LAY OF THE LAND

The Dannsa Na Cailleach – Dance of the Old Woman

harvest
Old time harvest

   A previous post (Cailleach an Dùdain) suggested that the North York Moors folklore figure known as the ‘Old Wife’, could well be related to the legendary Cailleach, who is to be found further north, in Scotland. Gavin Parry’s ongoing project to map locations connected with this archetypal ‘Old Woman’ is both fascinating and illuminating, and shows just how widespread a figure she was.  In later times, the Cailleach (Old Woman) seems to have played an important role in the harvest, with the last sheaf cut on a farm being called the Cailleach, which was then formed into a corn doll, and treated as an honoured guest at the harvest celebration. The corn doll figure was believed to contain the luck, fertility, and prosperity of the harvest, and was hung up in the farmhouse until the following year.

cailleach1

 This appears to have been the original tradition, although on some farms it seems to have been frowned upon by the landowner or the local church, so those working in the fields still made sure the Cailleach ritual was performed, but the figure was then passed on to a neighbouring farm. This ambiguous approach to the Cailleach may have been the result of attempts to suppress the tradition, and there are hints of this ambiguity in an article about the Corn Maiden in Argyllshire (Folklore, 1896) ……..

 “A sample of the toast to the Cailleach at the harvest entertainment was as follows: “The Cailleach is with …… (another crofters name) and is now with me since I was the last. I drink to her health. Since she assisted me in harvest, it is likely that it is with me she will abide during the winter.”
In explaining the above toast Mr. Campbell says that it signifies that the Cailleach is always with agriculturists. She has been with others before and is now with me (the proposer of the toast). Though I did my best to avoid her I welcome her as my assistant and am prepared to entertain her during the winter. Another form of the toast was as follows: ” To your health good wife, who for harvest has come to help us, and if I live I’ll try to support you when winter comes.”

 The Dannsa Na Cailleach (Dance of the Old woman) was also performed at the end of the harvest, and was recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the first volume of his Carmina Gadelica (Carmichael, 1900). Through his work in the Scottish Highlands and Islands during the mid 1800’s, Carmichael was able to collect details of the folklore and traditions that were then dying out with the older generation. He describes the festival of Saint Michael which took place at the end of September, and marked the end of the harvest. After the days religious duties were performed there followed a celebration in which ……

 “The song and the dance, the mirth and the merriment, are continued all night, many curious scenes being acted, and many curious dances performed, some of them in character. These scenes and dances are indicative of far-away times, perhaps of far-away climes. They are evidently symbolic. One dance is called ‘Cailleach an Dudain’, – Carlin of the mill-dust. This is a curious character-dance. The writer got it performed for him several times.

jig1

 It is danced by a man and a woman. The man has a rod in his right hand, variously called ‘slachdan druidheachd,’ druidic wand, ‘slachdan geasachd,’ magic wand. The man and the woman gesticulate and attitudinise before One another, dancing round and round, in and out, crossing and recrossing, changing and exchanging places. The man flourishes the wand over his own head and over the head of the woman, whom he touches with the wand, and who falls down, as if dead, at his feet. He bemoans his dead ‘carlin,’ dancing and gesticulating round her body. He then lifts up her left hand, and looking into the palm, breathes upon it, and touches it with the wand, Immediately the limp hand becomes alive and moves from side to side and up and down. The man rejoices, and dances round the figure on the floor. And having done the same to the right hand, and to the left and right foot in succession, they also become alive and move. But although the limbs are living, the body is still inert. The man kneels over the woman and breathes into her mouth and touches her heart with the wand. The woman comes to life and springs up, confronting the man. Then the two dance vigorously and joyously as in the first part. The tune varies with the varying phases of the dance. It is played by a piper or a fiddler, or sung as a ‘port-a-bial,’ mouth tune, by a looker-on, or by the performers themselves. The air is quaint and irregular, and the words are curious and archaic.

