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

Chapter XII.—Superstitions of Isle Maree—continued


THE principal source of the knowledge we possess of the superstitious sacrifices of bulls and attempted cures of insanity at Isle Maree, are the minutes extracted from the records of the Presbytery of Dingwall, which will be found in Appendix F.

Dr Mitchell has the following instructive remarks on these subjects in his paper written in 1860 :—

"Fuller wittily observes that, as careful mothers and nurses on condition they can get their children to part with knives are contented to let them play with rattles, so the early Christian teachers permitted ignorant people to retain some of their former foolish customs, that they might remove from them the most dangerous. Fuller is here writing of protesting times; but if we go back to the first introduction of Christianity into our country, we shall find that many pagan ceremonies were connived at and engrafted on the new religion, which we now-a-days should feel inclined rather to class with edged tools than rattles. Instead of breaking the monuments of idolatry, our early teachers gave them a Christian baptism, by cutting on them the symbols of their own religion; and with the rites and ceremonies of paganism they dealt in like manner.

" The places of Druidical worship, which Maelrubha found on his arrival in Applecross, in all probability became afterwards places of Christian worship; and such of them as were believed to possess special virtues continued to enjoy their special reputation, with this difference, however, that what the god, or demon, or genuis loci did before, the saint took upon himself, tolerating as much of the old ceremony as the elastic conscience of the age permitted. 'Une religion charged de beaucoup de pratiques/ says Montesquieu, 1 attache plus a elle qu'une autre, qui Pest moins;' and this principle was freely acted on,—the more freely, perhaps, that the early Christian teachers came among a people peculiarly given to ceremony, if we may trust the remark of Pliny, ' The Britons are so stupendly superstitious in their ceremonies, that they go even beyond the Persians.' I am inclined to think, with Pennant and the writer in the old Statistical Account, that Inch Maree was such a locality. The sacrifice of the bull, and the speaking of the saint as * the god,' made this probable, while the belief expressed by some old writers that such was the fact, and existing oral traditions,, render it still more so.

"I have no earlier allusion to the well on this island than 1656. j It was then the resort of the lunatic, and, as I have said, it may possibly have been so from the date of Mourie's arrival, or even before that time. One shrine in Belgium is known to have had a special reputation of this kind for more than twelve hundred years. I refer to that of St Dympna in Gheel. Our own St Fillan's, too, has been resorted to for the * blessed purpose of conferring health on the distressed' since the year 700. Further back still, Orpheus, who is said to have written the hymn to Mercury, speaks of Mercury's grot, where remedy was to be had for lunatics and lepers.

"The most interesting feature of these [presbytery] extracts, however, is the finding so complete and formal a sacrificial ceremony commonly practised in our country at so late a period as within two hundred years of our own day. The people point to Inverasdale as the last place where the sacrifice was offered. For the cure of the murrain in cattle, one of the herd is still sacrificed for the good of the whole. This is done by burying it alive. I am assured that within the last ten years such a barbarism occurred in the county of Moray. It is, however, happily, and beyond all doubt, very rare. The sacrifice of a cock, however, in the same fashion, for the cure of epilepsy, is still not unfrequently practised; but in neither of these cases is the sacrifice offered on the shrine of a saint, or to a named god, though, of course, in both there is the silent acknowledgment of some power thus to be propitiated.

"I only know one other recorded instance of the formal sacrifice of a bull in Scotland, to a saint on his feast-day. A writer of the twelfth century, Reginald of Durham, sometimes also called Reginald of Coldingham, takes occasion, in his lively Book of the Miracles of St Cuthbert to relate certain incidents which befell the famous St Aelred of Rievaux in the year 1164, during a journey into Pictland,— that is Galloway it would seem, or perhaps, more generally, the provinces of Scotland lying to the south of the Forth and Clyde. The saintly abbot happened to be at 'Cuthbrichtis Kirche' or Kirkcudbright, as it is now called, on the feast-day of its great patron. A bull, the marvel of the parish for its strength and ferocity, was dragged to the church, bound with cords, to be offered as an alms and oblation to St Cuthbert.

