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.

The Old Wife

What is your name?

You know me as The Old Wife, I have many names in many lands, my true name is lost to you. In your world I am Carling, Gyre, Calliach, Cailich, Calli, Kerling, Kelling, Kjerring, Karring, Kaelling. I am also Black Annis, Cally Berry, Bell, Witch, Gentle Annie, Bronach, Mala Lia, Glaistig, Muilgheartach, Boi, Hag, Crone, Bone Mother, Veiled One, Thunderer, Frau Holle, Mardoll, Morrigan, Daughter of Frenzy.

Where do you come from?

I was always here. I am before time and place, I am below and above.

What is your purpose?

I command the weather and summon winter, I rule the dark months. I made your mountains, crags, forests and moors. Your rivers run because of me. The coastlines, islands, headlands, and cliffs are my work. I close your harvest and protect your animals. Gods, giants, kings and mortals have shared my bed, my offspring people the world. I am the bringer of death and the mother of all.

The Old Wife

Carlin Howe

Carling Howe YN [Kerlinghou 12 Guisb], Carlinghow YW [Kerlinghowe 1307 Wakef]. ‘The hill of the old woman or hag.’ Second el. OScand haugr ‘hill’. The first is ON kerling, OSw kaerling ‘old woman (Scotch carline ‘woman, hag, witch). Very likely the hill was one where witches were supposed to gather.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names. 4th edition. Eilert Ekwall