The dolls can be sneaky. I can be making a doll with a particular purpose and whilst I am busy focussed on that, they sneak in some truth or other or drop a mini bombshell about something that needs addressing. Just recently I was contributing to an on line event where we were exploring Imbolc and the traditions surrounding this festival and the figure of Brigid, Goddess and Saint. My role was in guiding people to make Bridie Dolls, the traditional dolls that were associated with the festival. Mindful that many people were in lockdown and aware that in times gone by people would have used whatever was at hand to make the dolls I had decided to make dolls from socks or wooden spoons and scrapes of fabric.

This was the first on line event that I had been part of where I would be sharing my doll making. I was horrified when the day before I was going begin to the doll s, I had a bad fall in the garden and injured my right shoulder and hand. The injury was severe enough to affect my dexterity. ‘Time to live what I teach’, I thought. So what is that that , I hear you ask. In all my creativity I hold the belief that it is the intention and process that is important in creativity, not the product. And that is very true. However, as well as the feelings that being out of control and the usual sort of performance anxiety that can come up at such times….you know the one that says things like , “Oh that is useless, what will serious doll makers think” or “Why would anyone want to make a doll like yours, it’s so clumsy” ( add the phrase that fits your own situation and you will get my meaning); I was to discover that the finished dolls had messages of their own.

First it was the sock doll. It felt like I was trying to sew with sausages instead of nimble fingers and my inner critic laughed raucously at the finished product and my attempt at sculpting  the face with thread. “Ha …she looks like an owl! Some wise woman!!!” was the sarcastic inner retort.  I had to admit, my inner meanie was right, the doll’s face did bear a strong resemblance to the feathered creature of the night. Trying hard to stick to my principles, I repeated again that it was the process and intention that were important, and anyway, owls were known to represent wisdom, so please be quiet. Setting the owl featured doll on one side, I then made the wooden spoon doll. I enjoyed making her, wrapping her frame in the colours of fire and water to symbolise balance and dressing her in velvets and silk. However, when I sat back to admire her, meanie was quick to point out that her arms were very short. It was true. The pipe cleaner armature wasn’t really long enough and the doll looked as if she had the arms of someone with Achondraplasia. It was then the magic began to happen. In my head, meanie continue to have a field day, but as a held the little wooden spoon doll in my hand and gazed at her, I was taken to a deeper place. “Who are you to define what beauty is?’ was the question I was given. I found myself thinking about how in the western world, there is a definite image of what beauty in women should look like. Young, slim, long legged and white. Photographs on social media and in magazines are touched up and altered, offering women and girls unattainable ideals to live up to. Even in the spiritual world, where the written content of articles might be about self- acceptance and claiming your feminine power, the accompanying images resemble those on Instagram, with their impossible long legs, tiny waists and flawless complexions.   Ordinary women with curves, wide hips, droopy breasts and bellies with stretch marks are given the impression that they need to change in order to be beautiful. The grey hair and wrinkles that come with passing years have to be hidden with false colour or have cream applied to fill them in and cover them up. When a woman of more advanced years posts a selfie, the highest compliment people can think of offering is “Oh you look so young!”. Just what is wrong with looking our years? Men are often considered to look distinguished as they age. Women are more likely to be criticised for looking past it or accused of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb.’

As I sat holding my little wooden spoon doll in my hands, smoothing out her gauze dress and velvet finery, I found myself thinking of the news last year that ‘do not resuscitate order’s had been placed on  people with learning and other disabilities, when they  had been diagnosed with Covid-19. I didn’t know then that by the end of the month the enormity of the scandal would be revealed. It seems that the same attitude that saw thousands of disabled die in the gas ovens of the holocaust and even further back, led to women who were elderly or different being murdered as so called witches, is still present in our so called civilised age.

The Owl faced doll added to the conversation. “You are right that the Owl represents wisdom.” She reminded me that in Gaelic word for the owl is Cailleach-oidche, meaning Old Lady of the Night. She was known to be acquainted death and in a culture obsessed with light and youth, her wisdom is so desperately needed but spurned.

