The Cailleach, the Wildwood and the Coming of the Sheep

THE BONE CAVE: A JOURNEY THROUGH MYTH AND MEMORY, by Dougie Strang, Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2023

THE GHOSTS OF THE FOREST: THE LOST MYTHOLOGY OF THE NORTH, by William A. Young, Inter-Celtic, Edinburgh, 2022

In Scottish, Irish and Manx Gaelic myth, the Cailleach is a divine hag and ancestor associated with the creation of the landscape and with the weather, especially storms and winter. In Scotland she is known as Cailleach Bheurra, or Beira, Queen of Winter.  In her dramatization of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, staged as the Christmas play at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in December, Morna Young conflates the characters of Beira and the Snow Queen. 

Beira, Queen of Winter, by John Duncan

For Dougie Strang, the Cailleach is also a goddess associated with deer and the hunt, and it is tales of this aspect of her persona that he pursues on a long-distance walk through the mountains of the West Highlands.  She is a goddess of a heroic, hunter-gatherer society living in a landscape much more heavily forested than ours today, and in the stories her demise is often associated with the change to a pastoral economy.

In the Highlands, the arrival of large-scale sheep farming is strongly associated with the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the Southern Uplands there was an earlier ‘coming of the sheep.’ In the high medieval period, while monks and clerics in Britain and Britanny were busy weaving Arthurian romances from earlier Celtic tales, the great Border monasteries were grazing huge flocks on the surrounding hills. The Borders of the 12th and 13th centuries were booming, economically and culturally.  Berwick was Scotland’s largest port.  My own Purves ancestors were part of the influx of Flemings drawn to the Borders by the thriving wool trade with the Low Countries.

The origins of Scottish literature are often traced to Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune who lived in Earlston in Berwickshire in the 13th Century. In the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer he encounters the Queen of Elfland while resting under the Eildon Tree.

She led three greyhounds on a leash,

Seven hunting dogs ran by her side,

She bore a horn about her neck,

And under her belt full many an arrow.’

The Queen is in search of quarry.  In his exploration of the mythology of the post-Roman Brythonic kingdoms of the North of Britain, William A. Young suggests that she may have her origin in the Hellenistic goddess Diana the Huntress, or a Celtic equivalent.  A shrine to Diana has been discovered at the Roman camp of Trimontium, just below the Eildon Hills.

The ballad of Thomas the Rhymer clearly draws on earlier Brythonic myths and legends.  Young argues that among them are the tales relating to the sixth century character Lailoken, who, like Thomas, acquires the gift of prophecy.  In his book Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins Tim Clarkson explores the role of Lailoken as a prototype for the composite figure of Merlin in Arthurian romance. The Lailoken of Vita Merlini Silvestris is a man so traumatised by guilt and horror at the scale of the slaughter he witnesses at the Battle of Arthuret in 573 that he retreats to the Great Wood of Caledon, where he lives as a wild man. He is a pagan, adhering to the old religion and a traditional relationship with the land. But the world he inhabits is changing. Towards the end of his life he seeks the sacrament from Bishop Kentigern of Glasgow, the leading cleric of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and meets his threefold death near Drumelzier, at the hands of a gang of shepherds.

These two books provide us with valuable insights into the cultures that created Scotland’s Celtic mythologies, and the ways in which our relationship with the land of Scotland have changed over the centuries.  In the Highlands and Southern Uplands, the coming of the sheep brought profound ecological changes, symbolised by the loss of the Great Wood of Caledon.  The production of woollen cloth at scale in the Low Countries, and later in Yorkshire, Lancashire and on the Tweed, set us on the path to industrialisation and all its consequences. The sheep economy has contributed to patterns of ownership and management which impoverish the land and estrange us from it to this day. In our time, the hunt is not undertaken by Celtic heroes under the supervision of powerful goddesses.  It has become an exclusive pastime of the super-rich.

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Just wanted to appreciate this article. There’s something in the religiosity of these myths that I find hard to connect to, but its essential to know about them.

