Scathach or Sgathaich
(‘skah – thahgh)
“She Who Strikes Fear”
“The Shadowy One”
Scathach, Gaelic Goddess of the Dead, the warrior-woman risen to Divinity, patron of blacksmiths and warriors alike. The Goddess of those slain in battle and the passage of the dead to Tir Nan Og. Once mortal, she was touched by the Tuatha de Dannan in a way usually only seen in the Sidhe. In her duties, she is similar to the Valkyrie of the Norse. She searches the battlefields for the souls of the slain, and guides them along the Imrama na Anam, or Death Journey (lit. “Journey of the Soul”), to Tir Nan Og, the Land of Eternal Youth and Beauty.
Scathach is said to be the daughter of the king of Scythia. Aoife, another fierce warrior queen, is reputed to be her sister, while Uathach, her daughter, is a fellow teacher at her school. She also told to have two sons named Cet and Cuar from an unnamed man and trains them within a secret yew tree. Another source tells that she is mother to three maidens named Lasair, Inghean Bhuidhe and Latiaran, the father being a man named Douglas.
However, although the warrior dead get preferential treatment, Scathach does guide those who did not die in battle when they get lost on the Imrama. The reason so many vision-seekers get lost on the Imrama is that Scathach does not guide the living. It is also the duty of Scathach to drop those who acted poorly in life on one of the mystical islands of the other world, where they pay their debts and learn their folly. Not many living mortals ever make it to Tir Nan Og successfully (Olsin being the most famous exception).
In the Ulster Cycle, she is a fearsome expert in the arts of war. It is to her that Cu Chulainn, the greatest of Celtic warriors, comes in his youth to learn his craft. This teaching took place in Alba. It was from Scathach that Cu Chulainn received the ‘Gae Bolg’, his formidable barbed spear (or sword, in some versions) whose thrust was invariably fatal.
Scathach, is a warrior queen and also mistress of a school for young warriors. The school is located in Scotland on the island of Skye, reputedly named after Scathach; other sources say she’s living in the Alps. She teaches unto her children martial arts, discipline, how to work iron and steel, magick, the ways of the seer, and the way of the sword, spear, and bow. She initiates young men into the arts of war, as well as giving them the “friendship of her thighs”, that is to say, initiating them sexually.
Legend tells us that she grants three wishes to the hero Cuchulainn, because her daughter Uathach, being in love with him, has told him how to make her do it. The three wishes are to train him in the arts of war, to marry her daughter Uathach and to tell his fortune… which she does by using imbas forosnai (“charm of the palms”), partly foretelling the events of the Tain Bo Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley) in dark very terms.
Scathach was also a potent magician herself. Lore tells us that she had the gift of prophecy, and she foretold Cu Chulainn’s fate during the course of Queen Madb’s onslaught against Ulster.
The Winged Isle of Skye
© 1998, Frances Billinghurst (Published in the “Pagan Times” Issue 24 and 25)
The Cullin Mountains, home of the Warrior Goddess Scathach
Probably the most famous of the Scottish islands is Skye, off the North West coast. Approximately 77 kilometers from North to South, and 43 kilometers from West to East at its widest part, the island’s jagged coastline makes it impossible to be more than eight kilometers from the sea at any point you stand.
Skye is a romantic’s dream, and a mountaineer’s paradise. It evokes mystery and enchantment with its spectacular scenery and ever changing colors. An aura of mysticism still remains from Norse and Gaelic times when the Isle was known as the Isle of the Clouds by the Vikings, and the Winged Isle by the Celts. Today, with the revival of Gaelic, it is known as Eilean a’ Cheo, the Isle of the Mist.
One of the best known features of Skye are the Cullin Mountains. The Black Cullins are a horseshoe-shaped range encircling one of the most isolated and remote lochs in Scotland, Loch Coruish. The twenty sharp peaks are all over 900 meters high and are often necked in clouds. Facing these are conical summits of pink granite known as the Red Cullins. The mountains are, according to Celtic legend, names after the Ulster Sun God, Cuchulainn, when he journeyed to the domain of the Goddess Scathach, on Skye. Scathach was a formidable warrior queen and prophetess, and the ruins of Dunscaith on the Sleat Peninsular in the south of the island are said to have been her stronghold.
Cuchulainn’s journey to Skye was one for him to gain wisdom, skill and to be transformed. He passed through various trials on the way – the Plains of Ill Luck, where the feet of men could be pierced by razor sharp grass blade; the Perilous Glens, filled with its devouring beasts; and the Bridge of the Cliff, stretching between the mainland and Skye, said to throw anyone attempting to cross it to their deaths. Cuchulainn avoided this fate by performing his “Salmon Leap” (which is described to have involved twisting and turning like a salmon) to gain access to Scathach’s stronghold.
One legend tells us that Cuchulainn served as one of Scathach’s students for one year and a day, and won battles in single combat against the other student before taking on Scathach’s sister, Aoife, who was know for her battle skills. Cuchulainn eventually won this match, but only by out-tricking her. According to legend, Aoife, later became his lover and bore him a son, Colai, and it was the boy’s own fate to be killed by his father.
Another version of the legend says it was Scathach’s daughter, Uathach, who was beaten and this angered the warrior queen so much that she decided to fight the young hero herself. They battled for four days and four nights, neither eating nor sleeping, and it was only when they finally realised neither of them would win that they stopped. Scathach subsequently awarded Cuchulainn Gae-bolg, the “belly spear”, which, it made a single entry, once inside the body the 30 barbs would open and tear the stomach apart. And when the youth returned to Ireland, Scathach named the Cullin Mountains after him out of respect.