I will finish with some words that I heard recently from the Gospel of Thomas, discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945. Scholars believe that it was written before the Gospels contained in the New Testament. In the Gospel, the disciples are asking how they can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Amongst other things, which included being like breast feeding infants, another image that society tries to hide away, Jesus responded by saying, “When you replace an image with an image, then you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I don’t know about you, but I am ready to turn in the old images and find some fresh ones.

Cailleach Wisdom

I was recently blessed by having the opportunity to craft a Cailleach Doll for a friend in Shetland. I never know who or what is going to emerge and I love the way the wisdom comes through. Someone asked me recently if I actually hear words. Sometimes I do but more often there is a growing awareness as my hands work on the fleece or whatever material I am working with (this week it was a wooden spoon doll that brought challenges about how we define beauty…but more of her story another time!) It’s a whole body listening and I sometimes see or sense images. The words come as I sit to write. For me, what comes through is Sacred. Sometimes it is comforting. Sometimes it is challenging. Always there are layers of meaning that emerge over time.

When I make a doll, I always share the wisdom they have shared with me with the new guardian (for we can never own such a creation just as we can never own a prayer). Sometimes the person will send me something to be included in the heart of the doll. I place herbs, leaves or stones that seems to call for inclusion and pray for the person and ask the great Creator to guide my hands.

With permission, I am sharing what I sent to my friend. As you read I invite you to allow the words of the Cailleach  to settle in your heart and see if there is a line or phrase that resonates for you.


The beginning always starts with intention. I lit a candle and spent some time with the images you had sent, holding the fleece in my hands. As I stroked the wool I was given impressions of strong rock, wild winds and stormy skies. The word remembering came to my heart. As I listened,  She spoke,

“You will remember who you are as you discover who I am.”

As I placed into the heart of the doll the ash of the surrendered regrets and tokens of the land, I added  Rosemary for remembrance, Elder flowers for wisdom, Willow for healing and Rose petals for the Great Lady, praying that we would remember who we are in all our Wildness and raw beauty.

As I worked the wool, folding and shaping I noticed that the offerings had in fact worked their way to the base.

She spoke,

“All that is surrendered, no matter how difficult, becomes the very strength that holds you up. But it has to be surrendered. Allow the elements to do their work. Then there is strength and stability.”

As I worked, my hands found landscapes that were rich and full of beauty. There were deep greens of moss, silvery lichens and the gold of gorse. Rock and stone emerged, raging seas and endless skies. My heart was moved by the beauty, but then, my hands reached for swirling mists, ice and snow which covered up the beauty. I resisted, not wanting to lose it.

She spoke,

“How can anything be lost? Just because the mist covers the mountain does not mean the mountain has disappeared. You have become used to looking at the surface, judging from appearances. You must look below the surface if you are to understand the present and to find beauty that survives. You think that what is in front of you is all there is but below your feet exists the wisdom of age upon age. It is the same within you. Your cells remember. What and who came before? How have they shaped you?

The Whirlpool

My hands began to remember a strait of water between two landmasses. As the water thundered through, I could feel the churning and heaving of the Whirlpool of Corryvrechan

She spoke,

“Pressures can increase a flow and uneven sea floors will bring turbulence and  powerful surges to the surface. It is in the midst of this that I wash my plaid and the season changes. Remember this as you experience great turmoil and clamour. The landscape will surely be changed, all will be covered and you will fear the silence means death. But this is a season, and seasons pass.”

She wanted a shawl. I had some white Shetland wool and it seemed fitting that She would carry back some of the sheep’s essence to its homeland as a gift. The weaving seemed so slow, I kept thinking that it must have grown but when I put it against her, the many rows were barely perceptible. I was tempted to find another way to make her shawl.

 She spoke,

“Weaving can’t be hurried. If you want to weave a different garment it will take practice. It will take showing up and moving the weft, thread by thread. It will not be hurried.”

As my hands formed her face, I kept trying to make her look severe, as all the legends that I have been told speak of her that way. But try as I would, a soft expression would come through and a smile would hover on her lips.

She spoke,

“You interpret my actions in the same way you interpret  death and winter. Because you cling onto things believing that they will be lost to you , you fail to see the beauty in simplicity. I strip away so that what remains is pure essence. My motive is not to destroy but to reveal.”