  2. 240118 says:

    Celtic mythology is largely a modern phenomenon, in both its conception and content. It originated in the romantic reaction to modernity, as a kind of protest against the industrialisation of life. From the 18th century onwards, its curators collected fragments of literature and orature, from which they constructed a cosmology that re-imagined the world before it was tainted by evil.

    The ‘romance’ of Celtic mythology is revealed through its literary tropes. It imagines an ‘idyll’ (a period happiness or perfection or balance), from which we have tragically ‘fallen’ (become estranged), through our own folly, and to which we long and are psychologically driven to return. This spiritual ‘journey’ is its master narrative.

    The ‘romance’ of Celtic mythology typically sets an alternative ‘enchanted’ Nature over and against the normal ‘disenchanted’ Nature of modern science and technology, a Nature which is of no more significance to us than a resource we can dispose of as we will. Celtic mythology also typically contains dire warnings as to the terrible and often terrifying consequences we will suffer if we continue to behave towards Nature as if it were no more than this resource.

    The Celtic Revival is a significant cultural phenomenon. It’s a product of modernity that serves as a counter to its hegemony; a contradiction, if you will; a ‘marginality’ or site of resistance to capitalism and its industrialisation of life.

    The future depends on how this contradiction resolves itself.

    1. Time, the Deer says:

      Evidence of the Fianaigecht goes back to the 7th century. Lailoken is first attested in the 11th century Vita Sancti Kentigerni. Literary references to The Cailleach go back to the 8/9th centuries. Buile Shuibhne is thought to date to the 13th century. The study of Celtic mythology has moved on considerably since the Celtic Revival, and indeed includes extensive studies and critiques of… the Celtic Revival. Your half-informed cynicism here is a bit retro, to say the least. Mibbe try reading the books?

      1. 240119 says:

        Indeed, and such are the fragments that the Celtic Revival drew on when it constructed its Celtic mythology. Those fragments were themselves part of an earlier mythology, just as our contemporary mythologies relating to who we are, where we come from, and whence we should be going are curations that tell us more about the ‘idylls’ and social hopes of our contemporary curators than about some original, more authentic human condition.

        Such creations can and do serve critically as valuable heterodoxies, though, deviations from accepted or orthodox beliefs about the world and our place in it.

        1. Time, the Deer says:

          ‘Fragments’, lol… Do you mean the reams of historic manuscripts in existence, some of which are so substantial people have devoted their whole lives to studying them? There are entire published volumes of medieval Gaelic nature poetry, you have no excuse for your wilful ignorance. A perfect illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect – as we have come to expect from you, Mr. Bunch-of-Numbers!

          1. 240120 says:

            Yes, those reams of manuscripts do contain the fragments from which generations of scholars have curated their mythologies. Tolstoy is particularly good at tracing the development of the Merlin myth from the fragmentary references to Lailoken and Myrddin Wyllt in medieval manuscripts through the work of those generations of scholars, for example.

            I’m told there’s new material in Chapters 9 & 10 of William Young’s curation, The Ghosts of the Forest, which adds to Tolstoy’s. I’m looking forward to assessing it.

          2. Time, the Deer says:

            Sorry, you’re saying that *Tolstoy* is your go-to for analysis of Celtic mythology?? Excuse me while I ‘lol’. You’re not a serious person.

          3. 240123 says:

            No, I’m saying that Nikolai Tolstoy produced in 1985 a comprehensive review of the extant literature relating to Lailoken/Myrddin/Merlin, which I doubt has been surpassed by any subsequent curating.

      2. Graeme Purves says:

        Just so. 🙂

  3. SleepingDog says:

    I have the impression that Irish mythology is better represented in feature animation:
    with Wolfwalkers being the top pick (of mine too).

    Scottish mythology? Well, there’s Pixar’s Brave (also very good) but, erm, what else? Is this why I didn’t recognize Cailleach Bheurra?

    Mythology is ripe for animation, not just in features, but in popular modern series like Dragons…, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, the Kung Fu Panda spin-offs and so on. There are large audiences in China and India that are finding their mythology presented in accessible and often smartly-updated fashion.

    Plus of course computer games (Bard’s Tale IV being an obvious but lonely example of Scottish mythos).

    And ‘comics’ (dreadful term), featuring characters such as Sláine, a warrior who serves the Triple Goddess.

