Folk-Lore/Volume 4/The Sanctuary of Mourie


"When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire."

MOST people who have fished over Northern Scotland are acquainted with Loch Maree. For the skilful angler the waters are full of silver-sided trout and possible salmon; he knows the haunts of the big fish in the deep channels and still pools of the islands, and among the wild bays of the southern shore. But the loch has also a human interest, dating far back into the unknown past of human thought, and still in evidence.

A bleak mountain chain overhangs the northern shore—a barrier of grey and treeless rock. Storm-gusts sweep down the narrow clefts and corries, blowing mist, and rain, and sunshine over the wide water; cloud masses drift over the dark shoulders, and fill the valleys, of the hills; the cry of the white gulls alone breaks the silence of untilled shores and of water where no sail ventures. Here and there the lower ground is covered by a mile or two of wood, but only as a passing break in the monotony of barrenness.

Under this northern rock wall is a small island, so covered with luxuriant foliage that a fragment of green forest seems to have been carved out and placed in the loch, set in a border of golden sand. This is the island of St. Maree, or Mourie—his names are many—beneath whose groves lie the sacred tree and healing well, the traditions of old rites, and legendary graves, which have made the place famous far over Scotland.

I will roughly sketch it as it now is, with such notes as I can gather of its observances, past and present. The illustration is from a photograph taken last August; the wooded island in the middle-distance is "Eilean Maree".

Isle Maree—Distant view.

Holy Tree, Loch Maree.

(From a Photograph, 1893.)

If your gillie is told to take you to The Tree—you need not define it further—he rows you over to the southern side of the island, where the tangled wood meets the water's edge. From a landing-rock a narrow path is trodden through damp undergrowth, and trees linked bough in bough, till you step out into an open circle, whence the dark covert draws back on every side. In the centre of this space rises a slight white trunk—bare, branchless, leafless, with spreading foot, and jagged and broken top. The cracks and clefts in the stem are studded with coins, nails, screws, and rusty iron fragments. No sign of leaf or shoot remains to give the gaunt shaft any touch of common vegetation. It stands alone and inviolate—a Sacred Tree. In the damp ground at the tree's foot is a small dark hole, the sides of which are roughly formed by stones overhung with moss and grass. A cover of unwrought stone lies beside it, and it is filled up with dead leaves. This is the healing-well "of power unspeakable in cases of lunacy". All the brief space is circled round by an impenetrable mesh of dripping bough and briar; ferns and grass luxuriate in the dim light; ivy and honeysuckle strands cling and fall; and damp depths of fallen leaves silence every step.

The tree is now a Wishing Tree, and the driving in of a bit of metal is the only necessary act. The accompanying reproduction of a photograph, taken by us this summer, shows the form of the stem as it now is, but brings the surrounding vegetation much too near. Writing in 1886, Mr. Dixon says: "It is said that if anyone removes an offering that has been attached to the tree, some misfortune, probably the taking fire of the house of the desecrator, is sure to follow."[1] From which it appears that this tree can exercise retributive powers as sternly as any of the dread tree-dwelling spirits of Teutonic forest or savage grove.

In 1860. Sir A. Mitchell saw a faded ribbon attached to one of the nails, the last relic of the countless offerings of sufferers who had been brought to the holy waters at its foot.[2] To each of the hundreds of nails, he says, "was originally attached a piece of the clothing of some patient who had visited the spot."

The earliest allusion to the healing powers of the well is the mention of it in 1656 as the resort of the lunatic.[3] In 1774, Thomas Pennant describes how the patient "is brought into the sacred island, is made to kneel before the altar, where his attendants leave an offering in money. He is then brought to the well, and sips some of the holy water. A second offering is made; that done, he is thrice dipped in the lake."[4] The last recorded appeal to the well was made about 1857. Sir A. Mitchell, writing in 1860, says: "In our own day, belief in the healing virtues of the well on Inch (Island) Maree, is general over all Ross-shire, but more especially over the western district. The lunatic is taken there without consideration of consent. As he leaves the island he is suddenly pitched out of the boat into the loch, a rope having been made fast to him; by this he is drawn into the boat again, to be a second, third, or fourth time unexpectedly thrown overboard during the boat's course round the island. He is then landed, made to drink of the waters, and an offering is attached to the tree."[5]

We asked our gillies how the healing waters had dried up, and were told of a man who desecrated the well by bringing a mad dog for cure. This incident Mr. Dixon relates in detail as told him by a Kirkton man.[6] The date given was 1830. The dog died the day following, and the shepherd the week after; so the waters were potent for vengeance sixty years ago. Sir A. Mitchell's informant gave him a different version, viz., that the dog was cured and the healing virtue lost only for a time, and his account dates the occurrence as about 1845 or 1840. It is instructive to note the rapid growth and variation of popular explanatory legend. Pennant notes that the well possessed oracular as well as healing powers: "The visitants draw from the state of the well an omen of the disposition of St. Maree: if his well is full they suppose he will be propitious; if not, they proceed in their operations with fears and doubts."[7] This belief continued to recent times. In 1836, the New Statistical Account says "it is considered a hopeful sign if the well is full."[8]