 She impressed upon me that the next line was particularly for you.

“Let her see my smile. I would have her come under my plaid and find shelter. As she shelters she can  feel my body supporting her. It does not have the plump softness that some associate with comfort, but as  she  leans into my firm contours she will find enduring strength and courage.”

I have been wanting to write for over a month now but every time I sat to write, there was just silence. As the Winter Solstice approached, I just kept hearing the word ‘wait’. So wait I did. I waited ….and waited. I didn’t know what for. I thought maybe that it was for the light. After all the Winer Solstice and Christmas are all about the light returning, and like most of us on the planet, I am longing for the darkness of this pandemic to be over. But no matter how I tried to grab hold of the bright optimism that seemed to be jumping off the many posts on social media about the next year being better, that the new vaccines would solve our problems and that we would be able to return to normal soon, the feeling was elusive and would slip through my fingers, leaving me with that sense of waiting. So I stopped trying to capture it and settled into the quietness of the season.

It was a doll who began to explain about the waiting. A gift for a friend, she was a Cailleach doll. For those of you not familiar with the Cailleach, let me give you a brief introduction. A very ancient figure, the Cailleach is known in the folklore of both Scotland, Ireland and to a lesser degree the Isle of Mann. The name means old woman or hag and can also mean the veiled one. A giant hag who created the land as she strode across it, dropping huge boulders that created mountains, she was also known as the Queen of winter. In late autumn, around Samhain, the Cailleach would wash her shawl in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan. As she shook out the shawl, the frozen drops of water would scatter over the land, becoming the first frosts of the winter. She is also connected to the storms and winds of winter. Under her shawl, all that needs to die is stripped away, just as the leaves are stripped from the trees. In spring, the Cailleach’s strength wanes as the suns warmth returns and Bridhe returns bringing new life and fresh growth.

The doll is made by needle felting, a time consuming process where a barbed needled is stabbed repeatedly into fleece so that the fibres grab onto each other and gradually you can make a shape. I never know what or who will emerge from the raw fleece and I have to listen to my heart’s whispers and see where my hands take me.

It is a slow process and one that doesn’t fit with a society where time is money and where worth is measured by productivity. Even slower has been the weaving of the dolls shawl. I don’t knit or crochet, my dyslexic ADHD brain finds them impossible to cope with. So I decided to weave her a shawl. The shawl is central to the Cailleach story and so she clearly had to have one. I had some very fine white Shetland wool that seemed ideal as Shetland  was where the doll would be going. The only problem was that because it was so fine, it took ages to weave. I wanted to get the doll posted off to the friend who is waiting for her and I started to get frustrated. The rows seemed to take forever to grow. I found myself wondering if I could wet felt one more quickly. It was at that point I had the realisation that I was engaging in the energy of a culture that demands speed and that the product of the doll had become more important than the process of making her. A process that was really about prayer. Taking a slow breath, I sat looking at the doll with her strange blue skin, wild white hair and a body that contained ancient landscapes. ‘The weaving can’t be hurried’ she seemed to say.

That phrase has been a gift these last days. It has made me think of all that we are going through collectively. This last year has been one where we have seen natural disasters of floods and fires, many have lost loved ones, people suffering from long covid have lost their health. Incomes and homes have disappeared, many of us in the UK mourn the loss of our identity as Europeans and democracy has been under attack in a frightening way. And yet we see a deluge of messages on social media telling us to ‘move forward’, not to focus on the loss, to let it go and welcome in the light, the wealth that awaits us in the 2021.

But my years as both nurse and psychotherapist specialising in trauma, taught me this:

Healing can’t be hurried.

Grieving can’t be hurried.

I’m not suggesting wallowing in self- pity or feeding the fear as some would accuse me of doing. I’m talking about walking through this huge time of transition with awareness and reverence.

Reverence for those who have lost their lives. Reverence for those who are grieving and who have lost everything. Reverence for those with health issues both physical and mental, that mean fear crouches at their doorway, waiting to find a foothold.  Reverence for those on the front line in healthcare, working in desperate situations trying to save lives whilst others say it’s all a hoax.

Reverence for this planet ravaged by our greed and consumer mind-set and the climate change that it has caused.

