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The sacred island of the Moon

Loch Maree, in Wester Ross, is one of the most beautiful locations in Scotland – if not the world. The eastern approach has been filmed numerous times, including the movie “Loch Ness”. This freshwater lake is named after St Maelrubha, the Irish saint from Bangor who introduced Christianity in the region in 671-673 AD. Whereas his monastery was located in Applecross, on the nearby sea coast, it is clear that there was a good reason why he chose Isle Maree as a refuge: it was where the religious competition was located, and thus the pagan sacred site had to be “Christianised”.

Philip Coppens


Loch Maree was a sacred loch, with the island, “Isle Maree”, dedicated to the moon goddess. Possibly, Slioch, the dominating mountain along the lake was once held to be sacred; its name means “Spear” and provides a veritable spectacle of stone rising towards the skies.

Witches’ Point

Visiting Isle Maree is an arduous task; since early 2003, the proprietors of the Loch Maree Hotel take visitors to the island, though access to the island is still strictly regulated and cleared by the Gairloch Trust, the owners of the island.
The southern side of the Loch is accessible – the northern shore is not: there are no roads, just nature being nature. It is on this side, that there is a thin stretch of land jutting into the lake. Barely visible, at the loch’s water level, it is called Witches’ Point, because from this point, witches were thrown into the water. If they died, they were buried; if not, they were labelled witches and would have been burned. The latter never happened. It is there that the loch is at its deepest, approx. 300 ft deep.

Isle Maree

One of the reasons why the island, Isle Maree or Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe, might have been deemed sacred is something frequent visitors notice: there are few birds on the isle, even though many live on neighbouring islands. It is forbidden to dig on the island and folklore still says that nothing can be removed from the island, as it will bring bad luck. The idea that nothing is allowed to be taken from the island extends in public consciousness and is observed by the ghillies. When wood is cut, so that trees do not fall inside the circle, the wood is never removed from the island.

The Money Tree

After disembarking in the small bay, you make your way past Maelrubha’s cell (or chapel), now an overgrown ruin. Next to it stands the “money tree”, the remains of an oak tree that once stood next to a sacred well – now completely vanished.
The legend of the Money Tree states that coins that fall from it, are wishes that will not be granted. The oldest coin in the Money Tree has been dated to 1828. Queen Victoria stayed several days at the Loch Maree Hotel and during her stay in 1877, visited the island and also left a coin behind. John Whittier, the poet, noted the occasion with the following verse: “And whoso bathes therin his brow/ With care or madness burning,/ Feels once again his healthful thought/ And sense of peace returning.” The ground is shallow, and is believed to be so because of the amount of coins that is in front of the Money Tree.

The sacred well is one of the two main attractions on the island (the other being the stone circle). Recently, the well was said to cure lunacy. The cure worked like this: before docking, the boat with the insane person on board would circle the island three times, clockwise. On each lap the patient, who had a rope tied around him, would be plunged in the water. Upon landing, the patient was taken to the well and given some of its water to drink; then an offering was made by nailing a rag or a ribbon to the tree, or by driving a coin into it edgewise. (The person to be cured did not have to be there, but did need to drink water brought back from the well.)
Going to the “Isle of Maree” in a hope to cure the patient of lunacy was continued until around 1858, when a young woman was brought over from Easter Ross and afterwards placed in the Inverness Asylum. A prior case was reported in the Inverness Courier dated 4th November 1857.
A visitor who witnessed the rites in 1772 told how a lunatic was forced to kneel before a weatherworn altar and then to drink water from the well before being dipped three times in the loch. The process was repeated each day for several weeks in the hope of curing him. Similar rites were recorded in 1836 and 1952, when local people insisted that cures were most likely to be effective on St. Maelrubha’s Day, August 25.

Bull sacrifices

However, a cure for lunacy was a modern ritual – possibly invented with the approval of the church authorities, who wanted to stop a much more pagan ritual occurring on the site: the sacrifice of a bull. As late as 1695, Hector MacKenzie, his son and his grandson sacrificed a bull on the island for the healing of the invalid Christine MacKenzie.
It seems certain that St. Maelrubha permitted the Druidical sacrifices of bulls to be continued and endeavoured to give them a Christian aspect. With the centuries, the Church grew more wary. In 1678, the Presbytery of Dingwall took disciplinary action against four men for sacrificing a bull on the isle. Latterly, the sacrifices appear to have been connected with the resort to the island for the cure of insanity. In 1695, the Presbytery of Dingwall stated that the people living there were in the habit of sacrificing bulls, walking around the chapel and performing divinations on August 25, St. Maelrubha’s feast day. Though the practice of bull sacrifice had continued, as in so many other locations, the date had moved from Lughnasa to the saint’s feast day.

The Celtic festivals

The battle between Lugh and Balor was the central myth of Lughnasa, August 1. The bull sacrifice was there to appease the gods, and to make sure that the powers of chaos (Balor) would be controlled by the solar deity (Lugh). Slioch, a mountain approximately 3000 feet high, might have played a role in the religious significance of Loch Maree as sacred hills feature prominently in the festival of Lughnasa. The best known example is witnessed in Ireland, at Croagh Patrick with its annual pilgrimage to the top of the mountain.

