In Search of St Moluag

In Search of St Moluag

5 April 2023

Of all the Irish missionaries who crossed the sea in coracles to bring Christianity to these islands, St Moluag is one of the least known and venerated. Yet, it was not always so. If reports are to be believed, he had a busy life travelling extensively from Lismore to establish communities similar to the one he had established at Clachan.

Because the Parish Church in Lismore—once a grand edifice known as the Cathedral Church of St Moluag—is about to change ownership, use or both, we went in search of Lismore’s saint to discover where he and his coracle may have been and who remembered him. We hoped to give him back some visibility for both present—day islanders, the Lismore diaspora and the world. Why not?

He arrived, it is said, from Ireland, landing at Port Moluag in 562 CE as one of the proselytising workers of the early Christian church. (Almost everything in this story will be ‘it is said’, there being little hard evidence so far.) He travelled with twelve companions and set up a monastic community at what is now Clachan. He set up similar centres at many other places, his name being known from Lewis to Aberdeen to the Isle of Man.

The Annals of Bangor in Ireland, where he trained, state that he died on 25 June 592 CE, now his commemoration day. Fittingly, it was also a solar eclipse and he earned the extra plaudit ‘the Sun of Lismore’. The date of his death is the one hard fact we have, but let’s not be too bothered about that; history has been oral for longer than it has been written. Many believe he died in or near Rosemarkie on the Black Isle and was buried there, but his body later disinterred and returned to Lismore.

Rosemarkie Parish Church

We visited Rosemarkie on a Sunday where the congregation were enjoying post-service refreshments in the body of the kirk. Alas none present knew anything of Moluag, instead, to some, Lismore meant Robbie and Alison Smith, erstwhile parishioners now living in Lismore. A few suggested it was Columba who had established Rosemarkie.

But to quote their website, ‘The present Parish Church dates from 1821 but it is said the site dates back to the 6th century, when St Moluag of Lismore, a missionary of the Celtic Church, founded a Christian settlement in the area.’

St Moluac’s Well, Cromdale

On to Cromdale in Moray where the parish beside the Spey was, at one time, known as Skirmoluac and a St Moluac’s Well (Tobar Ma Luaig) was, until recently, visible on the left bank of the Spey. Alas it has silted up but was previously used by the local boathouse. No plaque marked its absence.

From here in 566 CE, a mere four years after his arrival on Lismore, Moluag crossed to Mortlach on the outskirts of Dufftown, one of the two main centres he established outside Lismore, the other being Rosemarkie.

Mortlach Parish Church

Mortlach Parish Church is still a functioning church and although, like all the others, it was locked, three members of the Women’s Guild turned up to do the flowers, and were pleased to let us in and to hear we were from Lismore. One at least had visited Lismore Parish Church and all believed that Moluag had established this site, as the board outside announced. Inside, he was twice remembered in stained glass, one alongside the son of God and Saint Kentigern, known as Mungo, the founder and patron saint of the city of Glasgow, the other a contemporary depiction with Saints Ninian and Columba.

Six parishes were said to be dependent on Mortlach, one of which was Clatt. Interestingly, in 1994 Clatt Kirk was purchased by the community, with permission to continue its use for weddings and funerals. Otherwise it hosts community cultural events. A major refurbishment in 2001 was supported from Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund. For over a thousand years, Moluag was commemorated annually in Clatt with Moluag was commemorated annually in Clatt with St Mallock’s Fair, held over eight days. That’s a rare verifiable fact.

Chapel o Garioch Kirk

In the mid-1980s a youth group known as The Companions of St Moluag from Blairdaff and Chapel of Garioch (pronounced GEERie) in Aberdeenshire had visited Lismore to see the place their patron had come from, and to see the Bachuil Mor—St Moluag’s staff. They said at the time, ‘We liked to think it was Moluag who brought Christianity to Garioch as well as to Tarland and Clatt’. There are still services in the Chapel of Garioch kirk every other week. As midweek the church was locked, we were sorry to miss seeing the interior as we learnt from one of that youth group—Angela Hogg—that there was a painting of St Moluag and the parish was very Moluag aware. Angela supplied the following images.

Cromar Parish Church—St Moluag’s

At Tarland, we had no trouble finding the Cromar Parish Church—St Moluag’s—with its tidy graveyard and many shiny legible stones. At the head of the wide main street was another partially demolished church—Tarland Auld Kirk—with another tidy graveyard.

On a shortish walk we found a rare fruits orchard, a community copse area and a wetland with a hide, the wetland created from run-off from town’s water treatment. This was all part of the MacRobert Trust where the original estate house, Douneside, originally the home of Lady MacRobert, is now a hotel. After she had lost her three pilot sons, one in 1938 and two in combat during World War II, she opened Douneside as a place where RAF men could come to recuperate. I add that as it is sad and moving.

There are many more places in Aberdeenshire, Moray and Inverness-shire which claim Moluag connections, some with little visible evidence remaining. It is likely that many places originally dedicated to him have had many name changes before and after the Reformation.

We hope to search for him further and, not only make these places more visible, but also make them aware that our mother church on Lismore is currently facing hard decisions about its future.

It is often said that Moluag had no biographer, which accounts for his lack of continuing visibility, but this is disputed by various academics who prefer the idea that it has not yet turned up.

Meanwhile, the saint we know as Moluag, so strongly associated with Lismore, had many names and identities, starting with his given name Lugaidh—Lua—to which was added the honorific ‘Mo’ and the suffix ‘oc’, a term of endearment. And the list goes on. Those who write of him, and there are many, say he was a born energetic organiser with a pleasant personality who preached assiduously and was well received wherever he went. All of which earned him the soubriquet ‘Apostle of the Picts’.

Evidence? None of course. But, all the same, we do want to save our church and it is significant that he chose Clachan for his new community, possibly because it was already long regarded as the ritually significant centre of Lismore.

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