Saint Maolrubha's Banner The Patron Saint of Glenderry (well, actually "the whole coast between Applecross and Loch Broom"), St. Maelrubha is our very own favorite interlocutor for heavenly favors and the left ear of God. His feast is celebrated on the 21st of April, and due to a typographical error centuries ago, St. Maelrubha's day is also celebrated on August 25, especially appropriate for a saint noted for curing the insane. You may also notice that the spelling of his name varies; this, however, has nothing to do with mental problems -- it's just a great example of Elizabethan spelling, which was highly individual. 

On the island of Eilean Maree, in Loch Maree, there is a spring known as St. Maelrubha's Well. It was considered to have healing properties, especially in cases of insanity. This leads to a possibility of a mild insult when someone appears to be acting irrational: "That one's wanting a dip in Maelrubha's Well!" 


Many agrarian cultures adjust their lifestyles to the seasons and other natural forces, including the lunar cycles. Some of these beliefs are even carried over to today: consider the people who will only plant their gardens at certain phases of the moon, and harvest at other phases. The pre-Christian inhabitants of Scotland were no different. By speaking to old people it is possible to learn a few of the old customs, some of which are being forgotten, and others being continued without the original meaning.

The following is a list of things done on a waning moon: ploughing, reaping, and peat-cutting, gelding animals; eggs laid at this time were kept for hatching because the birds they produced were more docile. Some people believed cows were only impregnated on the first and third quarter of the moon, and cows conceiving on the first quarter produced a bull-calf while those conceiving on the third quarter produced a cow-calf. There were also actions performed only at the full moon: slaughtering sheep, pigs, goats and cattle, cutting hazel or willow branches for creels or baskets, or pine for boats. Up until about the last fifty years, marriages in Orkney were only performed on waxing moons.

Gravestones used to be marked with back-to-back moon crescents, symbolizing rebirth (the moon appears to die and be reborn again each month).

The title pertaining to the moon deity was Mo-urie or Mourie. As with all early deities, there were certain animals associated with him, specifically bulls 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.

Lest we forget, Maol Rubha (640-722 A.D.) was an Irish monk who founded a number of monasteries, including the one at Apurchrosan (Applecross) in 673. There, supposedly, he died and was buried. Over time a number of beliefs developed around him, such as, anyone taking dirt from near his grave at the beginning of a journey would return safely. In any locale people will swear by their special saint, if they have one, and the people in St. Maol Rubha's area were no different. One common expression was, "By his name." Over time, places and events were named after him. In Perthshire there is Amulree, which is "Ath Maol Rubha" ("Maol Rubha's Ford"), and old fairs at Dingwall and Tain were called "Feil Ma-Ruibhe" ("Maol Rubha's Fair").

In l563, King James VI had the Biblical statement, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," added to the Common Law of Scotland. For the most part, this did not affect the Highlanders, except to cloak some of their activities a bit more. Some of these activities were ones done in the name of St. Maol Rubha, which in earlier times would have been done in Mourie's name. 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. Maol Rubha's [other] feast day.


Certain wells and plots of land have been considered holy since pre-Christian times; places were associated with seasonal rituals, divination, and some, like Isle Maree, with healing. [Isle Maree, in Loch Maree, is a bit south of Clan MacColin lands. -ed.] The well on Isle Maree eventually became linked to St. Maol Ruibhe, and was known particularly for curing insanity. Like most wells, the one on Isle Maree had an associated tree next to it, which happened to be an oak.

The cure worked like this: Before docking, the boat containing the insane person would circle the island three times clockwise. On each lap the patient, who had a rope tied around him, would be dunked 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. (Actually, the person to be cured did not have to be there, but did need to drink water brought back from the well.) 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.

Over time the well of St. Maol Ruibhe became quite famous, enough that in 1877, Queen Victoria visited the well and left an offering. 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."

Loch Maree and Saint Maelrubha

The loch, and its island Eilean Maree, are supposedly named after the Irish saint Maelrubha, who founded a religious house at Applecross. From the scandalized accounts of the 17th and 18th-century churchmen, it would appear that the saint's name must have long ago become confused with that of a Celtic god Mourie. Certainly, the rites which took place on the island seemed to long predate Christianity. Bulls were sacrificed. and men and women worshipped at a sacred well and tree, and poured libations of milk upon the ground. 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, who insisted that cures were most likely to be effective on St. Maelrubha's Day (August 25), still constantly referred to the saint as 'God Mourie'. Though such rites have not been carried out for a century or more, the island in the loch is still venerated.

The Historical Maelrubha: 642-722 AD

What Colmcille and Moluag accomplished in Ancient Scotland in the sixth century, Maelrubha rivalled in the seventh with a final great flowering of the Celtic Church before the Vikings. Mealrubha was of princely Niall lineage on this father's side, and through his mother was of Comgall's race of Irish Picts. He went to the monastery Comgall had founded for his education to the priesthood. His mission at Applecross, like Moluag's was an offshoot of Bangor.

The saint's Applecross brethren ranged widely over both Pictland and Scottish Dalriada, and Maelrubha's name is recorded in place names scattered over the length and breadth of Scotland. He won great fresh extensions of the Celtic territory, all of the rugged , almost inaccessible western seaboard between Loch Carron and Loch Broom, the south and west parts of the Isle of Skye and eastern Ross. Twenty-one known parishes were dedicated to Maelrubha under such forms of his name as Maree, Mulruby, Mary, Murry, Summuruff, Summereve. For fifty years he tramped the high roads and the low roads with such a reputation for sanctity and miracles he was regarded as the patron Saint throughout all of that territory. To the north of Applecross in the long narrow scenic Loch Maree is Maelrubha's little island, Inis Maree, "the favoured isle of the saint." On it besides his oratory and a cemetery was his holy well, a spring "of power unspeakable" in cases of insanity. It was famous until very recent times for the cures obtained there. He is still invoked for mental illness in Scotland.

Scottish legend makes Maelrubha a martyr at the hands of the Norse pirates and the parish church at Urquhart is said to occupy the site of the chapel first built to mark the spot where he died. A mound outside Applecross, Cloadh Maree, is pointed out as his grave. Within a radius of six miles of this the area was accorded all rights and privileges of sanctuary.

Irish abbots continued at Applecross for a while. In 737 Failbhe, "Comharb of Maelrubha," perished with twenty-two of his religious at sea.

The annals of Ulster enter the death of 'MacOigi of Aporcrossan" in 801. Memory of Maelrubha seems to have survived a long time. In the time of clan warfare, when one of the MacDonald partisans in the feud with the MacKinsies in the seventeenth century was told it was a sacrilege to kill a MacKinsie within Maelrubha's sanctuary, MacDonald replied it was no sin to kill a MacKinsie wherever they might be found. (1)

  1. Ryan Darcy,Mary, "Irish saints in Scotland" in The Saints of Ireland, 71-88. St.Paul: The Irish American Cultural Institute, 1974
Copyright © 2001 Norman Montgomery