Who were the folk who first found at this oak-stem a meeting-place with unseen powers? Who first brought their sick for healing to the grove of Mourie? The loch is called the Loch of Mourie in local records of the seventeenth century; the 25th August is mentioned as "dedicate to St. Mourie"; and one entry, to be quoted below, speaks of the "iland of St. Ruffus commonly called Elian (island) Moury". The name also occurs as Maelrubha, Malrubius, Malrube, Mulray, "and as the last corruption, Maree."[9]

The life and acts of the saint are related by the annalist Tighernach, and in the ancient Irish MSS. and records.[10] I am indebted for references, and for the following brief outline, to the paper by Dr. Reeves on "Saint Maelrubha: His History and Churches", published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. iii, Part 2 1861.

Saint Maelrubha belongs to the roll of Ulster saints by both lines of descent. On his father's side he is stated to be descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Sovereign of Ireland; on his mother's side he was akin to Saint Comgall, the great Abbot of Bangor in county Down. He was born in 642, and became a member of St. Comgall's Society at Bangor, and possibly abbot of that church. When almost a youth, in 670 or 671, he crossed to Scotland, and after two years, according to Tighernach, "fundavit ecclesiam Apporcrosan." Here he ruled as abbot for fifty-one years, acquiring a reputation for sanctity that spread over all Ross-shire and the surrounding country and islands. "Eighty years was his age when he resigned his spirit", the Calendar of Donegall says. He died in 722, at Applecross, where he was interred. Dr. Reeves writes in 1859: "The spot which is supposed to be his grave is marked by a little hillock called the Claodh Maree. His tombstone, it is said, was sent from Norway by the king's daughter, and its material was red granite." He adds that some fragments of it were at that time lying about the churchyard, that it was broken when the manse was building, and with the débris of the old ruins was carted away for the w^alls of the dwelling-house. But in the midst of the proceedings the work was suspended in consequence of a dream which the master-mason had, warning him not to touch that stone. Soon after, he was thrown from the scaffolding, and on the stone his skull was fractured. In the faith of his countrymen the holy Malrubius can still punish modern sacrilege.

Dr. Reeves notes that "it is believed that a man who takes about his person a little earth from this churchyard may travel the world round, and that he will safely return to the neighbouring bay; also, that no one can commit suicide or otherwise injure himself when within view of this spot."

All the ancient Irish records expressly state that Malrubius died on April 21st. "It is in Alba he is—in Confur Crossan; and this (is) the festival of his death", is the gloss against this date in the 10th-11th century Feilire, or Festival-book of Aengus.

The Scotch accounts vary considerably from those of the Irish documents. All the Scotch calendars and writers, with one exception, date the saint's festival on the 27th August. The Breviary of Aberdeen records his martyrdom at the hands of the pagan Norwegians on the eastern shores of Ross; that at the place where he suffered a chapel was erected, afterwards the church of Ferintosh; that his body was removed to Applecross, and that the lands of Applecross six miles round the church were sacred, as certain desecrating Danes found to their cost. The Breviary also tells how the saint succoured his worshippers when attacked by the "Islanders", who burnt his church at Contan with a hundred men and women in it, and of his power to enforce the holiness of his day. "It happened that one year some people . . . neglected to observe the saint's festival, being busily occupied in reaping, for which their houses took fire and were consumed."[11]

Dr. Reeves suggests that the double date of April 21st and August 27th may have arisen from a connection or confusion that seems to have existed between St. Maelrubha and a St. Ruffus of the Scotch and Irish calendars, the Ruphin of the beautiful quatrain in the Feilire of Aengus:

"that pure martyr,
Ruphin the gentle and sweet:
To the king of the limitless clouds
He went through a field of spears."

This confusion may account for the Scotch attribution of martyrdom to St. Maelrubha, and for the mention of Isle Maree as "the iland of St. Ruffus", in the seventeenth century record.

