This fascinating object in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is the Ballachulish Goddess.
She was discovered under a layer of peat in November 1880 by workers digging foundations for a new house near the village of Ballachulish, in Lochaber, Highland, Scotland.
Carved from a single piece of Alder wood, with quartzite pebbles for eyes, she’s around 1,5 meters tall. She was lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven. The character has been radiocarbon-dated to around 600 BC, making it over 2,500 years old, and belonging to a period when iron was beginning to be used in Scotland.
This incredible preservation was due to the wet conditions of the peaty ground she was buried in. Unfortunately, nobody could find a container of water big enough to hold her for the trip to Edinburgh and so the wood became badly warped into what we see today.
Since she was found near a narrow passage where Loch Linnhe flows into Loch Leven, she’s sometimes called the Goddess of the Straights, and It’s thought that she may have been a deity placed there for sailors to pray to or leave an offering before they navigated the dangerous stretch of water.
Actually, we know very little about the Ballachulish Goddess. Figures like this are found elsewhere in Bronze Age Britain, Ireland and even in Old Continent, but she is absolutely unique in Scotland.
There were pebbles stuck on her base so we can assume she stood on a beach and there were the remains of branches and twigs, possibly a screen or shrine for her.
Or maybe she’s the Cailleach, Scotlands creator deity who features in lots of locations around the landscape, the goddess who carved mountains and causes the seasonal cycle, or she’s simply a much more local character who has been forgotten over the millenia.
Interestingly, the nearby mountain called Beinn a’ Bheithir, or ‘hill of the thunderbolt’, is said to be named after the Cailleach Bheithir – an ancient hag goddess of winds and storms.
Could the Ballachulish Figure be one of her earlier representations?
The village of Lochawe lies at the end of Loch Awe approximately 3 miles west of Dalmally. Here there is an ancient legend that tells of the creation of and the coming of Cailleach Bheithir, the dreadful winter hag of death. It’s said that a mystic well or spring of youth was once situated on the slopes of Ben Cruachan. This was used by the goddess Bheithir to maintain her beauty, and every evening she visited the well and bathed in its enchanted waters.
However one night she was distracted and forgot to replace the capstone on the spring. As she slept the waters continued to run until they had drained away completely, losing their potency as they were exposed to the air. The once magical waters ran down the mountainside and flooded the valley below – creating the waters of Loch Awe.
There are two stories of what happened then. According to one version of the story, Bheithir was unable to retain her youth yet remained immortal and aged rapidly.
The other tells us the other gods decided to punish her for her carelessness. Either way, she went from beautiful goddess to wizened and ancient hag. She retreated to the mountains where she screams in anger at the loss of her youth. Her cries frequently presage misfortune and she became known as Cailleach Bheithir the icy hag of winter and darkness.
Some say her cries can still be heard to this day.
Either way, the area is rich in archaeological remains.
Within half a kilometre there are several Bronze Age burial monuments, and some years before the figure was dug up, a peat-cutter discovered ‘several barrow-loads’ of worked flint, inside a round building, deep under the peat. The Ballachulish Moss area is nationally important for its archaeology, and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Whatever the true story is behind the Ballachulish Goddess, it doesn’t get much more mysterious or beautiful than this and her secrets have been lost in the mists of time.
And, although there’s a lot of cool stuff in the National Museum of Scotland, if you only had time to see one thing then I think this should probably be it!
In fact, the figure is very famous and is now admired by millions of visitors from all over the world.
Images from web – Google Research