But there was more than one festival in the Celtic calendar. The most famous is Halloween – October 31. But it is on the eve of Là Fhéill Bhrìghde (St.Brigid’s Day – February 1), that the Cailleach journeys to the magical isle in whose woods lies the miraculous Well of Youth. Isle Maree is by default an island, and we have already noted its magical well, currently the site of the “Money Tree”. The island is also full of trees.
At the first glimmer of dawn, the Cailleach drank the water that bubbled in a crevice of a rock, and was transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand would turn the bare earth green again. Another version of the story of Spring tells how Bride is a young girl kept prisoner by the Cailleach all winter long in the snowy recesses of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain of Britain. Again, the connection with high mountains is prominent.

The Celts believed – like so many other ancient cultures – that the sky was male, the earth female: the Cailleach had been the creator goddess, who had walked the land and had created the sacred hills, wells, etc. The strength of the skies – the sun – were identical to the stages of the Earth: dead in winter (the sun remaining low over the horizon), powerful and fertile in summer. The four key dates of the Celtic calendar mimicked this cycle: the victory of order (sun) over chaos on May 1, its maximum strength on August 1, before death on October 31, and the hope of restoration/transformation on February 1 – a new hope.

A druid circle

The most impressive structure on the island is the “druid circle”. Archaeological researchers have recently dated the circle to 100 BC. One of the visitors here was Thomas Pennent, who left a description of his visit in 1772:

“The shores are neat and gravely; the whole surface covered thickly with a beautiful grove of oak, ash, willow, wicken, birch, fir, hazel and enormous hollies. In the midst is a circular dyke of stones, with a regular narrow entrance, the inner part has been used for ages as a burial place, and is still in use. I suspect the dyke to have been originally Druidical, and that the ancient superstition of paganism had been taken up by the saint, as the readiest method of making a conquest over the minds of the inhabitants. A stump of a tree is shown as an altar, probably the memorial of one of stone; but the curiosity of the place is the well of the saint; of power unspeakable in cases of lunacy.”

It is one of a very few surviving intact stone circles. It is a far cry from Avebury, but unlike Avebury, this circle has retained its sacred aspect: it still functions as a cemetery and certain families, specifically the local MacLeod family are still allowed to be buried here. Another person buried here is the former manager of the Loch Maree Hotel, who accidentally poisoned his hotel guests by serving off liver pate in 1922 and successively committed suicide.

Viking stronghold

Applecross was destroyed by the Vikings within a century of Maelrubha’s death. Isle Maree would also become the focus of the Vikings’ attention. The Vikings pulled their boats across Poolewe, into Loch Maree and apparently made Isle Maree an important centre – a royal island.
Isle Maree has a bay on its south side. From the bay, two straight lines run out from it: these are breakwaters dating from Viking times which the modern visitors still have to negotiate before landing. Though it is a lake, the winds can make travelling on the loch a dangerous enterprise – and entrance into the bay thus needs to be guarded from the harsh elements.

The Viking story is best witnessed in the stone circle, where two graves stand out: one depicts what might be a Viking battle axe and legend has it they are the graves of a Viking prince and princess. If true, these Viking royals were buried here, rather than set ashore on a boat and burnt, as was customary for Vikings. As they had committed suicide, they had to be buried on land, a dishonourable death in Viking customs.

The legend is about love, and tragedy. “A young Norwegian Prince was chief among the Vikings who then dominated this part of the west coast. The Prince had a restless and ungovernable temper and if all did not go his way he lost all command of himself. The Prince lived with his fighting men in his galley, except during the winter, when they encamped on one or other of the islands of Loch Ewe.”
Prince Olaf was also in love – married even. “In order that Prince Olaf might be near his bride a tower was built on the Isle of Maree within easy reach of the Prince’s galley on Loch Ewe. This is where the Prince and Princess lived happily. For a while all went smoothly and the life of the young lovers was a continual delight. In the meantime the Prince’s comrades were continually sending him messages to come back on board the ship but he could not tear himself away from his wife. Eventually there came word that a long planned expedition was ready to start and Olaf was expected to take command. With a heavy heart he told the Princess he would soon have to leave. She was very upset wondering if he might be killed in battle and he concerned that some unknown danger might cause her death in his absence.
With these thoughts in mind the following plan was devised: It was agreed that when the Prince should return, a white flag would be displayed from his barge on Loch Maree if all were well; if otherwise, a black flag would be shown. The maidens prepared these flags and the Prince took them with him. The Princess was to leave the island in her barge whenever the Prince’s boat should come into sight, and she in like manner was to display a white or black flag to denote her safety or the reverse.”