Dr. Reeves says that on Isle Maree "there formerly existed an oratory of the saint".[12] There appears also to be a record of his having founded a church in the island. Sir A. Mitchell found in the centre of the island "the remains of a small chapel".[13]

That the local saint succeeded to the rites of a local god seems scarcely doubtful. The name of Maree or Mourie is over all the country-side, always with primitive associations. Sir A. Mitchell, writing in 1860, says: "The people of the place speak often of the god Mourie instead of St. Mourie." An old man in the district told him the island's name "was originally Eilean mo Righ (the Island of my King), or Eilean-a-Mhor-Righ (the Island of the Great King), and that this king was long ago worshipped as a god in the district."[14] Near the head of Loch Maree "is a small well that still bears the name of Tobar Mhoire, or 'Mourie's Well'."[15]

Pennant, in 1774, says of Saint Maree: "The common oath of the country is by his name; if a traveller passes by any of his resting-places, they never neglect to leave an offering; but the saint is so moderate as not to put him to any expense—a stone, a stick, a bit of rag contents him."[16] In a note on this passage Dr. Reeves refers to a place, about two miles from the church of Applecross, " called Suidhe Maree, 'Maelrubha's Seat', which is said to have been a resting-place of the saint."[17] He also mentions a " Suidhe Maree" in the parish of Gairloch. There is a local tradition that his body was translated with miraculous ease from Ferintosh to Applecross, the bearers resting but twice on the way, at a place called Suidhe at Rennlochewe, and at Bealach an tsuidhe, between Shieldag and Applecross. It is tantalising to have no description of these "restingplaces". The usage is identical with the well-known and world-wide savage rite of leaving offerings at appointed places on the way.

Dr. Reeves mentions that, in the Ross-shire parish of Contin, a fair called the Feil Maree was formerly held on the last Wednesday of August, O. S.; he also cites a fair called after the saint at Portree, in Skye; a commemoration of the saint's festival at Forres, in the north of Elgin or Morayshire by a fair held on the 27th of August; a " Summaruff's Fair" on the last Tuesday of August at Fordyce, in Banff; and a great fair at Keith, in Banff, called the Samarevis Fair, and held on the first Tuesday in September.[18]

In the parish of Contin is a burying-ground called "Praes Maree", or Maelrubha's Bush. In the parish of Strath, in Skye, there is a local tradition that here St. Maree used to preach, and "that he hung a bell in a tree, where it remained for centuries. It was dumb all the week till sunrise on Sunday morning, when it rang of its own accord till sunset. It was subsequently removed to the old church of Strath, where it ever afterwards remained dumb; and the tree on which it had so long hung soon after withered away."[19]

But the most interesting record of the local cult is in the seventeenth-century observances. In 1656, the Dingwall presbytery made a strenuous effort to put down the "abhominable and heathenishe practices of the district", and inscribed a full account of their measures in the Presbytery Records.

On the 5th September 1656, "the presbyterie of DingAvall, according to the appoyntment of Synode for searching and censuring such principalis and superstitions as should be discovered thaire—having met at Appilcross, and findeing, amongst uther abhominable and heathenishe practices, that the people in that place were accustomed to sacrifice bulls at a certaine tyme uppon the 25 of August, which day is dedicate, as they conceive, to St. Mourie, as they call him; and that there were frequent approaches to some ruinous chappells and circulateing of them; and that future events, in reference especiallie to lyfe and death, in takeing of Journeyis, was exspect to be manifested by a holl of a round stone quherein they tried the entering of their heade, which (if they) could doe, to witt, be able to put in thair heade, they exspect thair returning to that place, and failing, they considered it ominous; and withall their adoring of wells and uther superstitious monuments and stones, tedious to rehearse, Have appoynted as followes—That quhosoever sail be found to commit such abhominations, especiallie Sacrifices of any kynd, or at any tyme, sail publickly appear and be rebuked." The opening of this minute specially mentions, among the "maine enormities" of the district, the "sacrificeing at certaine tymes at the Loch of Mourie", On the 9th September 1656: "The brethren, taking to their consideratione the abhominationes within the parochia of Garloch, in sacrificing of beasts upon the 25 August, as also in pouring of milk upon hills as oblationes, quhose names ar not particularly signified as yit, refers to the diligence of the minister to mak search of thease persons .......and withall that by his private dilligence he have searchers and tryers in everie corner of the country, especiallie about the Lochmourie ........and that such as are his elders be particularly poseit, concerning former practices in qwhat they knowe of these poore ones who are called Mourie his derilans, and ownes thease titles, quho receaves the sacrifices and offerings upon accompt of Mourie his poore ones; ........and such as heve boats about the loch to transport themselves or uthers to the He of Mourie, quherein ar monuments of Idolatrie, without warrand from the superiour and minister towards lawful ends The brethren heiring be report that Miurie has his monuments and remembrances in severall paroches within the province, but more particularly in the paroches of Loch canon. Loch alse, Kintaile, Contan, and Follertie and Lochbroome."

Both these records refer to strangers and "thease that comes from forren countreyes" as sharing in the abhominable practices". The list of districts covers some fifty miles of the western coast.

