The White Cow of Lewis

Aine growing short of food, like much of the island had been forced to sacrifice her cow for which she depended on for milk….

By David White

Callanish, a series of towering megaliths which have stood proud on a hill against powerful winds battering against them for longer than the Great Pyramids have stood. They protrude from the ground as though affixed to the ground by some magic; while a person may feel that they will be blown from the hillside the stones, often looking somewhat precariously balanced, are stuck fast. As if that in itself is not a marvel, then the legends around it definitely are. There is the usual tale told across Britain at sites of standing stones that once they towered as giants, aloft to all but their refusal to convert to Christian led to them being turned to stone by one Saint or another. But Callanish holds so much history that not only does is predate Christianity by almost 3000 years and to go even further it predates most cultural records as it existed 1700 years before the Celts came to Scotland. While it is unknown exactly what was worshipped at Callanish it is believed that it was a site of spiritual significance in Neolithic Scotland, furthermore it is thought to have had some significance to the later Celts and it was not until the introduction of Christianity that the stones were viewed as a monument to forbidden pagan ritualism.

During the Celtic era there is also little evidence of exactly what gods were worshipped but Roman accounts from around the 1stC BC mention a site fitting the description of Callanish said to lie in Britain and in that place, they worshipped a primarily a sun god. It is also believed that due to the importance of agriculture that the god Dagda may have also been a deity although no contemporary sources uphold that this name use used by the Celts on Lewis.  I propose to tell a tale, set in this Celtic time, of a white cow.

The White Cow of Lewis

The day was a bright one and the rain hadn’t fallen at all that week which for a winter month was very unusual. You wouldn’t even say it was particularly windy, not for Lewis anyway, and a group was amassing at the centre of the village. By the edge of the village lived Aine who, having worked tirelessly for the past few months to try and reap what rewards she could from the barren and inhospitable land in the off season, was reaching the end of her tether. She was not the only one though, as the harvest that year had failed leaving the islanders to forage, fish and farm what little they could during this time. She reminded herself of her fortune, as many a fisherman had not returned to the shore with the waves wreaking havoc. Not to mention those who ventured where the Blue men do lurk beneath the sea, rare was a man who had survived their ice grip- but that is another tale.

Aine growing short of food, like much of the island had been forced to sacrifice her cow for which she depended on for milk, as did much of her family, and while that meant they did eat- for a while at least- it left them without the cheeses and milky drinks they did long for. Not only that but much of the island had done the same and now not only food but the nutritious highland milk had deserted them.

Aine saw the villagers walking past heading for the centre and called to one of the passers-by:

“What goes on in the centre? Many of you seem to be out wandering when we should be hunting for what little remains.”

“Ach Aine, we have been called to- the elders have called a meeting, what that will do the gods only know.”

Aine, recognising her summoning accompanied the passer-by, an elderly man who lived about a mile outside the village with whom she had become acquainted over the years. Much like many friends with whom the family were bound, she did not feel the need to meet with him on the regular but rather sunk into mutual familiar company as though they hadn’t been parted in many years.

Before long Aine arrived at the centre and before her stood most of the island, she must truly have missed the summons as families easily a half day’s walk away were arriving along with her. Before she had time to question herself as to how she had missed the call to assemble, a representative of the elders stood.

“We have been in discussion for several days now. As you all well know the island is in famine. Our stores are depleted and while what little reserves we had have gotten us until now, we still have a month before the growing season and we are without grains, meat, vegetable or diary and have no way of remedying our hunger. The council has thus decided that, all willing, we shall amas our remaining supplies in the village from all around and share it equally each day amongst families so that we may all face out the last of the winter. Already the storms seem to pass and if the current weather holds out another week we may yet succeed. What say you all?”

The response from the crowd was a resounding “aye!”. Rarely would the islanders go against the will of the elders but in this case it was not even considered for all on the island were connected in some way, either raised together, married or in some other way bound; none would see another starve. That is perhaps except the widow in the north for she reclused from all and when approached would not offer a word nor a smile in return for your kindness. Aine had a scout around the gathering to see whether she had arrived, but as expected she was not to be seen.