I do believe that light will come in this darkness. The seasons show me that winter will give way to Spring, just as the Cailleach gives way to Bridhe. But we can’t make it happen by ignoring the dark that still remains.

My dear, wise friend Perdita Finn, (co-author with her husband Clark Strand of ‘The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary ’,a book that changed my life), said something  just before the solstice that stuck in my mind. She said that the wise men who followed the star travelled at night, they journeyed in the dark. Step by step. And what did they find at the end of the journey? A bright King in a Palace full of wealth and shining lights? No. They found a young mother in a dark cave with a  baby.

Some say that the baby is the light of the world. But even that light had to grow.

 I truly believe that there is joy to be found by embracing the dark. Maybe not the bright glittery happiness promised by the social media memes. But the joy that comes from being in alignment with this precious earth and the beings that inhabit her. Joy is savouring the intricate beauty of the frost on a path or the warm breath of a treasured pet. Joy that comes from reaching out in kindness to someone who is struggling or in receiving that kindness ourselves when our grieving hearts are battered.

There is much work to be done if we want to see our communities repair from the  things that this time of pandemic has exposed. The racism, the injustices of poverty and the selfishness behind consumerism. I don’t believe that that will happen quickly by trying to get ‘back to normal’. My heart says that we need to weave a new normal. My weaving of a tiny doll’s shawl has taken time. It has taken dedication, sitting down every day doing what needed to be done.  As I weave, I wonder what my part needs to be in the greater weaving that is going on. I’m sure the dolls will teach me if I listen. But one thing is clear;

The weaving can’t be hurried.

It was  5th November 2020 and like many people around the world, I was watching my television screen, horrified by what I was seeing. President Trump’s spiritual advisor was on a stage, calling on angels  from Africa to come to fight against the powers of darkness that were trying to stop Trump winning the election. She was punching the air with her fist, praying in tongues and binding demons. People unfamiliar with extreme charismatic Christian practices were either bemused or found it funny, if rather bizarre. Others were horrified to see such a parody of the Christian faith being used in such a way. Sat in my living room, I felt physically sick. To explain why, I would like to tell you a story.

 We are going back 30 years, or maybe it was 35. No matter, the exact date is unimportant for our purposes. What is certain, is that whatever the year, the date is the 31st October, Halloween. It is a cloudy night and the moon’s light is hidden from view. Our time travel finds you standing in the shadows on a lonely hillside, tucked behind some trees, just above a pub carpark. You see several cars arriving. People emerge from the cars, wrapped up against the cold, scarves around their necks and hats pulled down. Voices drift on the air and you can feel that there is a sense of excitement or anticipation in their voices as torches are tested and gloves pulled on. One man raise his voice to get their attention and the rest gather round him. Silence falls, just the sound of the breeze in the trees.

 It’s hard to hear what he is saying but you catch the occasional words. Jesus, Almighty, Protection, Glory. The man has raised his arms and as his voice gets louder, people follow suit, raising their hands towards the sky, some with fists clenched, others with their palms flat as if pressing against something. There are many shouts of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Amen’ before arms are lowered and silence falls.  The man is talking to them now in serious tones and you hear the odd word such as warfare and powers before they begin to walk up the dark hillside, their torches bobbing up and down lighting the stony path, their voices subdued. Conversations stop as the path gets steep and people need their breath for the climb. The track turns a bend and suddenly the space opens right out and you realise that you have reached the top of an escarpment. In the distance you can see the lights of a town twinkling. The breeze has got stronger, the clouds are breaking up, allowing the moon to illuminate the hillside. As the people gather in a circle, someone starts to sing and the air is full of song. It’s hard to hear the words but you can tell by their expressions and the beautiful harmonies that they are songs of love. Some heads are thrown back, arms outstretched, cheeks wet with tears. Other stand with their hands on their heart, expressions of rapt devotion as song blends into song. Gradually the voices fall silent and they stand in the moonlight, the wind blowing their scarves and hair. The man who is clearly the leader begins to speak. Quietly at first. There are murmurs of assent as people nod their heads and the occasional ‘Amen’. The clouds are racing across the sky as his voice changes, taking on strident tones. The previous atmosphere of love and devotion disappears as you hear him using words like bind them, cast them down, enemies. As his voice rises, so do the voices of those gathered around him. Gone are the expressions of love, the rapt expressions and tears of devotion. Faces become contorted as people shout in unfamiliar languages. The air is full of phrases like ‘Bring them down, cast them out, have the victory.’ People are shaking their fists at the sky, some are walking around, some on their knees beating the ground with their hands. Then above the tumult you hear the man roar, “Bring those witches to their knees”. All is suddenly quiet and the cloud covers the moon as if protecting her from such hatred. In the darkness someone begins to sing again, songs about majesty and victory. The people begin to hug each other and they begin their descent down the darkened hillside, huddling against the cold, linking arms, some laughing, some more thoughtful. You watch their faces. A mixture of ages, they look like the sort of people you might see in the local bank or shops. Faces of teachers, nurses, car mechanics and stay at home mums. The contorted expressions of hatred are gone now, replaced by smiles. They look like people who know each other well, people who share friendship and experience. There are fond embraces as they say good bye, climbing into their cars and driving off, leaving the hillside, the moon and the rocky slopes the only witnesses to their strange mixture of love songs and curses.