    Books are great and have major strengths, but if you want to prevent the memory of myth getting lost, you have to expand into other media too.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      I agree. This is a rich resource for our film-makers and animators to top into.

    2. 240119 says:

      Yep, that’s how cultures evolve: remixing or ‘reorchestration’; taking bits of media, altering or contorting them from the state in which we find them by adding to, removing from, or otherwise changing them, to create something new. ‘Comics’ (sequential juxtaposed panels that represent individual scenes, also known in the trade as ‘cartooning’) have long been a medium for remixing old work into new.

      Remixing is basically how Celtic mythology was created from the 18th century onward by the curators of the so-called ‘Celtic Revival’ and how contemporary curators like Graeme Purves and Dougie Strang and William Young and Morna Young make their myths.

      Mythology, and the study thereof, tells us less about our supposed origins in and departure from a more authentic relationship with the land and more about the ‘idylls’ and social hopes of our contemporary myth-makers.

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        You don’t say?

        However, I note than we have moved from a significant cultural phenomenon and a contradiction upon the resolution of which the future depends to the frivolous curation of Celtic fragments in the merest blink of an eye.

        I have never aspired to the exalted role of cultural curator, but the notion will leave me with a spring in my step for the rest of the week.

        Actually reading the books might help you move beyond your preconceptions.

        1. 240120 says:

          We’re all the curators of our culture, Graeme; we all gather and sift the [previous curations of] material that comes down to us and [re]assemble it in accordance with our own preferred narratives. This world-making activity is hardly ‘frivolous’.

        2. 240120 says:

          I’ve had a look at The Bone Cave. In it, Dougie travels through Scotland and, on his way, curates stories that resonate with his own sense of ‘place’ and environmental concerns. It’s a well-crafted piece of writing that employs the traditional trope of a spiritual journey as its main structural principle. I don’t have much sympathy with its religiosity, but I can see its appeal.

        3. 240120 says:

          I’ve also just downloaded and skimmed William Young’s The Ghosts of the Forest. Apart from the travelogue, in which William claims to have ‘come closer to the old gods’ (there’s that ‘spiritual journey’ trope again!), does it add anything to (e.g.) Nikolai Tolstoy’s 1985 curation of the same material in The Quest for Merlin?

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            Yes, as you would have discovered if you had done more than just skim it (Chapters 9 & 10).

            I fully understand your point about curation, such as it is. The revelation that storytellers and writers reflect their world views and aspirations in their tales and writings is hardly Earth-shattering. In fact, its rather the essence of these explorations. Hence my ‘You don’t say?’ I though you might have picked up on my line about ‘monks and clerics in Britain and Britanny… busy weaving Arthurian romances from earlier Celtic tales’, but apparently not.

            Of course these books draw on the Celtic Revival work of 19th Century antiquarians such as William Forbes Skene and John Veitch. They are nane the waur o that. The Celtic Revival followed distinct paths in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. There is a substantial body of literature on that. Within Scotland there were various strands, including the particularly dubious and fey ‘Celtic Twilight’ one exemplified by William Sharp/Fiona Macleod. Strang and Young have the advantage of being able to supplement the work of the Fin de Siècle Celtic Revivalists with the substantial body of research built up since the middle of the last century by the School of Scottish Studies and modern advances in archaeology, onomastics, toponymy and cartography.

          2. 240120 says:

            Give us a chance, Graeme; I just downloaded the text this morning, and I had to go to Specsavers this morning to see about new reading glasses.

            My point about curation, ‘such as it is’, seems to have nevertheless put a cat among the pigeons. To restore that point to its context: if my point about curation is sound, then ‘Mythology, and the study thereof, tells us less about our supposed origins in and departure from a more authentic relationship with the land and more about the ‘idylls’ and social hopes of our contemporary myth-makers.’

          3. Graeme Purves says:


  4. SleepingDog says:

    I’ve read a lot of mythology and fables in my time, and like other cultural products they encode patterns of interactions (between people and other intelligent agents, between these and other entities, including inanimate objects). These patterns are decoded by readers, listeners etc by abstraction. If you create a person representing (northern temperate zone) Winter, you can give them the characteristics and role morality of that season. And ask, what makes a good Winter? What, in a biocratic sense, is Winter governing?

