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The Mystery of the Ballachulish Goddess

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

We were asked to speak about the Ballachulish Goddess as part of the fantastic 'Highland Objects' podcast. You can listen to the podcast here, or read on to learn about this fascinating figure...

The Ballachulish Goddess is a life-size figure - just under 5 ft - carved from a single piece of alder wood. When alder is first carved, the cut wood is a rich, orange colour, so she would originally have been a very striking, almost golden figure. We know she is female because she is depicted naked, but her flat chest suggests that she is a young girl. She has quartzite pebbles for eyes and is shown holding unidentifiable objects in her hands. Her legs end in a solid block, like a podium or stand, with a rectangular hole carved in the front – possibly once holding something decorative or somewhere for people to place offerings.

The replica goddess at Glencoe Folk Museum

The goddess was found face down under around 6ft of peat during building work in November 1880, and has since been radiocarbon dated to around 600BC, making her over 2 and a half thousand years old and belonging to the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age. Judging by her good condition, she hadn’t spent long above ground before she was buried, as alder tends to crack quite quickly after carving. This has led to speculation that she was deliberately buried in the way of human bog-burials, a theory strengthened by the remains of woven twigs and branches found covering her. Many bogbodies uncovered around Europe appear to have been pressed down into the ground under some kind of wickerwork, so it is possible that the same technique was used on the goddess. The peat had preserved the wood, but unfortunately once she was removed from the ground she began to deteriorate. Archaeologists at the time wanted to keep her wet but did not have a container big enough to hold her and had no scientific techniques for preserving waterlogged wood, so the wood was allowed to dry out. As it did, it warped and cracked in the eerie, elongated figure on display today, and pieces broke off during transportation to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, as it was known then.

The original Goddess as she looks now. Photo from National Museums Scotland

The figure is unique in Scotland. Though similar figures have been found elsewhere in the UK and Europe (thought to represent supernatural beings), she is the only one of her kind here and is the oldest human figure found in Scotland. The area where she was buried is rich in Bronze Age archaeological finds: nearby, the remains of cists or burial chambers were discovered as well as piles of flint, arrowheads, spear points and scrapers, and organic materials like wooden plates and bowls which again had been preserved by the peat. The Ballachulish Moss has been designated both as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and also as a Possible Occupation Site after what looked like the remains of a settlement were discovered. So, as well as giving more evidence of early settlers in the area, the Ballachulish Goddess also gives us a rare glimpse of Bronze Age art and beliefs - possibly even of a self-representation of prehistoric people or archaeological evidence of early Celtic mythology or religion.

Which brings us to the biggest question – what does she represent?

There are a few different theories about why the Ballachulish Goddess was carved and what she might have represented. Scholars and Archaeologists of the time saw her as a relic of paganism, and seem to have distanced themselves from her slightly as there is scant information recorded on her discovery. One Ballachulish villager is recorded as saying that the railway workers charged with moving the goddess to Edinburgh in 1880 were reluctant to handle the “Pagan Idol” – which perhaps explains why proper care wasn’t taken of her on the journey and she came to be broken en route.

Sir Robert Christison, a scholar and member of the Antiquarian Society who was tasked with writing a paper on the discovery in 1881, concluded that she was carved by the Norsemen due to similarities with carved figures found around Scandinavia. Since radiocarbon dating wasn’t invented until the mid-1900s, Christison wasn’t to know that the goddess was carved and buried around 1400 years before the Vikings arrived in Scotland. However, some still believe that the podium she stands on was once attached to the prow of a ship, or was perhaps intended to be.

Others suggests that the goddess is a depiction of Cailleach Bheithir, the hag goddess of winds and storms. According to Celtic legend, Beithir was once a beautiful goddess who guarded the magic spring of eternal youth on the slopes of Ben Cruachan. She would bathe in the waters every evening to keep herself young and beautiful, but one night she forgot to replace the capstone on the spring, and the waters flowed down to the valley to form Loch Awe. Without the spring to preserve her youth, Bheithir became old and haggard and transformed into a dark goddess cursed with immortality. The Ballachulish mountains, Beinn a’Bheithir - or the peak of the thunderbolt - are sometimes said to have been named after her, and the spot where the Ballachulish Goddess was discovered looks across the loch to these mountains.

Another theory is to do with the objects she holds in her hands, which must have had great significance to have been included in the carving. The only existing photo taken of the Ballachulish Goddess before she was damaged and warped seems to show phallic objects in her hands, leading some to believe that she was an ancient goddess of fertility – something common in other figures dating to the same period. In this case, the carved hollow in her base could have been for offerings from those asking to be blessed with children.

The last theory – and the one that has been given the most credence by the archaeological community – is that she was a goddess of the water. Her position on the shores of the loch would have overlooked the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven to Loch Linnhe, the narrowest point in the loch and the most obvious crossing point. Prehistoric travellers may have made offerings to her in order to be granted safe passage across the loch. This theory is given more weight by other, similar figures found across Europe, which had been placed at the edge of routeways through wetlands. It’s even possible that the safe passage these settlers asked for wasn’t across the loch, but simply through the boggy land at the water’s edge where the goddess stood.

However, these are all just theories and perhaps we will never know the true story of the mysterious Ballachulish goddess and why she was created. She’s had many names: the pagan idol, the Lady of the Ferry, the Ballachulish figure and Cailleach Bheithir to name a few, but we don’t know what she was originally called. She may have even been a representation of a local, prehistoric settler who was known to the carver. We don’t even know if she fell into the bog or was sunk into the peat deliberately, or why this might have been done.

I personally enjoy a bit of mystery and I’m quite happy to let the goddess keep her secrets. Whatever her true purpose, it must have been incredible to have been there when she was first lifted from the bog, to look into her eyes and imagine the history she has been witness to if only she could tell us – and how amazing for her to gaze upon us for the first time in over 2000 years, to see how the world has changed.

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