that the Cailleach and the Maiden (her daughter) were the names given to the last sheaf harvested on a croft or farm. In some locations the Maiden was the last sheaf cut from the most fertile part of the field – usually in the centre, while the Cailleach sheaf came from the less fertile field edge. A folk ritual took place to cut this sheaf, which was then carried back to the farm where it was used to make a Corn Dolly – also known as the Cailleach or the Maiden. This small figure was believed to contain the spirit and ‘luck’ of the harvest, so it was kept until the following years sowing or harvest.

The Gaelic word ‘Dùdain’ has been translated as dust (or mill dust), and is said to refer to the threshing process which took place by pounding the harvested sheaves with wooden flails on the hard floor of the barn. The type of black oats grown on the Scottish islands, meant that the threshers would emerge with faces covered in black dust after the threshing. In Scottish legend the Cailleach is said to have a blue / black complexion, which is never explained, but could be derived from this aspect of her connection with the harvest. An alternative meaning for Dudain is a ‘beard of dried oats’, which again nicely links the Cailleach with the grain harvest.

The folk dance researchers who discovered a version of the Cailleach an Dùdain on Benbecula in 1953 believed the dance to be of great antiquity, containing ritual elements, possibly including a dancer with a blackened face. So it seems quite possible that the Cailleach an Dùdain was originally a ritual dance performed as an appeal to the Old Woman of the harvest to give up her daughter (the grains) to feed the people, and provide seed for the following year, there by continuing the yearly cycle.

Like ‘Dùdain’, the other words to the song may have held more than one meaning, or had other associations that would be known to the dancers and the audience. For example, while ‘Mire’ means to frolic, play, or flirt, ‘Mir’ means to mow or stack the sheaves. In Carmichael’s notebook, Fiodha seems to have been transcribed as Fiodhal – meaning fiddle, while Fiodha means ‘woods’ or wooden, and perhaps in this context might be a reference to the wooden threshing flails. Dhannsainn has the meaning ‘to dance’, and again there is a strong connection with the threshing process, as the other traditional use of the hard surface of the threshing floor was for dancing. The fact that the people danced where the grain was threshed, must have linked the two activities in their minds at some level. In Ireland an old Threshing dance still exists, while in other cultures, circle dances are said to have originated in the threshing circle, with the crossing steps of the dancers derived from the foot work performed during threshing.

As the cutting of the last sheaf had a ritual attached to it, so the next stage – threshing, may well have had something similar. The Cailleach an Dùdain dance and song could have been a relic of a ritual which once took place before the start of the threshing, both activities taking place on the same spot. Such a ceremony might be performed to ensure that the grain was obtained in the correct ritual manner, where, in order to win the daughter (the grain), permission had to be sought from the mother (calling on her 3 times?), then a proposal to ‘woo’ her daughter, serenade her, and dance with her, so that she would give up her bounty. At the same time the words used for this ‘courting’ may have been a metaphor for the harvesting process, and possibly included an element of bawdy euphemism.

The rhythmic beating of the wooden flails on the harvested sheaves released the grains, while at certain points the threshers stepped in to turn the stalks. The grain liberated from its parent plant lay on the ground, and was perhaps said to ‘dance’ on the hard surface as the wooden flails continued to pound the floor.

Such a threshing ritual would not be out of place amongst the songs, prayers, and rituals of everyday life recorded by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica. While the courting metaphor or ‘kenning’ would be another example of the interconnected depth and subtlety found elsewhere in Gaelic culture.

Will you give your daughter to me, Old Woman of the harvest?
Will you give your daughter to me, Old Woman of the oats ?
Will you give your daughter to me?
Cailleach of the Grain.
Threshing, 1859
Dancing on the Barn Floor - Mount, 1831
The Threshing Floor - Ralph Hedley, 1898
previous arrow
next arrow
Threshing, 1859
Dancing on the Barn Floor – Mount, 1831
The Threshing Floor – Ralph Hedley, 1898
previous arrow
next arrow

Carmichael, A. (1900) Carmina Gadelica.
Flett, J.F. & T.M (1956) Folklore Vol 67, No.2.

The Lay of the Land


Blogs and websites

Get new posts alert by Email:

Folklore in the Landscape

Text and images copyright 2024