    There are many patterns associated with the Hunt (including I gather the Unexpected Quarry). In a book I’m reading some European settler colonialists describe indigenous people as living like aristocrats (by hunting, fishing etc) which perhaps says something about the language of access to nature (why is a ‘poacher’ not a ‘hunter’?).

    The question of how similar a society views humans and other animals is perhaps addressed by whether battle-induced PTSD is transferred to an abhorrence of killing in general (or just of the colour red?). Cultural products would fail to function as transmitters of culture unless these patterns could be successfully conveyed. I think there is a problem (pre-Internet mostly but still persisting) where ‘unappealing’ myths (or versions) are dropped from collection, or extensively rewritten (as the Brothers Grimm volumes were, apparently dropping female agency as they polished the prose, according to one folk tale specialist). Given our treatment of forests today, that kind of pruning may be detectable in retrospect (indeed, I wonder what happened to the mythos leading to Liu Cixin’s sequel sci-fi The Dark Forest: which is a SPOILER so don’t look it up if you want to enjoy the books).

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Dearie me.

      1. 240120 says:


      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Graeme Purves, why, do you suppose, is the Scottish Winter given the embodiment of a deity, while the Greek Winter is the absence of one?

      3. SleepingDog says:

        No thoughts? How about: is there a Scottish equivalent of the Prometheus myth? The god who stole fire to warm humans through winter (in modern terms an astrophysical cause mediated by our biosphere)?
        If winter is a void, an absence in Greek myth, it makes more sense to employ technology to deny it, maybe? Destroy it, even? And what is today’s anthropogenic global warming but a continuation of the Promethean Project? The absence of a positive embodiment of (northern temperate) Winter with defined role/purpose/governance and biological benefit, in the poisonous creeds of Abrahamic faiths and the thrusting, hubris-prone humanism of the European Enlightenment, opens the way to mass fossil-fuel burning and geoengineering (see TV series Extropolations and book Half-Earth Socialism for some reflective examples on this kind of thinking).

    2. 240120 says:

      Myths are just the stories we tell ourselves to forge an identity. Some relate to the origin of that identity, others to our departure from that original identity, still others to the ‘journey’ we need to undertake to return to that identity.

      Mythology is the ‘reading’ of those myths. I read the contemporary myths of any given time and place (e.g. Celtic mythology of early 21st century Scotland) as expressions of ‘idylls’ or idealised social hopes of their curators rather than as offering us some mystical insight into our authenticity and what would be a more authentic relationship for is to have with ‘the land’. But Graeme says ‘No!’

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        I know you do. You have now made the point several times.

        I am quite familiar with the role of myths. I cut my cultural teeth on Murray Grigor’s ”Scotch Myths’ exhibition and the discussions it inspired in the early 1980s, more than forty years ago.

        Idyll: “a story, episode or scene of happy innocence or love” (Chambers); “an extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque period or situation, typically an idealized or unsustainable one” (Oxford).

        Having had little prior knowledge of the authors of these books, I did not set out to explore their inner idylls, if, indeed, they have any to be discovered. Personally, I don’t have much time for idylls. I was obliged to put J.M. Barrie’s book about the Auld Lichters to one side.

        There is no doubt that it is possible to glean evidence of what is dear to these authors from their writings. It would be surprising if it were not. But that was not my purpose, and neither author dwells on their ‘idealised social hopes’. I read both books together and what I chose to write about was the new connections and insights I derived from them.

        You proceed on the Johnsonian basis that Strang and Young are dealing in Celtic ‘fragments’ which can offer few insights into the cultures that created them. But, as Time of the Deer has pointed out, they are far more than fragments. The Cailleach features in a substantial body of tales collected from the oral tradition, many of them printed in collections published at various times. Dougie Strang gives us a number of them. Much more is to be found in two of his references, ‘Visions of the Cailleach’ by d’Este and Rankine and ‘The Book of the Cailleach’ by Ó Crualaoich. Lailoken features in the ‘Vita Sancti Kentigerni’. The ‘Vita Merlini Silvestris’ contains two complete tales about him. Tim Clarkson has devoted a book to him. ‘The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer’ and ‘Fergus of Galloway’ (which I do not mention but William A. Young explores in some depth) are both substantial texts. These and other texts and sources give us quite a lot to go on in gaining insights into the times in which they were created, and it is absurdly reductive to dismiss them as fragments and characterise the insights gained as ‘mystical’.

