Glenlyon History Society

Comann Eachdraidh Ghleann Lìomhann

The Glenlyon HS, Scotland, is run by local residents of Glenlyon (map) with an interest in the local history of the glen.

Glenlyon Hydro Threat To Celtic Heritage

by Jamie Grant, Secretary of the Glen Lyon History Society

Planning was lodged last week for four run of river hydro schemes on the Auch Estate in Glenlyon. One of these proposed schemes in Gleann Cailliche threatens an ancient and uninterrupted link to our Celtic heritage.

I have lived in Glenlyon, known in Gaelic as Gleann Dubh nan Garbh Clac (the crooked Glen of the Stones), for the past ten years. During this time there is one remote spot that I have loved to visit more than any other. To reach it you have to drive to the road’s end at Pubil, where the Lubreoch hydro-electric damn holds back the waters of Loch Lyon. From here a small track skirts the north shore of the loch, into the Glen’s most westerly marches.

This land between Loch Lyon and the Bridge of Orchy feels truly wild. Miles from anywhere the mountains, scored with tumbling burns, take complete hold over the landscape. Scramble to the summit of Beinn á Chreachin on a clear day and you can see the Ben Lawers massif, Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe and even the humped cap of Ben Nevis in the far distance.

But it isn’t just the views and rare arctic-alpine habitats that make this area so special. Tucked away in Gleann Cailliche, a hidden glen of boggy heath and mist, is the ancient shrine of Tigh nam Bodach. The shrine is made up of a modest stone structure that houses a family of bell shaped water stones from the river bed of the Lyon. The largest represents the Cailleach (old woman), accompanied by the Bodach (old man) and their daughter, Nighean.

Tigh Nam Bodach and the figures

The Tigh nam Bodach is recognized as the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual in Britain, some say in all of Europe. For centuries the family of stones have been taken out of their house every spring and facing down the Glen. At the beginning of November they are carefully shut back up inside their house, where they shelter through the winter. The ritual coincides with the two great Celtic fire festivals, Beltane and Samhain, and once echoed the annual migrations of the Highland cattle to and from the summer shielings.

The shielings may be long abandoned, but the practice of tending to the stones is still observed to this day. Residents and other visitors who know of the stones also walk to the site throughout the year. The Tigh nam Bodach is a unique part of Glenlyon’s heritage and an unbroken connection to our Celtic ancestors.

The Cailleach, or divine goddess, is a potent force in Celtic mythology. First recorded as the Cailleach Bhéarra of the Beara peninsula in southern Ireland, she was once revered across Ireland and Scotland. Commonly associated with wild nature and landscape, the Cailleach is credited with creating Scotland’s elemental fringes (including the Hebrides). A local legend says that Loch Tay was formed when she forgot to leave a flagstone lid on a magical spring well.

A fearsome Cailleach was said to live on Perthshire’s Beinn à Ghlotha. In legend she was a terrifying hag that could take the form of any wild animal and loved nothing more than drowning travellers in pools of water with the lure of false treasure. Glenlyon’s Cailleach is more benign, remembered for looking over the cattle that once grazed these high grounds. ‘Strange and terrible’ things are said to happen to anyone who dares disturbs her wintering grounds in Gleann Cailliche.

Planning permission was recently lodged for four hydro electric schemes that will forever transform the Gleann Cailliche and the surrounding landscape. Existing tracks will be upgraded to take heavy traffic. Power houses will be constructed, borrow pits dug and fresh tracks will be carved into the steeply sided slopes to weirs. An overhead power line will be run past the Tigh nam Bodach and down the side of Loch Lyon.

And what will become of the Tigh nam Bodach? No doubt some archeologist in Perth or Edinburgh will earn his or her salary by insisting that the stones aren’t touched. The shrine will be cordoned off with a strip of high vis tape while the diggers work the surrounding ground. What the planners are unlikely to appreciate, for all their cleverly worded ‘mitigation measures,’ is that the Cailleach represents the whole landscape.

Of course these run of river schemes have their benefits. They generate much needed renewable energy to help tackle climate change. They are far less visually intrusive than vast onshore windfarms. They also help support cash strapped estates at time of financial uncertainty. But for all the positives I am still convinced that a few of our wildest places should be kept free of industrial development. Surely Gleann Cailliche, with its unbroken link to our deep past, is one of them.

We would do well to remember that in Celtic legends the goddess of the wilds was not immortal. In one old tale from Mull the Cailleach immersed herself in the waters of Loch Bà every one hundred years to replenish her youth and beauty. As she descended one morning out of the hills to take the loch’s elixir of life she heard the bark of a shepherd’s collie (representing the domestication of animals and landscape). Pausing to listen, her hundred years timed out and she stumbled and died just short of the water’s edge.

To me the development that has finally reached the Tigh nam Bodach after centuries of seclusion in these remote hills is symptomatic of what is happening in so many of Scotland’s wildest places. Listen carefully and you might just hear the collie’s bark in The Crooked Glen of the Stones.

Send an email to developmentmanagement@pkc.gov.uk (quoting the reference 11/00061) if you wish to raise your concerns about the Allt Cailliche Hydro Scheme. The closing date for comment is the 18th of March - Plans for all four schemes are available on the council’s website.

Glenlyon HS Membership

The Society endeavours to meet three times a year. For meeting details see the bulletin board.

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