The truth is, this is not just a story. It is my story. I was one of those people up on that hillside. Part of a charismatic evangelical church who believed that Halloween was the night when witches took part in occult rituals that were evil. As I write those words now, I am filled with sadness and remorse. My journey away from such beliefs has been a long and sometimes painful one.

 On that journey, I have come to know people of many faiths, including many pagans. As I have got to know them, I have found so many of them to be deeply spiritual people whose rituals and spells are aimed at spreading love and healing to a broken world. Committed to social justice, many campaign tirelessly on behalf of the earth, an Erath they experience as sacred and the embodiment of the Divine.

The words of the pastor echo across the years “Bring those witches to their knees”. I realise that on that night and on many other occasions, what we were doing was actually what we were accusing the pagans of. We were cursing, not praying, engaging in bad magic. A big part of my spiritual journey since those days has been about discovering what prayer is. One thing that I am sure of is that what we were engaged in that night wasn’t prayer. Or if it was, it wasn’t healthy or prayer that I want to be a part of. Prayer that prays against, that tries to dominate others and exercise control has more in common with what is often thought of a black magic or cursing. In all the rituals I have taken part in in with pagan friends over the last fifteen years, I have never experienced such negative invocations. It has been a humbling experience for this once dyed in the wool evangelical, to be taught how to pray with love and integrity, by Druids and Wiccans.

The other realisation I have had as I consider those words, is that they are  part of a long tradition in the church, a tradition that has robbed  women of their voices and their dignity. This tradition of misogyny led to an atrocity that lasted for over 200 years and saw many thousands of women brutally tortured and executed by strangulation, hanging or being burnt at the stake. Older women who were disabled or different were targeted, along with many others. Those who lived on the edges, spoke up against those in power or somehow threatened the authority placed in priests, were targeted.

And still it goes on.

I didn’t know how to make amends to my Pagan friends, or how to say I am sorry to the thousands of women who lost their lives. So I did the thing I often do when I am in a wordless place, I went to creativity. I made a doll.

This doll is my apology. An apology for the lie that witches are in league with demons and devils and that Halloween is their special night for rituals that involve evil.
An apology to the thousands of women murdered because the church and secular authorities were afraid of the power they had. The power to be in touch with the seasons and nature, to be able to communicate with their kin the animals, and their ancestors who guided and helped them.

An apology to the old and frail killed because they were dependant and considered a burden or killed because they looked different.
An apology to the women who were killed because they owned land or spoke out against injustice or simply disagreed with the men in power.
An apology to those women who were manipulated into speaking out against other women, seeding fear and mistrust.

The doll is faceless because of the millions of faceless women still abused and murdered by patriarchy across the world.

I made her because I am sick of being silenced. I am sick of a society and institutional religions that denigrate women’s wisdom, who treat our bodies as if they are the source of evil and who use the word witch as an insult.

But most of all I made her because my silence has made me complicit in all of the above and it is time to speak out.

To speak out and say: I’m sorry.