        I’ll end here, as I have already over-indulged the trolls under the bridge.

        1. 240121 says:

          “Having had little prior knowledge of the authors of these books, I did not set out to explore their inner idylls.”

          No, I didn’t think you did. But their curation of the material they gather from the literature gives far more insight into their own personal ‘idylls’ (images of peace and contentment) or social hopes than the ‘minds’ of the curators who preceded them, let alone into some putative culture in which those stories supposedly originated. Myths have no origin or genesis; they evolve through successive curations, all of which are expressions of the self-image of their age, and none of which is any more ‘authentic’ or offers any more authentic existential ‘authencity’ than another.

          That said, mythologies are valuable: they provide nodes of resistance to the hegemony of the dominant culture (the ‘present’), critiques of that present, and alternative ‘idylls’ that hold out other possible futures. Mythologies, like those of The Bone Cave and The Ghosts of the Forest, are more transgressive than enlightening; therein lies their value.

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            That’s simply your assertion, and I don’t buy it.

            I have made no claims about ‘authenticity’, and neither have the authors. Your point about myths evolving is a statement of the obvious and inherent in what each of us has written.

            I suspect that your putative ‘idylls’ will prove more elusive than the Cailleach, Lailoken and the deer of the Wild Wood. But good luck with your quest! 🙂

          2. 240122 says:

            Sorry, Graeme; but you wrote that “The two books provide us with valuable insights into the cultures that created Scotland’s Celtic mythologies, and the ways in which our relationship with the land of Scotland have changed over the centuries.”

            My assertion is that they don’t. They provide us rather with alternative narrations of our ‘Scottish’ identity, our ‘fall’ from authenticity into sin, and a call to redemption from that sin, which narrations are themselves pieces of myth-making. There was no original, more authentic relationship with the land; the folklore and history that they curate are expressions of how the authors believe we ought to live in the world rather than insights into the greater authenticity of the relationship we had with the land prior to our ‘fall’.

            They’re morality tales, in other words. And there’s nothing wrong with this; morality tales resist the hegemony of the present (e.g. our present relationship with the land) and enable us to imagine alternative futures.

            But you might read them differently, and that’s alright.

          3. Graeme Purves says:

            What are you sorry about? I know what your assertion is and it is incorrect.

            Neither I nor the authors have invoked an ‘original, more authentic relationship with the land’. That’s your construction. I think we are all interested in how our relationship with the land has changed.

            Both authors address the world as it is today soberly, realistically and perceptively. Dougie Strang reflects on his own life, but neither attempts to offer counselling on how we ought to live or perceive things.

            I note that you appear to have abandoned specific reference to ‘idylls’. Perhaps that’s just as well. They were far flimsier even than your notion of Celtic ‘fragments’.

            Thanks for your reassurance that there is nothing wrong with morality tales. I’m not sure that I needed it.

          4. 240123 says:

            But the conversational implication at least is surely that the cultures, into which the two books allegedly provide us with valuable insights, were better (more authentic) with regard to their orientation of our relationship with the land than our present culture. This might be true, but it requires argumentation.

            I get it that these writers and yourself are interested in how our relationship with the land has changed (for the worse – conversational implication again); this interest and concern is no doubt the main driver of the writing and the curation of its matter. However, those assumptions still have to be made good for the case to be convincing.

          5. Do give examples of how our relationship with the land has improved

          6. 240123 says:

            Has it improved? I suppose that will depend on one’s ‘idyll’ (image of peace and contentment) or social hopes. Certainly, those who curate a ‘Celtic’ idyll from the stories recorded in the extant literature will believe that it hasn’t; that we’ve fallen from the original idyllic relationship with the land, of which their curation of so-called ‘Celtic’ culture speaks, and need redeem ourselves from that fallen condition by reconnecting with our ethnic roots.