 Carmichael noted down some of the verses sung during the dance, and in the previous post it was suggested that these words were also a reference to the harvest, and ‘wooing’ the Cailleach to give up her grain during the threshing process. The verses below are from Carmichael’s notebooks, although the translation is from the 1950’s, and perhaps not very accurate.

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Cum do dheireadh rium!

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Cum do chul rium,
Cum do cheathramh rium!

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Null e ! nall e!
Cum do cheathramh rium!

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Sios e! suas e!
Nuas na beirearan(?)!
Cum do chul rium!
Cum du cheathramh rium!
Old Woman of the mill dust,
Old Woman of the mill dust,
Old Woman of the mill dust,
Keep thy rear to me!

Old Woman of the mill dust,
Old Woman of the mill dust,
Keep thy back to me,
Keep thy quarter to me!

Old Woman of the mill dust,
Old Woman of the mill dust,
Over with it! Back with it!
Keep thy quarter to me!

Old Woman of the mill dust,
Old Woman of the mill dust,
down with it! Up with it!
let it not be brought down!
Keep thy back to me!
Keep thy quarter to me!

 The above translation was given to the folk dance researcher Thomas Flett in the 1950’s, and it seems to have been an attempt to relate the words to the actual dance steps (Flett, 1956). If this was the case then why would Carmichael describe the words as ‘curious and archaic’? Flett thought that the Dannsa Na Cailleach was originally a ritual dance, involving the Cailleach and her wand, which had the power to end life and also resurrect it. Such beliefs are indeed ‘curious and archaic’, and so there is a suspicion that the above translation may have missed something.

sheaf1

  As noted in the previous Cailleach an Dùdain post, Gaelic words often have more than one meaning, and a closer look at the above verses does suggest alternatives more related to the harvest. The word Dùdain is said to refer to the dust produced by the threshing process, but it also has the meaning of a stem of oats. The word Cheathramh translated above as ‘quarter’ also has the meaning of a ‘bushel’ – originally a sheaf or bundle of grain stems bound together. So straight away we have a dance taking place at the end of the harvest, accompanied by words referring to the ‘Old Woman of the Oats’ being asked to keep her harvested grain bushel for the dancer. The word Dheireadh translated as ‘rear’, also means end, last, or conclusion. Dheireadh buana meant the ‘harvest end’, and interestingly it was also a name used for the Cailleach Corn Doll, which was formed from the last grain stems to be harvested. So in this context the Cailleach’s Bushel and the Cailleach’s End would seem to refer to the cutting of the last sheaf and the making of the corn doll, both marking the end of the harvest.

  In the second verse Chul (cul) has been translated as ‘back’, however cum chul can also mean ‘support’, and this may be a reference to the Cailleach’s assistance mentioned in the toast to her noted above. In this verse the dancer also asks to hold or keep the Cailleach’s bushel from which the corn doll is created. The third and fourth verses contain Null / Nall and Sios / Suas (meaning – here / there, and upwards / downwards), which might suggest something being around the speaker. This is reminiscent of the Gaelic prayer for protection – “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ above me, Christ below me, …” etc. If this is the meaning then this ‘encompassing’ might refer to the Cailleach’s support and the luck that the corn doll holds for the farm. Alternatively, a phrase similar to the Sios and Suas lines also appears in some Gaelic stories (Campbell, 1891) as part of a charm, where a request or condition cannot be lifted once it had been placed upon someone. The Null and Nall in the third verse convey a similar idea and may have been part of a binding ‘gheasan’ or word charm. These may be the  elements which Carmichael referred to as ‘curious and archaic’.

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Cum do dheireadh rium!

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Cum do chul rium,
Cum do cheathramh rium!

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Null e ! nall e!
Cum do cheathramh rium!

Cailleach an dudain,
Cailleach an dudain,
Sios e! suas e!
Nuas na beirearan(?)!
Cum do chul rium!
Cum du cheathramh rium!
Old Woman of the Oats
Old Woman of the Oats
Old Woman of the Oats
Keep your last to me!