"It is curious to find, in the inaccessible districts both of the north and south of Scotland, traces of a similar Christianised paganism. Whether these ceremonies are remains of the vague Druidical, or of the Helioarkite, or of the Mithraic worship, I am not able to say. As regards the last, which was set up in opposition to Christianity, and which used many of its ceremonies, it is known that the sacrifice of a bull was one of its rites. The study of this form of worship has not yet received from Scottish antiquaries the attention which it probably deserves.

" It would seem that to some saints the sacrifice of a bull was not confined to the day of honour, but was a thing of frequent occurrence. This appears from a letter on the superstitions of Caernarvonshire of the sixteenth century, in which the writer tells us that he visited the locality where bullocks were said to be offered to St Beyno, and that he witnessed such an offering in 1589. This Beyno is described as ' the saint of the parish of Clynnog, and the chiefest of all saints;' but we are told that the people did not dare to cut down the trees that grew in the saint's' ground, 'lest Beyno should kill them, or do-them some one harm or another.' Though so saintly, therefore, as to be deemed the chiefest of all saints, he was evidently not worshipped solely as a beneficent being, and sacrifices were offered to avert his anger as well as to secure his favour; thus bringing out his successorship as saint of the place to the demon loci of pure paganism. * They called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius and vice versa.

"In our own day, belief in the healing virtues of the well on Inch Maree is general over all Ross-shire, but more especially over the western district. The tunatic is taken there without consideration of consent. As he nears the island, he is suddenly jerked 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. Sometimes a second and third circumnavigation of the island is thought necessary, with a repetition of the immersions, and of the visit to the well.

"The writer of the 'New Statistical Account' in 1836, says that the poor victim of this superstitious cruelty was towed round the island after the boat by his tender-hearted friends. Macculloch, writing in 1824, says : ' Here also there was a sacred well, in which, as in St Fillan's, lunatics were dipped, with the usual offerings of money; but the well remains, and the practice has passed away.' He makes two mistakes here. Lunatics are not, and cannot be, dipped into the well, which is not larger than a bucket, and both practice and well still exist Pennant describes the ceremony in 1772, as having a greater show of religion in the rites, and less barbarity in the form of immersion. According to him, the patient was iaken to the 'Sacred Island, made to kneel before the altar, where his attendants left an offering in money; he was then brought to the well, sipped some of the holy water, and a second offering was made; .that done, he was thrice dipped in the lake, and the same operation was repeated every day for some weeks.'

"I could not learn that any form of words is at present in use, nor do any of the writers referred to make mention of such a thing; nor does it appear that the feast-day of the saint (25th August) is now regarded as more favourable than any other.

"There is an unwillingness to tell a stranger of the particular •cases in which this superstitious practice had been tried, but several came to my knowledge. About seven years ago a furious madman was brought to the island from a neighbouring parish. A rope was passed round his waist, and, with a couple of men at one end in advance and a couple at the other behind, like a furious bull to the slaughter-house he was marched to the loch side, and placed in a boat, which was pulled once round the island, the patient being jerked into the water at intervals. He was then landed, drank of the water, attached his offering to the tree, and, as I was told, in a state of happy tranquillity went home. 'In matters of superstition among the ignorant, one shadow of success prevails against a hundred manifest contradictions.'

"The last case of which I heard came from a parish in the east of Ross, and was less happy in its issue. It was that of a young woman, who is now in one of our asylums. This happened about three years ago.

"Another case was reported in the Inverness Courier of 4th November 1852, and is quoted at length by Dr Reeves, in his paper on Saint Maelrubha, already referred to. (see Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., vol. iii., p. 288).