The week drew on and the food stores had been compiled and the elders were not much pleased for the supplies were far less than expected and would likely, even rationed not last out more than 2 weeks at most and a storm appeared to be once again brewing on the horizon. The elders chose at this point to venture to the standing stones and offered the others on the island the chance that, should they wish, they may join them in the ritual to the gods in hope of summoning some bounty to alleviate the suffering of their people. Aine and much of the rest of those not to young, or too old, to make the trek joined the elders and together prayed to the gods. Special tribute was granted. The father god, believed to bring fertility to the land, called Dagda by some but he has gone by many a name. As the sun descended, the storm could be seen growing closer and darker; as the sun kissed the sleeping lady farewell, the islanders descended the hill and headed for the village.

When they arrived back the village was in darkness but something caught Aine’s eye, a glint of something that appeared to be moving down by sea, just before the shore. She started towards it when a hand grabbed her:

“What are you doing?” said one of the elders.

“A storm is coming and will arrive on our shores any moment, you must go to your home and bolt yourself in until it lifts”

Aine was about to agree but now not only did she definitely see movement but something drew her towards it so she nimbly slipped out of the grasp of the elder and ran down to the shore. Suddenly a wind caught her and threw her onto her back and as she tried to regain her bearings she was entranced by the stars and as she looked out to sea that is all she saw. The storm was gone. As she glanced around her she saw, standing but 5 feet away a cow, the moonlight dancing off of its pure white hair. As though the waves had made its very essence clean and then it spoke.

“I have been sent to assist you in your plight.”

Aine having not thought until that point that she had hit her head was now doubting herself.

“you just talked”

“indeed I did my child and I would speak to all your people so as to promise them my aid”

Aine still taken aback by this talking creature and somewhat wary that the tales of Selkies and the such like may also apply to cows. Aine cautiously led the cow away from the sea and towards the village where she was met by an astonished congregation of islanders who, but a few minutes before, had been preparing for a winter storm and now were faced with a clear moonlight night. Then the cow spoke:

“I have come to help you in this time of famine. While I may not offer much, I can offer each of you a pail of milk for each day that you require it and that milk, being a gift from the gods shall act as all the sustenance that you shall require.”

The villagers now forgetting their earlier wonderment at the vanishing storm were now transfixed on the cow that had just appeared from the sea and appeared to be speaking to them. The youngest of the elder council spoke first:

“if you are indeed sent by the gods rather than some evil creature who doth seek to purge us, how shall we know?”

“Join me on first light at the middle of the standing stones there I shall fulfil my promise and should you distrust my action perhaps the young one who did greet me upon the shore shall drink the milk and prove to you all what I say is true?”

And so it was that on first light Aine stood with her pail and drank from it the bounty of fresh milk and having quenched her thirst felt her hunger ebb too, in fact she felt better than she ever had.

“why this stuff is better than she promised, I feel stronger than ever” cried Aine.

With that the islanders began to queue and one by one exclaimed in delight as their stomachs were once again full and as the week went on each day more nourishment was received. On the final day of that week it all went awry. At the end of the queue stood the widow of the north and as she bent down to milk the cow she placed under it a sieve then started to milk and as a sieve could never be full so the cow was unable to fulfil its promise. It turned to Aine who, while about to leave, had noticed the lack of progress made in filling the pail and had decided to remain.

“This woman is a trickster of the foulest form, a witch who has depleted me, for when the pail cannot be filled I cannot provide another. I believe though that with what I have given you and with the winter season being over in but two weeks, you are assured. You should not starve”

With that the cow ran off towards the ocean and it was reported by the fisherman that she leapt into the sea vanishing before their very eyes.

As Aine went to sleep that evening she saw the white cow transform into a beautiful woman who spoke to her:

“Thank you for your help my child, I am sorry I had to go”

“Who are you?” Aine probed lightly.

“Some call me Bu-Vinda but I go by many names- some also know me as partner to Dagda, mother of Aengus but I have been many things to many people. To your island I was the white cow and for all the islanders will know that is all I have ever been.”

The nights soon grew longer, the islanders survived and sure enough in time crops were sewn, animals left their burrows, lambs were born, fish were found, kitchen tables were filled and the island once again thrived. The White Cow became no more than a whisper of a legend, but the island remembers her bounty, deep in the bones of the soil.

Leave a Reply