In the second extract the "derilans" appear to receive the sacrifices. If this could be proved—the wording of the record is vague at the very point of interest—and if Mr. Dixon's suggested derivation from the Gaelic deireoil, "afflicted",[20] is correct, the lunatics would seem to have served as priests to the grove—a completely primitive conception of the holiness of the possessed man—and to have received the gifts of ordinary sufferers, the "poor ones" of Mourie. More accurate information is greatly to be desired on this curious point.

Twenty years later, in 1678, the mystic healing powers of the island are thus acknowledged: "At Dingwall, 6 August 1678. Inter alia, that Mr. Roderick Mackenzie, minister of Gerloch … summoned by his officer to this prebrie day Hector Mackenzie ... in the parish of Gerloch, as also Johne Murdoch and Duncan Mackenzies, sons to the said Hector, as also Kenneth McKenzie his grandson, for sacrificing a bull in ane heathenish manner in the iland of St. Ruffus, commonly called Elian Moury ... for the recovering of the health of Cirstane Mackenzie, spouse to the said Hector Mackenzie, who was formerlie sicke and valetudinaire."[21]

With so little definite knowledge, it is impossible to say whether the saint took over some powerful local cult with its many sanctuaries, or whether all the varying strands and relics of the primitive worship of local powers, approached on mountain-tops, or in sacred groves, or by holy wells, were gradually gathered up into his dominant name; but the power of one personality, the tendency to unify belief, seems strangely hinted at in these records of the tenacious worships of "Mourie".

The beautiful legend of the two graves marked with the runic cross, round which the thickly-set tombs of the centre of the island cluster, is in itself worth quoting in full. I have no means of analysing the early and late, and the religious and secular elements, and therefore refrain from conjecture. The burying-ground covers the centre of the island; is deep in the damp profusion of grass and under-growth; and is surrounded by an oval dyke, now over-grown—in Pennant's time "a dyke of stones, with a regular, narrow entrance". Within the enclosure are two mounds, which would probably reward excavation.

I give Mr. Dixon's version of the legend, slightly condensed:—After the death of St. Maree, his cell on the island continued to be the resort of holy men. During the time of the Norwegian power in the district, a prince and princess of Norway were married by the island hermit, and here the prince left his bride when called away to war. Before parting they agreed that, when the prince returned, a white flag should be displayed from his barge if all was well, if not, a black flag; the princess was to meet her husband with like signals of good or evil fate. The prince remained away, and meanwhile jealousy and doubt entered the heart of the princess. She determined to test his constancy, and when the prince's barge, flying the white flag, at length entered the loch, she commanded her barge to be launched. A black flag hung from the stern, a bier was placed on the centre, on which she lay counterfeiting death, her maidens mourning round her, and the barge was rowed slowly down the loch to meet the prince. Seeing the black flag, he leapt from his own deck, and, raising the shroud, seemed to see the face of his dead bride. In an agony of grief he stabbed himself; and the princess, rising with a cry, drew the dagger from his heart and thrust it in her own. The two lovers were buried on the island, where their graves still lie, foot to foot, in the silence of the woodland, each marked by the runic cross.

  1. Gairloch, J. A. Dixon, F.S.A.Scot. Edinburgh, 1886.
  2. Sir A. Mitchell, "The Various Superstitions in the N.W. Highlands and Islands of Scotland, especially in relation to Lunacy," Proceedings Antiquarian Soc. Scotland, vol. iv. Edinburgh, 1862.
  3. Sir A. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 11.
  4. A Tour in Scotland aitd Voyage to the Hebrides, Thomas Pennant, 1772-4. Part 11, p. 330.
  5. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 14.
  6. Dixon, op. cit., p. 157.
  7. Pennant, ii, p. 330.
  8. New Stat. Ac, xiv, 2, p. 92, note.
  9. Sir A. Mitchell, p. 6.
  10. Book of Lecan, fol. 37bc; Book of Ballymote, fol. 119ba; Annals of the Four Masters, vol. i; Annals of Ulster, s. a. 716; The Feilire, or Festival-book of Aengus the Culdee; Calendar of Donegall.
  11. Breviarii Aberdonensis, Part. Estiv. Propr. Sanct., foil. 89bb-91aa (Reprint).
  12. Dr. Reeves, p. 286.
  13. Sir A. Mitchell, p. 6.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Dixon, p. 415.
  16. Pennant, op. cit.
  17. Dr. Reeves, 1859, op. cit., pp. 279, 281, and 289.
  18. Dr. Reeves, p. 289 sqq.
  19. Ibid, op. cit.
  20. Dixon, p. 411.
  21. Records of the Presbytery of Dingwall, cited by Mr. Dixon. Appendix F.