"'Every superstition/ says Archbishop Whately, in order to be rightly understood, should be read backward.' In this manner I have endeavoured to treat that which is attached to the little-known Inch Maree. We have seen it as it exists to-day, with its ceremonies of cruelty, barbarism, and ignorance; we have seen it, differing little from its present form, a century ago; we have seen it in 1656 and 1678, associated with an abominable and heathenish sacrifice; we have connected it with the saintly founder of the monastery of Apple-cross; and we have adduced some reasons for believing that its real paternity goes back to strictly pagan times."

In several notes to his paper Dr Mitchell, besides stating his authorities, points out that St Ruffus and St Maelrubha appear to have been regarded as identical, and that Inch Maree itself was in 1678 spoken of as the " Island of St Ruffus." Also, that an old maa in the district told him that the name of the island 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. Dr Mitchell also mentions that, some fifteen or twenty years before, a farmer from Letterewe is said to have brought a mad dog to the well on the island. It drank of the waters,, and was cured; but the desecrating act is said to have driven virtue for a time from the well. I have a detailed account of this last incident from James Mackenzie of Kirkton, which differs from Dr Mitchell's information. James Mackenzie says he well remembers that it was about 1830 that John Macmillan, who was the first shepherd the late Mr Bankes had at Letterewe, and who was the son of Donald Macmillan who had been shepherd at Letterewe when Mac-intyre was manager there, had a sheep-dog that went mad. John took the dog to Isle Maree, and put him headlong in the well; the dog died next day, and John Macmillan died a week after that!

Dr Mitchell, in a foot-note referring to the account of the sacrifice of a bull in 1164 witnessed by St Aelred of Rievaux at Cuthbrichtis Kirche, remarks that, "it is interesting to find that the clerks of the church, the Scolofthes, who must have been the best informed and most learned, opposed the ceremony, and attempted to throw it into ridicule by proposing to bait the bull, probably an indication that opinion was then beginning to change."

Dr Mitchell also remarks, in another foot-note, that "it would appear probable, that as Romish paganism after a time began to-acknowledge and worship covertly and openly the divinities of the Druids, so Christianity did not escape a similar pollution, but, after a time, tolerated and even adopted not a few of the ceremonies and sacrifices of that modified Druidism with which it had to deal. And since Druidism existed in force to a later period in the north of Scotland than elsewhere, it may be reasonably expected that we shall there find the strongest and most enduring evidence of the infusion of paganism into Christianity."

In connection with this interesting point, the following note respecting the Kirkcudbright bull, which occurs at page 9 to the preface to vol. ii. of "The Sculptured Stones of Scotland," published by the Spalding Club, is instructive :—

"The memorable advice given by Pope Gregory to the Abbot Melitus prescribes a course of action which we cannot doubt was adopted by the early missionaries in dealing with the superstitions of the heathens:—'Et quia boves solent in sacrificio daemonum multos accidere, debit eis etiam hae de re aliqua sollemnitas immutari; ut die dedicationis vel natalitii sanctorum martyrum quorum illic reliquiae ponuntur, tabernacula sibi circa easdem ecclesias quae ex fanis commutatae sunt de ramis arborum faciant, et religiosis con-viviis sollemnitatem celebrent; nee diabolo jam animalia immolent, sedad laudem Dei in esu suo animalia occidant, et donatori omnium desatietate sua gratias referant; ut dum eis aliqua exterius gaudia reser-vantur, ad interiora gaudia consentire facilius valeant. Nam duris mentibus simul omnia abscidere impossibile esse non dubium est; quia et is qui summum locum ascendere nititur, gradibus vel passibus non autem saltibus elevator' (Bede Hist. Ecc, 1, 30).

"It is probable that the permission to adopt for a time a heathen rite, with the view of giving it a new character, was taken advantage of, by acting on it after the cause of the concession was gone.

"Reginald, the monk of Durham, has preserved a notice of the offering of a bull to St Cuthbert, at his church on the Sol way, on the festival kept on the day of the dedication of the church in the year 1164 (Libellus de Admir B. Cuthbert virtut, page 185, Surtees Soc.)."


 


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