Faeries and Wytches
The earliest human occupation of Skye dates to around 3500 BCE. From this time came many of the chambered tombs and brochs which are scattered around the island. Brochs, being dry stone towers, were believed to have been built for dene purposes, and are said to be “as old as Sithichean” – older than man. They serve a more sinister purpose in folklore, being the dwelling place for faeries and the entrance way to their kingdoms. Mortals and cattle alike were said to be carried off by faeries to the brochs, from which emanated an eerie green light when the Sun went down.
Dun Beag Broch
One of the best preserved brochs on Skye in Dun Beag, which is near the main road to Struan, overlooking Loch Bracadale. The broch occupies a rocky knoll, making its walls appear even taller and more impressive. With its extensive views of the Cullin Mountains, there is a surreal peace about the place, being surrounded by flowering heather, foxgloves and bracken during the summer.
This belief of the Faery folk was still strong in the 1830s when a chambered tomb near Broadford was investigated. The men who entered the chamber, were armed with pistols to defend themselves, believing that strange animals lived within. Instead, all that was found were charred skulls, several flint implements, and some pottery fragments.
The history of some chambered tombs tends to relate more to folk legend than fact. One example is of the two massive cairns close to the road at Vattern, in the west of the isle, which were said to have been built on the site of the last great battle between the Clans MacLeod and MacDonald. According to legend, thick mist descended during the battle, causing great confusion, and resulting in the deaths of most of the warriors. So many men were killed or wounded that the only people left to dig the graves were the women, children and old men. The best they could do was to make two piles of the bodies, according to clan, and cover each with stones.
And finally, amongst the rich folklore, is a story about the island’s wytches, which, unfortunately, is not dated. Three of them once lived near Portree, the island’s largest town, at Camusianavaig Point. One of their clients was a skipper of a local fishing boat who wished to get even with a rival crew. On the day he decided to consult the wytches, bring with him a bottle of whisky, only two were home. They went ahead anyway and, by the time they had decided on a suitable spell, the whisky bottle was empty. About this time the third wytch returned, and she was furious – not only for not being consulted about the spell, but also because there was no whisky left for her. It is said that as the skipper’s boat sailed past the point, a squall suddenly blew up, engulfing the boat and its crew. And even today, her anger can still be felt as winds still blow near Camusianavaig Point when the rest of the bay is calm.
MacDonalds of Sleat
Skye’s history is long and complicated. The Celts and Norse came and went, and ever since the 13th century the island has been ruled, to a greater or lesser degree, by the Dunvegan MacLeods, in the north, and in the South by the MacDonalds of Sleat.
Dunscaith Castle on the Sleat Peninsular in the south, the legendary home of the island’s Goddess Scathach, is attributed to the MacDonalds. It was their principle seat up until the late 15th century, and the local legend surrounding it was that Dunscaith was built in one night. The MacDonalds then took over Duntulm Castle in the north from the MacLeods in 1482, and this was their new home until it was abandoned in 1730, when a nurse dropped the chief’s baby son from the window to the rocks below, thus cursing the household. From that point, they moved south again, and eventually ended up at Armadale, with a modest manor house which today is the genealogical center. Duntulm Castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of the eighth MacDonald chief, Donald Gorm Mor, who is said to return to the castle with two companies to get drunk!
“All night the witch sang, and the castle grew.
Up from rock, with tower and turrets crowned.
All night she sang – when fell the morning dew.
‘Twas finished round and round …”
MacLeods and the Faery Flag
The MacLeods have fared the centuries better. Their ancestral home is Dunvegan Castle, which is lived in today by their 29th chief. Maybe this is because in their possession is the “faery flag”, a 600 year old tattered silken banner which is shot with gold thread and marked with “elf spots”. Many stories are associated as to how the flag came into the clan’s possession, including it being captured and brought back from the Crusades. However, one favourite is of a MacLeod chief being married to a faery. Later, when she decided to return to her own people, she dropped a piece of silk at her husband’s feet at a place called the Ford of the Three Burns (known today as the “Faery Bridge”, and said”
“Keep this flag and unfurl it to the wind whenever crisis hits you. It will save you and your twice. But woe betide you if you unfurl it a third time”.
Some say that the flag has been used twice – to win the battles of Glendale in 1490, and of Waternish in 1580. Others say that is was Titania, the Faery Queen herself, who gave the flag to the MacLeods.
The Ancient Pict
Skye has also been the home to the Picts. The Picts were the original inhabitants of northern Scotland and were so named by the Romans due to their practice of adorning or decorating their bodies with tribal totems and magickal designs. Such designs were either actual tattoos and drawn with woad. The Picts had many beliefs in common with the Celts, one of which was their shared aversion to written language, their religious beliefs and traditions were committed to memory.
There is a beautiful symbol stone still standing in the open near Skeabost. The other two symbol stones found on the island are now in the Edinburgh Museum. Skye was also the most northern isle St Columbia visited when he brought Christianity to the islands, and in 1746 local lass Flora MacDonald helped Prince Charles Edward Stuart (later known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) escape the English after the slaughter of his Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden. She dressed the Prince in her maid’s clothes and hid him in a cave before he could escape to France.
Skye today is a place of peace and tranquility…there are few residents, and even in the peak of summer visitation, there is always a quiet place to be found to sit, and remember the goddess Scathach and her story.
“Skye” by Ann MacSween
“Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain” by Jennifer Westwood