The Cailleach of Mealisval (and the Each Uisge)

Written by Dave Roberts; this appeared previously in the Uig News.

Naturally the Each Uisge or Waterhorse was known in Uig in past centuries. It lived in the darkest lochs and was feared and respected, as it would emerge from the lochs and took on human form, perhaps apprearing as a handsome young man, whose origin was occasionally betrayed by strands of waterweed in his hair. Another guise was as an old lady: when the Each Uisge visited in the form of a cailleach, there was often a death soon after. If a water horse was disturbed it would disappear, and the only evidence would be the sound of hoofs.

In the mid nineteenth century these ancient folk stories were frowned upon by the Church – they were regarded as silly, maybe even dangerous superstitions. They faded in people’s memories, and were rarely passed on to the next generation. Many of the stories may have been terrifying, but as deterrents to children, to dissuade them from straying into the hills or playing by the lochs, they must have been very effective. When the old stories died out, new ones had to be found, and the historical character Mac an Stronach provided a useful alternative. There were also stories told in the villages around Mealisval that were quite frightening enough to discourage the bravest person from going far from security, especially at night. The details have been lost over time, but remnants do survive.

When the Ordnance Survey personnel came to the district in the late 1840s, they spoke to local people about place names, and they recorded any interesting comments and stories in their notebooks. I studied these books that are kept in Stornoway library. Close to the summit of Mealisval the surveyors were told of a strangely shaped rock below which were the remains of old walls. This they were told was a place known as Cro na Cailleach – the old lady’s fold. This woman reputedly made a living by sheep stealing, and perhaps this is where she penned her ill-gotten gains.

The cailleach of Mealisval had a son, with whom she lived. He was sent out one day to do some rock fishing, but much to his mother’s annoyance he came back empty handed. The cailleach must have been a formidable woman, with a very short fuse, for when she heard of her sons fruitless day, she struck him with her stick. So hard was the blow that it cracked his skull, and he fell dead. She buried his body beneath a large square boulder at the back of Islivig, close to a large slab of rock known as Leacan na Fhir Mhoir. Incidentally this slab can be seen clearly from the sea, and when it lines up with the cairn at Seilearoth (the big hole), that is where the Brenish fishermen began to pay out their long lines.

The cailleach was supposed to feed herself partly on stolen sheep and partly on seashore gleanings. Seashells are said to be found near the top of Mealisval, although I have never seen any there. However, I have seen shells in the caves in Carnaichean Tealasdale, which lies at the foot of the cliffs – Creagan Tealasdale, at the north end of Mealisval. There are a number of walled caves and refuges in this valley, and it is quite likely that this is where the old lady spent much of her time. The whole area is a fantastic jumble of house sized boulders that were either left there by the ice 10,000 years ago, or came crashing down from the cliffs above, at a later time. I am told that high in these cliffs is another cave and traditionally golden eagles nested close by. The surveyors were told about loud noises made by the wind in this mysterious, awe inspiring and rather intimidating valley.

Unfortunately I do not know the fate of the murdering, sheep stealing old lady because it was not recorded. I wonder, did she return to the dark depths of Loch Sandabhat, from whence she came?

© Dave Roberts, Islivig.