“The Prince set off and it is enough to say that all ended well and the victorious Prince returned safely to Poolewe. Half crazy with excitement he got on to his boat on Loch Maree and raised his white banner of success. During his absence the Princess had been at her wits end with worry. Various thoughts had passed through her head since his departure - was he still alive? Did her Prince prefer the excitement of warfare to being at home with her? Did he still really love her? Had he ever loved her? Jealousy began to absorb the Princess completely. Under the influence of this crushing doubt she devised a plan to test the Prince’s love for her should he ever return.
At last the lookout announced that the Prince’s barge was in sight bearing the white flag. “And now what emotions filled the breast of the lovely Princess! What conflicting sentiments, love and doubt, joy and fear!” Everything had been arranged to carry out her strange plan. The barge set sail on the Loch and the black flag was raised. The Princess lay on a bier in the centre of the barge and pretended to be dead. All her maidens surrounded her and pretended to be grieving.
Prince Olaf eventually caught sight of the Princess’s barge. Could he be mistaken? Was that the black flag of death, which waved above it? The Prince was frantic with despair. “His agony increased each moment; his manly face became like a maniac’s; his words and gestures were those of a man possessed.” It seemed to take forever to reach the Princess’s barge, which just made the Prince even more agitated. Before the vessels touched the Prince leapt aboard the barge. He saw the shroud; he raised it; he gazed a moment on the still, pale face of his bride; he gave one agonized cry; then he plunged his dirk in his own breast, and in a moment that storm-ceased heart ceased to beat!
The Princess leapt up from the bier, convinced to late of her husband’s passionate love; there he lay dead. She drew the dirk from Olaf’s heart and plunged it into her own.
The bodies of the unhappy pair were buried on the island; they were laid with their feet towards each other, and smooth stones with outlines of medieval crosses were placed over their graves, and there they remain to this day.”

Celtic origins

Isle Maree has been remarkable in its length of worship – from Celtic, to Viking, to Christian. But where did it come from? The origin of the cult can definitely be dated to the erection of the stone circle, in ca. 100 BC. No doubt, the sacredness of the island goes back earlier in time, but it is difficult to pinpoint specific dates. More important is the question why the place was deemed sacred.
The island definitely seems connected to the moon goddess – the island’s later reputation as curing lunacy (the illness of the moon) attests to this possibility.
Others have highlighted that “Maree” is a corruption of “Mourie”, a Celtic deity, known as “the High King”. As with all early deities, there were certain animals associated with him, specifically the bull and other animals with curved horns (a moon-symbol). After Christianization, Mourie became linked with St. Maol Rubha, and they occupied the same holy ground. The names are very similar, and no doubt this is intentional: both the pagan name and the Christian name were corrupted, so that the balance of the old belief and the new religion were equal.

Nigel Pennick in “Celtic Sacred Landscapes” (p. 161) states: “In the region of Gairloch [in Scotland], the ‘old rites’ of the divinity Mhor-Ri, ‘The Great King’ (also known as St. Maree, Mourie or Maelrubha), were observed until the nineteenth century.” The “Great King” was the earthly representative of the sun, said to marry the Earth – a ritual which obviously occurred at a site that was sacred to the Earth goddess – represented by the moon.

The reference also shows that in the 17th century, the cult was far from local: “The cultus was important far beyond the Gairloch region, for strangers and ‘thease that comes from forren countreyes’ were reported as participants in the ‘old rites’. But the presbytery was unable to suppress this popular deity. Writing in 1860, Sir Alexander Mitchell tells us that the ‘people of the place often speak of the god Mourie’. Another writer of the same period tells of the god’s holy hill, called Claodh Maree, which was the Scottish parallel of Iceland’s Helgafell, whose benevolent power was active wherever it could be seen. ‘It is believed...that no-one can commit suicide or otherwise injure himself within view of this spot.’ […] On the island of Maelrubha in Loch Maree, the sacred oak tree of Mhor-Ri was studded with nails to which ribbons were tied. Buttons and buckles were also nailed to it.”

This suggests that the location of the island in the shadow of a sacred hill is indeed important. The direct link between the Great King and a sacred hill is reminiscent of the Irish residence of the “High King” on the sacred hill of Tara, in central Ireland. The remaining question about Loch Maree is which hill it is… Which one is “Claodh Maree”? Claodh signifies “burial place”, so literally, the hill is the “burial place of the god Maree”.

In Iceland, Helgafell is the holy mountain that figures prominently in Icelandic history and literature. Its ascent and descent are linked with the success of wishes also. First, you must climb the southwest slope to the temple ruins without speaking or glancing backwards. Second, the wishes must be for good and made with a guileless heart. Third, you must descend the eastern slope and never reveal your wishes to anyone. The sacred number three exists both in Nordic Iceland and Scottish Loch Maree.
The sacred nature of Helgafell is apparent: it is a conical hill, and hence linked with the sacred centre. The only problem is that in the vicinity of Loch Maree, there are no conical hills. The only candidate for a sacred hill – a hill which is out of the ordinary – remains Slioch.

Loch Maree most likely attained its sacred status because of its setting: an island deemed special by early settlers (perhaps because of an oak growing next to a well), in the shadow of a sacred peak. But it is most remarkable for its history: how it continued as a place of worship… and continues to retain its sacred, protected status into the 21st century.