Sgáthach the legendary Scottish warrior queen

Scottish warrior

In Gaelic legend, Sgáthach, or Scáthach, is a Scottish warrior. She features in the Ulster Cycle (Irish: an Rúraíocht) one of the four cycles in Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle, Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle (also known as the Cycles of the Kings). Sgáthach was said to be a warrior queen whose fortress, Dún Scáith or Dùn Sgàthaich (Fortress of Shadows) is named after her and is on the Isle of Skye (Scottish Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach). The remains of  Dunscaith Castle now stand on the site where her fortress was once said to be located.

Sgáthach trained the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn, who also appears in Scottish and Manx folklore. He is said to be the son of Lugh, a god in Irish mythology and member of the pre-Christian Gaelic pantheon the Tuatha Dé Danann. In the Ulster Cycle, Lugh fathered Cú Chulainn with the mortal maiden Deichtine who was the sister of Conchobar mac Nessa the king of Ulster. The instruction of Cú Chulainn by Sgáthach is described  in Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), one of the stories in the Ulster Cycle. Cú Chulainn had fallen in love with Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach, who opposed to the match. He suggested that Cú Chulainn should complete his training as a warrior with Sqáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland) before marrying Emer. Forgall’s expectation was that Cú Chulainn would be killed in the process.

Cú Chulainn and his friend Ferdiad travelled to Skye and gained access to Dún Scáith. Here Sqáthach trained them in fighting skills. She also gave Cú Chulainn his famous and deadly spear, the Gáe Bulg. Thanks to Sgáthach, Cú Chulainn returned from Scotland a fully trained warrior. However, on his return to Ireland Forgall still refused to let him marry Emer. Cú Chulainn attacked Forgall’s stronghold killing many of the defenders, escaped with Emer and stole Forgall's treasure. Forgall himself fell from the ramparts to his death. Emer eventually agreed to marry Cú Chulainn.

Scottish warrior

Although empowered with heightened skill and weaponry, tragedy also followed Cú Chulainn after his time being tutored by Sqáthach . Legend has it that Sqáthach entered into war against a rival warrior queen, Aife (or Aoife). Some accounts state that she was the sister of Sqáthach  Despite Sqáthach's efforts to keep Cú Chulainn from the battle he ended up in combat against Aife. Aife was defeated and made a lasting peace with Sqáthach. Aife also ended up giving birth to Cú Chulainn's son, Connla. He was born after he had returned to Ireland, but before leaving Cú Chulainn instructed Aife to give a gold ring to the child. He instructed that when the boy grew to age he was to come to Ireland in search of him, must not refuse a challenge, and never tell anyone his name. When Connla came from Alba to Ireland he was a skilled fighter and defeated every warrior sent against him. Cú Chulainn was called into battle against his own son and fatally wounded him. It was only at this point that Connla gave his name to his father and Cú Chulainn also recognised the gold ring. He realised he has killed his own son and is stricken with brief.

Sgáthach was clearly a formidable warrior. Her training of the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn in the arts of combat was vital in the many victorious battles he went on to fight. The ruined castle of  Dún Scáith (Dùn Sgàthaich), which bears her name is built on the legendary site of her fortress. The remains of Dùn Sgàthaich that can now be seen above the Loch Eishort, possibly date to the 13th century. It has been held by Clan MacDonald of Sleat, Clan MacLeod, the MacAskills and again the MacDonalds. But the island on which it stands will forever be associated with the great and legendary Scottish woman warrior Sgáthach.

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