Christianity and St Maelrubha

Much of the information given here was set out in a draft paper prepared by a native of Applecross, the late Kenneth MacRae F.S.A. Scotland.

It has not been possible to establish why his scholarly work was not finalised and published.

The Old Statistical Account of 1792, written, as these accounts were, by the parish minister of the time, calls the name Applecross 'a fanciful designation' and talks about apple trees planted in the shape of a cross by an ancient proprietor. While this may well have happened, the explanation has caused some confusion to the present day.

The true explanation is that the name was Aber Crossan. It appears in the Annals of Tighernac as 'Aporcrossan' in the 9th Century Latin.

The peninsula is known by its Gaelic name, 'A' Chomraich', the sanctuary, ever since, in 673, Maelrubha founded his Christian settlement there.

It was logical that the Irish Christians should seek to extend their influence into what was then the southernmost point of Pictish influence in the west of what we now call Scotland.

Columba, who founded the monastery of Iona in 563, is credited with reaching Inverness where he made his peace with the Pictish King Brudei. Some modern scholars now suggest that the influence of Columba in the north has been exaggerated because he was confused with other Christian workers. Be that as it may, it is certain that Maelrubha has been similarly credited with activity over a wide area, with references to his name from Oban to the Outer Isles.

It is likely that the arrival of Maelrubha in Applecross was a natural progression from the ground covered by his Christian predecessors and that the advance of Celtic Christianity into Pictland paved the way for the success of Kenneth MacAlpin's Scots in the ninth century.

Saint Island

Beul-aithris, or folklore, tells us that Maelrubha and his monks landed on the little island off Camusterrach now known as Saint Island. The sea journey from Bangor in Ireland was a long one and, no doubt, once the friendly Christian settlements were left behind the group would have approached with some caution. We can only imagine the circumstances in which the newcomers acquired the fine land between the river and Beinn a' Chlachain.

For some fifty-nine years Maelrubha maintained his monastery and, using Applecross as his base, spread the gospel from Applecross to Lochbroom and into Easter Ross. He is notably remembered, among the many place names attributed to him, in Loch Maree where his island there was for many years a place of pilgrimage for those suffering from mental illness. Thomas Pennant who visited the place in 1772 stated that these unfortunates were forced to sip the holy water from the well and then dipped three times in the loch every day for three weeks. The practice was reported to have continued into the nineteenth century with the modification that sufferers were by 1838 being hauled round the island behind a rowing boat.

The district of Strath in Skye has a cemetery called Ashig which MacRae says was formerly Ashigmilruby. Ashig is the Gaelic for ferry and it is believed that Maelrubha built a church there, which has long ago disappeared.

Abbot’s Stone

As indeed has virtually every trace of the settlement here. Those items that remain include the unmarked site of Maelrubha's burial at Clachan. There are also, in the new Heritage Centre, three sections of a carved stone cross excavated in the 20th century. The most obvious relic of what is believed to have been a thriving monastery extending from the river to the hill behind the church is the large carved stone set in the ground on the left of the gate into the graveyard. This originally marked the grave of Ruaraidh Mor MacAogan, Abbot of Applecross who, according to the Annals of Ulster, died as Abbot of Bangor in 801. Other sources show that the Vikings sacked the Applecross Monastery and destroyed the records shortly before MacAogan's death and that his return to Bangor was on that account. After he died there he was brought back to Applecross for burial and that unreliable historian beul-aithris (folklore) has it that the body floated to the shore in Applecross Bay lying on the stone.

It will be seen that the stone has an incised but unfinished cross and it does not stretch imagination too much to think that, following the destruction wrought by the Vikings, the unfinished stone was all that was readily available to mark the last resting place of the Abbot.

Small Cell

The small cell to the east of the old church belongs to the fifteenth century. It is thought that the monastery thrived for one hundred and twenty years. MacRae believed that the present paucity of evidence is due to a combination of the depredations of the Vikings and, long afterwards, the need to confine the cemetery and to use the stone for building and making drains for agriculture. Although the Reformation was introduced into Applecross in the sixteenth century in a particularly gentle way there is no doubt that subsequent teaching would have made its contribution to the destruction of anything smacking of idolatry.

MacRae is highly critical of the neglect of what is agreed to be an important Christian site, second only to that of Iona, and in particular of the failure to cherish our heritage.

He concludes: 'What the illiterate natives commemorated for over four hundred years, one educated generation despised and forgot'.

It is the intention of the Historical Society to remedy this situation, by continuing to develop the Heritage Centre at Clachan, which records Maelrubha's achievements, and provide an insight into the culture of the people of this remote and unique peninsula.