Sacred Mountain: OS Grid Reference – NG 770 229
Also Known as:
- Beinn na Caillich
As you drive down the A87 road towards Broadford from the Kyle, just before Breakish there’s a small road on the left that runs down to Glen Arroch, where the forest lines the hill. A couple of miles beyond the end of the forest, watch out for the TV mast on the slopes on the right-hand side of the road. Stop here and go up the slopes on the left-side of the road (north), to the peak of Sgurr na Coinnich; and once here you’ll see the high rocky peak of Beinn na Cailleach a half-mile to your northeast.
The legend of this sacred mountain was described at some length in Otta Swire’s (1961) excellent work on the Isle of Syke. She wrote:
“”As you drive down the road towards Broadford, three peaks can be seen to the north; the first two are Beinn na Greine (2,000 feet) and Scurr na Coinnich (2,401 feet); the third and most northerly is Beinn na Caillich (2, 396 feet). This last must not be confused with the Beinn na Caillich near Broadford, which is one of the Red Cuchullins although, just to make it more confusing, on the summit of our Beinn na Caillich, as on that of her larger sister, tradition has placed a woman’s grave. This time it is that of a giantess, one of the Fiennes: beneath her body is a large crock filled with gold and jewels, for she was a great lady, no less than Grainnhe herself, wife of Fionn, and at her burial every man of the Fiennes, for love of her and of their leader, cast their rarest jewels into the earthenware crock to do her honour. Her story, as is so usual in Celtic legend, is a sad one. Grainne is the daughter of the King of Morven and is reputed the fairest and truest princess in all Alban, so the Grey Magician, who hates all that is good, carries her off. One day, as Fionn and his men rest after hunting, an old, old woman, wrapped in the red mantle that denoted royal blood, comes to him, tells him of the theft of Grainnhe and begs him to rescue her. He agrees, whereupon she gives him a fir twig and three small pebbles, all highly magic; she then goes out of sight ‘on an eddy of the western wind, growing smaller as she went until she seemed no bigger than a butterfly, a honey bee, a red spider on a thin rope of its web, and a speck of dust in the sun’. Fionn sets out and after many adventures, during which he is assisted by several talking animals, he finds the Grey Magician’s palace and escapes with Grainnhe. Thanks to the old woman’s gifts, forests and mountains rise behind the fugitives, but before they can reach the Red river, to cross which is safety, the Magician overcomes the old woman’s charms. They reach the river bank only to find they cannot cross, and Fionn’s magic is exhausted. But Grainnhe has a jewel, a charm against death; as long as she wears it in her hair no evil can harm her; alternatively it will give her one wish and vanish. She takes it from her hair to wish for a boat and immediately sees, as in a vision, the fate to which she will condemn herself if she gives up her talisman. But Fionn is in peril through his efforts to save her, and already she loves him, so she lays the jewel on the water. A boat at once appears and takes them to safety.
Fionn and Grainnhe are married and live in great happiness until Grainnhe’s son is about to be born. Then come messengers to Fionn to tell him that sea-pirates are attacking his small dark-skinned allies, the Sons of Morna, who have sent to remind him of his pledge to assist them. Fionn longs to remain with Grainnhe but will not break his vow. He and his men spend three days defeating the sea-pirates and when he returns Grainnhe and her baby are gone, carried off by the Grey Magician. Fionn learns from his ‘tooth’ that she has been turned into a hind. He searches for her for many years, but she has been sent to run with the deer in lone Glen Affaric and he never finds her. Twelve years later, when the Fiennes are hunting, their hounds pick up a scent and follow it to a small copse; Bran, who is leading, is the first to enter it, whereupon, to the surprise of all, he turns at bay, teeth bared against the Fiennes and his fellow hounds of the pack and will allow no one but Fionn to pass him. Fionn finds him guarding a wild boy, with long hair and wild, beautiful, frightened eyes, who can make only such sounds as deer make. Fionn adopts him and teaches him human speech. Needless to say, he is Grainnhe’s son, but Grainnhe, the beautiful white hind of whom her son talks, is never found. After her death the Grey Magician permits her son to take her body, once more that of a woman, for burial, and the Fiennes make her grave on the summit of Beinn na Caillich, where she once ran as a hind.
It is recounted of this boy that he had in the centre of his forehead a tuft of deer’s fur where his mother’s tongue had licked him, and that it was from her that he got his gift of poetry. Once he was shipwrecked on Fladda and a party of hunters on the island offered him a share of their venison stew, to whom he made indignant reply: ‘When everyone picks his mother’s shank-bone, I will pick my mother’s slender shank-bone.’ The boy was Ossian.”
- Bernbaum, Edwin, Sacred Mountains of the World, Sierra Club: San Francisco 1990.
- Swire, Otta F., Skye: The Island and its Legends, Blackie & Sons: Glasgow 1961.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian