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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter XI.—Superstitions of Isle Maree


ISLE MAREE, or Innis, or Inch, or Eilean Maree, is, as it were, the eye of Loch Maree. From either end of the loch it arrests the gaze of the spectator, and seems almost to look him in the face. Though one of the smallest of the islands, it is without doubt the most interesting. Not only does the story of the unfortunate prince and princess (Part I., chap, ii.) centre in it, but so also do the quaint superstitions connected with the wishing-tree, the little well resorted to for the cure of insanity, and the now discontinued sacrifices of bulls.

Her most gracious Majesty Queen Victoria visited Isle Maree on the 16th September 1877. It was the Sabbath day, and Her Majesty graciously read a short sermon to her Gairloch gillies. She then fixed her offering in the wishing-tree, a pleasantry which most visitors to the island repeat, it being common report that a wish silently formed when any metal article is attached to the tree will certainly be realized. It is said that if any one removes an offering that has been fixed in the tree, some misfortune, probably the taking fire of the house of the desecrator, is sure to follow. The tree is now nearly dead. This modern fancy of the wishing-tree is very different from its original superstition, as will appear shortly.

It seems certain that St Maelrubha, who brought Christianity into the district in the seventh century, permitted the Druidical sacrifices of bulls to be continued, and endeavoured to give them a Christian aspect. These sacrifices continued to as late a date as 1678. Latterly the sacrifices appear to have been connected with the resort to the island for the cure of insanity. Originally neither the legend of the prince and princess (Part I., chap, ii.), nor the sacrifices of bulls, had any connection with the cure of insanity. Later on versions of the traditional legend were promulgated, in which either the prince or the princess were made out to have become lunatic, evidently with the idea of connecting the story in some way, however remote, with the cure of insanity. The sacrifice of a bull became in the seventeenth century a preliminary to the proceedings for the cure of a lunatic, although in older days such a sacrifice had been entirely independent of anything of the sort.

Probably the resort to the island for the miraculous cure of insanity, although, as has been remarked, unconnected with the legend or the sacrifices, dates back to the time of St Maelrubha. The practice was for the party to row several times round the island, the attendants jerking the lunatic thrice into the water; then they landed on the island, where the patient knelt before the altar, was brought to the little well, drank some of the holy water, and finally attached an offering to the tree. This process was repeated every day for some weeks. In modern times there is no altar, and the lunatic is brought only on one occasion to the island.

The resort to Isle Maree for the cure of lunacy was continued until a very recent date, though no longer prefaced by the sacrifice of a bull. There was an instance in 1858, when a young woman was brought to the island from Easter Ross ; she was afterwards placed in the Inverness Asylum. A prior case was reported in the Inverness Courier of 4th November 1852. I am assured on good authority that lunatics are still taken to the island to be cured, but these expeditions are now kept strictly secret.

Our next chapter will be devoted to a discussion of these superstitions, mostly from the pen of Dr Arthur Mitchell, chairman of the Lunacy Commission of Scotland. His full description of Isle Maree will give the reader a good idea of the subject generally.

Her Majesty the Queen has herself written an excellent account of the island in "More leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands," to which the reader is referred.

The following is Dr Mitchell's description, extracted from his valuable paper "On various Superstitions in the north-west Highlands and Islands of Scotland, especially in relation to Lunacy," printed in Vol. IV. of the proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Dr Mitchell, it will be seen, clears up in a most satisfactory manner the question of the derivation of the name Maree :—

"Eilean Maree, or Innis Maree, is a small low island, with clean gravelly shores, half-way down the loch, not more than a quarter of a mile in its greatest diameter.