Old Woman of the Oats
Old Woman of the Oats
Keep your support to me
keep your bushel to me!

Old Woman of the Oats
Old Woman of the Oats
there with it! here with it!
Keep your bushel to me!

Old Woman of the Oats
Old Woman of the Oats
Down with it! Up with it!
Not taken down!
Keep your support to me!
Keep your Bushel to me!

 Carmichael also described the dance as “evidently symbolic”, but symbolic of what?

 In some areas there were two ‘ritual’ sheaves kept from the harvest – the Cailleach and the Maiden. The Maiden perhaps sheds light on some of the verses accompanying the dance (see previous post) where the Cailleach an Dùdain is repeatedly asked “will you give your daughter (maiden) to me? This would tie in with the wider Cailleach folklore where she is said to renew her youth each spring and becomes a maiden again. It has been suggested that in her maiden phase she was called Bride, and it is perhaps no coincidence that another corn doll figure called the ‘Brideog’ was made for Saint Bride’s day in February.

“Feast of the Bride, feast of the maiden.
Melodious Bride of the fair palms.
Thou Bride fair charming, ….” (Carmichael, 1900)

 Amongst the recorded variations of the harvest custom, there seems to be the idea that once the grain crop had ripened in the field, then the Cailleach would be there to help (oversee?) the harvesting. This seems to have been seen as her domain – the cutting down of the grain and the gathering of the seed through the threshing process (which took place over the winter months) in order to provide food and fresh seed for the following spring planting. The start of the agricultural year was marked by Là Fhèill Brìghde (Feast of Bride), when the Brideog corn doll was made (from the previous harvest sheaves?) and was perhaps believed to oversee the germination and growth of the crops until harvest time, when the cycle started over again.

 Both the Cailleach and Bride carried a ‘Slachdan’ (wand or staff) of power, and a little ‘Slachdan Bride’ was placed next to the Brideog doll. In the Dannsa Na Cailleach, the slachdan is given over to the man, although he seems to be unaware of its power over life and death, and accidentally ‘kills’ the woman with it, much to his distress. Luckily he manages to work out how to use the slachdan to bring her back to life, and all is well. But was it actually the same woman who was resurrected? Or did the dance originally symbolise the ‘hand over’ from Bride to the Cailleach? This being the dance of the Old woman, who then took up her role from harvest time until the following spring?

 A similar concept can be seen in the John Barleycorn folk song, where John is the personification of the Barley, and the events that befall him are a metaphor of the whole growing cycle of the crop. Given the Cailleach and Bride’s connection with the Spring ploughing and the Autumn harvest, then a similar metaphor may have once been woven into the local folklore, and played out by them.

 The Cailleach folklore is both fascinating, convoluted, and at times contradictory. The above is an attempt (or starting point) to try and understand the role of the Cailleach an Dùdain at harvest time, as noted in the Carmina Gadelica.  

After thoughts
 In Irish and Manx Gaelic ‘cum’ can also mean to cut, shape, form, contain, or inhabit.
Were the corn dolls originally a kind of ‘fetish’, believed to hold the spirit of Bride and the Cailleach?
Did the male dancer represent the Bodach? – there to wield the slachdan when the Maiden or the Cailleach were unable to do so?
Any connection with the Tigh Nam Bodach – stones moved twice a year – a pastoral version ?
The Scandinavian female seers were called Volva –  meaning wand or staff carrier.

 References
Campbell (1891) Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition Vol IV
Carmichael, A. (1900)  Carmina Gadelica Vol I
Flett, J.F. & T.M (1956) Folklore Vol 67, No.2.
Folklore Journal (1896) vol 7 

Image credits
Harvesting – Alexander Anderson 1775-1870
Corn doll ??
dancers – Harper’s Weekly magazine Jan 1 1900

The Lay of the Land

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