Saturday, January 14, 2017

Eilean Maree

I first learned of Eilean Maree, a small island in Loch Maree, when I read T Ratcliffe Barnett's Autumns in Skye, Ross and Sutherland (1930). In it is a chapter entitled A Dream of Isle Maree, which describes the author's visit to the island in 1926.  It is a wonderful story, and gives much of the history of this tiny island.

Barnett also mentions the story about bull sacrifices that were once carried out on the island. These were done as late as the 17th century, so pagan practices seem to have persisted there long after St Maelrubha established a cell on the island around the year 700.  (You can read about the sacrificing of bulls in this PSAS report from 1860.)

Eilean Maree
St Maelrubha, born in Ireland in 642AD, left for Scotland in 671, and founded the monastery of Applecross in 673. Between then, and when he died in 722, he was one busy monk; for there are places and church sites dedicated to him all over the isles and the mainland. And there is some thought that many of the 'mor/mory' place names, sometimes translated as references to Mary, may refer to Maelrubha. Two examples being Tobermory on Mull, and Eileanan Mòra (a Gaelic name for the Shiants).

Tombstones on Eilean Maree

Ancient cross-stones on Eilean Maree
There is little left of St Maelrubha's settlement on Eilean Maree; mainly an ancient, moss-cloaked oval stone wall, some 120 feet in its longest diameter, that surrounds the burial ground where Maelrubha's cell once stood; an enclosure similar in size to the cashels I wrote of last time.

The dark burial ground of Eilean Maree
The holy well on the island became a place of pilgrimage for those seeking a cure to insanity, and the pilgrims would leave coins at the well, and in a nearby oak, as offerings. Here is one description of the 'cure' ritual:

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 into the lake; and the same operation is repeated every day for several weeks.

Sounds like quite a good revenue stream in its day. The holy well has since dried up, and the oak has died. But thousands of coins can still be seen lying on the ground, atop stumps, and embedded in dead bits of the tree.

When Queen Victoria visited the island in 1877 she inserted a gold sovereign (pound coin) in the tree. (A local story says the boatman went back to get it.) I looked at many of the coins; most were corroded, and none looked like gold. In amongst all the old coins were many modern ones, as the island is a popular stop-off for kayakers. I did insert a ten pence of my own to ward off insanity. (It didn't work - I'm still crazy about islands.)

In the next photo you can see some of the enclosure's surrounding wall; covered with thick moss, the wall looked like a living thing.

The old tombstones look eerie, sprouting up through the moss in the dark and ever present shade of tall oak and holly trees.

I was taken to Eilean Maree in 2014 by the owner of the Loch Maree Hotel. On the way back he handed me a fishing pole, and we trolled around for a while. Although I didn't catch anything, it had been an amazing day. You can find more about the historic island of Eilean Maree on this Highland Council page.

Returning from the island to the Loch Maree Hotel

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