"On its highest part there is an enclosure, whose outline is an irregular oval (ninety by one hundred and twenty feet). The wall, which is not more than two feet high, is now covered with earth and moss. Pennant, however, describes it as a 'stone dyke, with a regular narrow entrance/ In the centre of this enclosure there are the remains of a small chapel; but so complete is the ruin, that it is not possible to determine the style of architecture. Round about the chapel are fifty or sixty graves, generally covered by a flat undressed stone, with rude blocks at the head and feet. Many of these graves are recent. One, indeed, is quite fresh,—the burial having taken place but a week before my visit. Several of the older ones are said to contain the bodies of the Sasunnach artizans who, in the seventeenth century, worked at the iron furnaces of Poolewe. With two exceptions there are no cuttings, carvings, or inscriptions of any kind on any of the tombstones. These two have distinct and well-formed incised crosses on them {see illustration). The stones on which these occur have never been dressed or even squared. They are flat, and lie beside each other, nearly end to end, and about east and west.

"The celebrated well, whose waters are of such magic power, is near the shore. We found it dry, and full of last year's leaves. It is a built well, and the flat stone which serves for a cover we found lying on the bank.

"Near it stands an oak tree, which is studded with nails. To each of these was originally attached a piece of the clothing of some patient who had visited the spot. There are hundreds of nails, and one has still fastened to it a faded ribbon. Two bone buttons and two buckles we also found nailed to the tree. Countless pennies and halfpennies are driven edgeways into the wood,—over many the bark is closing, over many it has already closed. All the trees about the well are covered with initials. A rude M, with an anchor below it, tells of the seaman's noted credulity and superstitious character. Two sefs of initials with a date between, and below a heart pierced by an arrow, probably record the visit of a love-sick couple, seeking here a cure of their folly. The solitary interview would probably counteract the working of the waters.

"The sacred holly grows everywhere on the island. We found it loaded with fruit. The oak, the larch, the alder, the beech, the mountain-ash, the sycamore, the willow, the prickly holly, the dog-rose, the juniper, the honeysuckle, and the heather all abound, and form a most charming grove."

After giving a version of the legend of the prince and princess, Dr Mitchell proceeds to remark:—

"Since the same tale is told with many variations, it is probable that something of this kind did really happen; but that the virtues of the well have any connection with the story is improbable, as I shall shortly show.

"Anderson, Fullarton, the new and old Statistical Accounts, as well as the people of the place, derive the name from a dedication to St Mary. This remarkable error is first clearly pointed out in the 'Origines Parochiales,' though Pennant evidently had the right view when he speaks of it as the favoured isle of the saint (St Maree), the patron of all the coast from Applecross to Lochbroom, and tells us that he, the saint, is held in high esteem, and that the oath of the country is by his name.

"It appears that Maelrubha came from Ireland to Scotland, and founded the church of Aporcrossan in 673. After his death he became the patron saint of the district. His name is variously known as Malrubius, Malrube, Mulray, Murie, Mourie, and as the last corruption, Maree. That the island and loch bear the name of this saint there can be no doubt. Even the mode of pronouncing the word by the Gaelic-speaking population shews that it is not derived from Mary ; while Pennant's remark proves that the mistake is not yet a century old. Names are monuments—pages of history —inscribed stones; yet thus do we find them broken, blotted, and defaced. Mourie died at Applecross, on the 21st April 722. There is some doubt as to where he was buried, and I have nothing to make it probable that it was in Inch Maree. It is certain, or all but certain, however, that this vir dei led a hermit's life, and wrought miracles there; and that, like St Goderick, St Fillan, and a host of others, he continued to do so after his death.

"Whether the saint, on his arrival in Scotland, found a pagan temple on this little island, or whether he himself first consecrated the spot, is a question of interest. Pennant says, 'I suspect the dike to have been originally Druidical, and that the ancient superstition of paganism was taken up by the saint as the readiest method of making a conquest over the minds of the inhabitants.' This opinion I am inclined to adopt. The people of the place speak often of the god Mourie, instead of St Mourie, which may have resulted from his having supplanted the old god. Tradition also points to it as a place of worship before the Christian epoch ; and the curious record I have obtained of the sacrifice of bulls there, strongly confirms this belief, and furnishes fresh proof of the liberal engrafting upon Christianity of all forms of paganism in the early history of the Church."


 


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