Ancient Crafts and the Cailleach

Our Cailleach, embodied at this year’s Hearth Fire (Digital Samhuinn Fire Festival) by Katherine, explores how we can connect with our ancestors through crafting.

Hold on to your hats, and let me take you backwards, for a moment. Time slips away, sun rotation reset and moons dance across the sky. Millennia of winters pass in the blink of an eye, and the land pours itself back into the past…  

A moonlit night, and three old women sit in their dwelling around a hearth fire, working wool. The crisp breath of winter shrouds the house, but inside the women’s faces are red from the heat of their fire. Their hands move in perpetual motion, twisting the wool, spinning the spindle, winding the spun thread around, and back, in rhythmic pattern. The dance of their fingers casts shadows on the hanging sheets of linen and whole sheepskins.

As they spin the wool they share the stories of their ancestors, and the shadows at the edge of the firelight creep in to listen…

Copyright Katrìn Blackwater for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. /

I am at the very beginning of a journey to reconnect with these ancient crafts; wool working, plant  textiles, and storytelling, the crafts our ancestors might have done during winter, after the harvest is  finished and the animals are brought down from the mountains. Embodying the Cailleach this year for Samhuinn has been a chance for me to dive deep into these crafts.

I hand-felted a giant wool collar, the centre-piece of my costume; with it I feel I’m stepping into the shoes of my ancestors. I worked with  soft white wool, from Polwarth sheep, and felted long coarse locks from the Greyfaced Dartmoor breed into it. Wearing the collar feels like hefting an entire sheep across my shoulders, although it wriggles less… It lends a kind of bulky stature to one’s shoulders, and is incredibly warm and water resistant. 

Under that I made a cloak from white and grey boiled wool, and under that I sewed a linen dress. I  followed what felt like an intuitive shape, and came out feeling like a priestess! I tried to hand dye the  dress using botanicals – leaves and so forth – but I’m unashamed to admit I failed at this! This just means there is another craft to dive deeper into learning. 

Copyright Katrìn Blackwater for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. /

The ancient crafts I have tried to immerse myself in remind me that the land has always been here,  seeing many seasons turn, and the ancestors that also sat where I sit working wool are also a part of the  land. Their hands dance mine into action, their stories handed down, and their hearth fire made of the  same wood that lights ours.  

Copyright Katrìn Blackwater for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. /

The Cailleach this year appears to the community and the audience in the guise of a barn owl – she is a  shapeshifter, a witch and a crone, and awakens at the end of summer, impatient for winter.

The painted owl mask she wears this year is but one face in a multitude of faces of hags and crones and  grandmothers of ages past, as she strides around the forests and hillsides of this island.

She stalks the seasons just beyond the veil, slowly advancing upon the moment at which she will step forward and turn the wheel of the year into winter.  

Copyright Katrìn Blackwater for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. /

When the Cailleach unmasks, and steps through the veil, it is with the welcoming arms of a great grandmother who smells of earth and hearth fire, but it is also with the harsh breath of winter, the deepening cold and the darkness.

I cherish the dark because it is necessary for the light and the warmth to have any meaning.

The hearth fire we sit around, as those old women sat before us, working their wool, is a place to remember that. That we always spin, with the wheel, about an axis: though times are dark and might get darker still, soon we will spin out into the light. 

Copyright Katrìn Blackwater for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. /

Hearth Fire takes place on Saturday 31 October from 7PM. You can watch it here on on our website, on Facebook and YouTube. Book your pay-what-you-can ticket from Citizen Ticket.

Featured image by Jacob Forsyth-Davies for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved.

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