            But I’m not convinced by this ethno-nationalist fundamentalism; nor am I sold on its master narrative of the ‘Fall’, the idea that we’ve departed from an original authenticity through our sinful or wicked behaviour and that we’ll only regain that authenticity by undertaking the redemptive quest prescribed by the priesthood or those who are in the know.

            I don’t think that, objectively, our relationship with the land can be said to have improved or worsened. It has only improved or worsened relative someone or other’s ‘idyll’.

          7. There’s no objective test or measurement in which to judge whether our relationship with the land has deteriorated?
            Like chemicals in food? Toxicity in soil? Nothing at all? Wow. How totally weird.

          8. SleepingDog says:

            @Editor, Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist would appear to hold the contradictory view that Christian theology is of wonderful use, yet there is no objective reason to prefer Heaven over Hell. Perhaps self-preparation for the afterlife? Meanwhile, back in reality:

            Climate change features in many myth cycles, from nomads who settled explaining the reasons for their journey in origin myths, to projected End Times like Fimbulwinter. In the Eastern Mediterranean, deluges and floods are hazily remembered in myth form from events many thousands of years past. In some cases, humans bring about their doom (and sometimes the doom of non-humans too) by bad living or offending the gods.

            If life is a value-creation phenomena, you don’t have to posit external values. A healthy planet is objectively different from a barren waste, and the views of inhabitants an emergent property. Some will be saner than others, although there are different ways to be sane.

          9. 240123 says:

            There are indeed objective measures by which we can measure food and soil contamination. But ‘improved’ and ‘worsened’/’deteriorated’ are normative terms, which depend on some or other criterion of ‘normal’. Different cultures (e.g. Graeme’s putative ‘Celtic’ culture, as curated from the extant literary material, on the one hand, and ‘modernity’ on the other) have different normative measures, and there’s no objective measure by which these different normative measures can be evaluated; they’re literally ‘incommensurable’. Thus, our relationship with the land can’t be said objectively to have ‘improved’ or ‘worsened’; this will depend on the conception of the good in which we’ve been encultured.

          10. “There are indeed objective measures by which we can measure food and soil contamination.”

            Thank you.

            The rest is just drivel.

          11. 240123 says:


            Value-creation is a human phenomenon; you don’t have to posit a value-creator (God, Nature, or whatever) that’s external to humanity.

            Again, whether or not a planet is ‘healthy’ is a normative judgement that we make, in accordance with whichever criteria we devise to measure a planet’s ‘health’; it’s not objectively given.

          12. SleepingDog says:

            @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, speciesist anti-science bigotry.

          13. 240123 says:

            Name-calling is pointless and unedifying. Where’s the beef?

          14. 240123 says:

            ‘The rest is just drivel.’

            Well, that’s a moot point.

          15. Graeme Purves says:

            Yet drivel it is. Have you ever considered whether your arrogant denial of insights to others might simply be an advertisement of your own preconceptions and limitations?

      2. Dougie Strang says:

        As one of your ‘prescriptive priests’, I hereby ordain that you must stop this silliness:

        “There are indeed objective measures by which we can measure food and soil contamination. But ‘improved’ and ‘worsened’/’deteriorated’ are normative terms, which depend on some or other criterion of ‘normal’. Different cultures […] have different normative measures, and there’s no objective measure by which these different normative measures can be evaluated; they’re literally ‘incommensurable’. Thus, our relationship with the land can’t be said objectively to have ‘improved’ or ‘worsened’; this will depend on the conception of the good in which we’ve been encultured.”

        1. 240125 says:

          And yet you omit to say why it’s silly. Why is it silly to say that different cultures have different evaluative measures and that these measures are incommensurable?

        2. Graeme Purves says:

          Just so! I come at this, at least in part, from the perspective of a botanist. I studied upland ecology under Professor Charles Gimmingham at the University of Aberdeen. 🙂 A common strength of these two books is that they bring scholarship in folklore and literature together with advances in our understanding of our changing relationship with the land derived from archaeology, ecology and other disciplines.

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