Tuesday 6 June 2023

The Woman Warrior Who Taught Cuchulain


Folklore tells that the mountain ranges of Skye named the Red and Black Cuillins were named after the Irish hero Cuchulain, who came there to learn battle skills from the woman warrior Scáthach, pronounced Ska’hach, with ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’. According to James MacKillop’s Dictionary of Celtic Mythology the name means ‘shadow, shade’ (or possibly ‘shelter, protection’: but as her daughter Uathach’s name means ‘spectre’, I tend towards ‘shadow’.) The story is told in the Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’), and the island of Skye was said to have been named after her, or after her fortress Dún Scáthaige or Scáith.

Here are two folktales from Skye: The Island and its Legends by Otta F Swire (OUP 1952). A native of Skye, she wrote that these were ‘some of the old Skye stories which I heard from my mother and many of which she, in turn, heard from a great-aunt who was born over 150 years ago, on 18 April 1799...’ The first tale tells how the Cuillins or ‘Cuchullins’ were formed, while the second is a gently humorous version of the meeting between Scáthach – written ‘Skiach’ to approximate the pronunciation – and Cuchulain. At the end, Swire misnames Cuchulain’s terrible spear, the Gae Bolg, by calling it ‘the Fir Bolg’: the Fir Bolg however are the mythical invaders of Ireland who came before the Tuatha De Danaan. I have corrected the mistake. 

When all the world was new, there was a great heather-clad plain between Loch Bracadale on the west, and the Red Hills on the east. It was a dark and lonely place, and the Cailleach Bheur (a personification of Winter in Scottish Gaelic) whose home was on Ben Wyvis, often lived there when she came west to boil up her linen in her washing pot, dangerous Corryvreckan. She was a very powerful and fearsome person who had made Scotland by dropping into the sea a creel of peat and rock which she had brought with her from the north. When her clothes had boiled well, she would spread them to bleach on Storr, and while she was in Skye no good weather was to be got at all. Now Spring hated her because she held the maiden he loved prisoner (until the girl could wash a brown fleece white) and he fought with her, but she was strong, stronger than anyone else within the four brown boundaries of the earth, and he could do nothing. He appealed to the Sun to help him, and the Sun flung his spear at Cailleach Bheur as she walked on the moor: it was fiery and hot it scorched the very earth, and where it struck, a blister, six miles long and six miles wide, grew and grew until it burst and flung forth the Cuchullins as a glowing, molten mass. For many, many months they glowed and smoked, and the Cailleach Bheur fled away and hid beneath the roots of a holly and dared not return. Even now, her snow is useless against the fire hills.


For a long time no living thing inhabited the Cuchullins, and then came Skiach – goddess or mortal no one knows which, but undoubtedly a great warrior. She started a school for heroes in the mountains, to teach them the art of war. Some say she took her name from a Gaelic name for Skye, others that Skye took its name from her. However that may be, the fame of her name and of her school spread abroad and reached the ears of Cuchullin, the Hero of Ulster, whose friends acclaimed him the greatest warrior in the world. Undefeated he, single handed, had held up an army; so great was his battle-fury that after a fight three large baths of ice-cold water were always prepared for him: when he jumped into the first it went off in steam; when he jumped into the second it boiled over, when he jumped into the third it became a pleasantly hot bath. On hearing that in Skye there lived a woman, unconquered in battle, who offered to teach the heroes of the world how to fight, Cuchullin took two strides from the northern tip of Ireland and landed on Talisker Head; a third stride brought him to Skiach’s school in the hills. Here he had expected to be received with awe and honour, and was much peeved to find himself treated as only a ‘new boy’, and being firmly snubbed all round as a boastful new boy at that.

            He challenged all the other students to single combat and defeated them. At this Skiach deigned to take notice and gave him permission to fight with her daughter... So Cuchullin and Skiach’s daughter fought ‘for a day and a night and another day’ and then, at last, he vanquished her. Great was the wrath of Skiach. She for the first time descended from the high tops to fight. She and Cuchullin fought. They fought for a day and a night and another day, they fought on the mountains and on the moors and in the sea, but neither could come by any advantage. Then Skiach bade all the princes and heroes watch, for never again would they see such a fight. And they fought for a day and a night and another day, but neither gained any advantage.

            Then Skiach’s daughter was troubled and sent some of her maidens to bring her deer’s milk, and she made a cheese from it such as her mother loved, and bade them come and eat. But they would not. So she sent heroes to bring her a deer and she roasted it and called to them to come and eat, and it smelt very good, but they would not. The she sent the heroes once again to gather her ‘wise’ hazel nuts from the trees which grow in the little burns on the side of Broc-Bheinn, and she roasted another deer and stuffed it with roasted hazel nuts and bade them come and eat. And Skiach thought, ‘The hazels of knowledge will teach me how to overcome Cuchullin.’ And Cuchullin thought, ‘The hazels of knowledge will teach me how to overcome Skiach.’ So they both came and sat down and ate.

            When they tasted the wise hazels they knew that neither could ever overcome the other, so they made peace together and swore that if either called for aid the other would come, ‘though the sky fall and crush us.’ And Cuchullin returned to Ireland, but not, some say, before Skiach had given him the Gáe Bolg. 


This version of the story is considerably less violent and a lot less sexy than those found in the Tochmarc Emire, as you can find out for yourself here. James MacKillop’s Dictionary of Celtic Mythology describes the Gáe Bolg as the ‘Terrible weapon of the Ulster Cycle, which entered the victim at one point but made thirty wounds within. Deeply notched and characterized by lightning speed, Gáe Bolg was made from the bones of a sea-monster killed in a duel with another monster of greater size. Although usuallu the possession of Cuchulain, received from his female tutor Scáthach, Gáe Bolg also appears in the hands of other heroes. How it was used is still a matter of conjecture. When Cuchulain uses it to kill Ferdiad, he casts it ‘from the fork of his foot’, ie: between his toes.’

Picture credits:

The Black Cuillins, looking from Blaven to the west, Skye - by Nick Bramhall https://www.flickr.com/people/black_friction/


  1. Your photo credit reminds me of Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart. I expect you have read it?

  2. Yes! It's rather good - I do like Mary Stewart's thrillers.