Mapping the Old Wife

For many years I’ve have a deep fascination with sites prefixed with the name ‘Old Wife’. With plenty of time on my hands, I decided to have a go at something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, create a map. The sites that I’ve select are all physical places and are named on maps. The map covers the three main linguistic elements of my researches, Old Wife, Carling/Carlin, Cailleach.

The word Wife means woman, it has only been used to signify a woman’s marital status relatively recently, therefore the Old Wife means, Old Woman. The second main element is Cailleach, a Scots and Irish Gaellic word which is still in use today and means, Old Woman/Hag/Witch. The Final element is the word Carling, which is the the Scots equivalent of Cailleach. For completeness, I have also included a few sites with a Witch element in their names as these are relatively rare, I’m still not sure if they are relevant but have included them anyway for interest.

The word Carling has been a little problematic as the element Carl means a free peasant in Old English and Old Scandinavian e.g. the etymology of the word Carlton would be a settlement of free peasants. Whereas the etymology of Carling Howe, which was originally called Kerlinghou, means the hill of the old woman or hag. I have tried my best to filter-out these name elements and have hopefully only added relevant sites on the map.

Key – Blue = Cailleach, Green = Carling, Red = Old Wife, Orange = Witch

When looking at the distribution map, I cannot think of any other mythological or folkloric figure who is so well represented in our landscape and yet, as my friend Graeme points out, remains so anonymous . I suppose, given a millennia and a half of an interlinked church and state, which in the past has actively suppressed to any whiff of witchcraft or the supernatural, especially when practiced by women, the fact that her name has survived and remains embedded in our landscape is quite remarkable. The distribution of sites may also say something regarding certain commonalities between the cultures of the early inhabitants of the northern and western parts our islands.

The Hag/Crone/Old Wife/Witch

Cailleach – Gaellic, Carlin/Gyre, Carling – Scots, Kerling – Icelandic, Kelling – Faroese, Kjerring – Norwegian, Karring – Swedish, Kaelling – Danish

The map is a work in progress, I will continue to work on it and hopefully add the interactive version to this site.

Thanks to Graeme Chappell for his encouragement, comments and providing me with a few sites that I didn’t know about.

7 thoughts on “Mapping the Old Wife

  1. Fantastic, thank you. I sing with acappella group Henwen – ‘Hen’ as in hinny, meaning woman, and ‘wen’ as in wan, meaning white. The implication of the whiteness is of white hair, meaning having gained the wisdom of age, the wise crone.

  2. Very interesting map – look forward to visiting some of these when we are allowed out to play again..!
    It would be really useful to have an interactive map – or even a list of the place-names too…

  3. The emptiness of the map of Wales is striking. You’ve included Blaengwrach (Gwrach = witch/hag), and google suggests there’s a few houses and streams elsehwere containing Gwrach, but yes, no other substantial settlements or e.g mountains. I’m aware of a headland in the south called ‘Trwyn y Witch’ (mixing Welsh and Engish) also. I wonder if there’s a missing ‘Old Wife’ equivalent that’s hidden in the Welsh landscape in plain vew, as it were? But as a Welsh speaker I honestly can’t think of one. Will ask around!

  4. Gavin’s collection of Cailleach and Carlin placenames is impressive, and I actually think that his map is of remarkable significance.
    Something rooted in the land has been revealed (perhaps even chosen to be revealed?), in a digital format, in a digital age. The Cailleach/Carlin/Old Wife is a powerful archetypal figure whose presence was forcibly suppressed until no longer recognised by most of the population. Such a figure is no airy fairy fantasy, rather a focus for concepts of creation, life, and death, and still respected in some parts of the world.
    “The poor despised popular Tales, which are branded as wicked lies in the West Highlands, and which such men as Grimm and De la Villermarque believe to be some of the oldest known products of the human mind.” — J.F. Campbell of Islay (1860)

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