The song of the caillagh

Fri, 28 Feb 2020


In the second in our series of articles about Manx music, this piece looks at a song said to be the Isle of Man's most famous witch song - Berree Dhone. This was recently published in the Manx Independent:

 

The song of the caillagh

“Are you in, Berree Dhone?” “Vel oo sthie Verree Dhone?” starts this lively Manx song. A good question just in case a witch is hiding behind the door!

Berree Dhone is a legendary character mentioned in Manx folklore and ballads, but it remains a mystery as to who she really was. A pagan Goddess who could turn herself into a brown cow, or a real-life cattle thief from the late 1700s?

The legends all link Berree Dhone (Manx for Brown Berry) to the slopes of North Barrule, Cornaa and the Corony Valley. Known Island-wide as the ‘Queen of the Maughold Witches’, she even had a pool named after her; ‘Lhing Berrey Dhone’ in the Corony River. Young women would cross the pool bare-foot along a row of stones on the first night of the harvest moon, whilst invoking her name, in the hope of discovering their future husband. Her name was also used as a curse!

The Gaelic song we know today was first collected in the 1830s and later published in Manx Ballads and Music in 1896, and this version appears to marry two distinct Berree Dhone legends from Manx folklore.

The first refers to a giantess, as strong as two men, who strolled the Manx hills; Carraghyn, Snaefell, Slieau Beg, Beinn y Phott, and Slieau Ouyr, leaving her footprints embedded on the side of Barrule as she made her way home to the Gob-ny Scuit waterfall. This mythical creature could transform herself into a brown cow, and it has been suggested that this ‘Berree Dhone’ was the Manx equivalent of the Irish Cailleach Bheur or Scottish Cailleach Bheurra – the Goddess of winter who would turn herself to stone on the old May eve and reawaken at Hop tu naa.

The other legend immortalises an actual woman called Margad-y-Stomacher who was a notorious witch and thief. Margad lived on the side of Barrule at the end of eighteenth century and she was so called because of her distinctive attire; a ‘stomacher’ with jacket, breeches and bright yellow skirt. Feared by the locals, they reported seeing a “yellow glimpse” of Margad whilst she snuck around at night stealing cattle.

Margad was finally caught for stealing an ox named ‘Berrey Dhone’. She skinned it and divided the meat before she was arrested, charged, and narrowly escaped the gallows. However, the brazen thief was straight back to old tricks, as according to the song, she stole a goat on the way home!

Whatever its roots, Berree Dhone is a ‘spirited’ song still enjoyed by Manx musicians and singers today.

 

The article is available to be enjoyed on the Isle of Man Newspapers' website.
This article links to the series of traditional Manx music arranged for guitar being released as a free download and video lesson. More information is available here.