A Monograph by James E Cumming, Glenrinnes
Kindly contributed by Ann Hewawitharana

Saint Moluag of Mortlach

Written to Commemorate the 1400th Anniversary of Mortlach Church

June 1966


This year, 1966, is marked, for those who live in the Parish of Mortlach, as the 1400th anniversary of the arrival of St Moluag, the Pict who setup the first Christian settlement on the site where the church now stands. Traditionally, the has been no change in the use to what the site has been put from that day to this. There are other churches which can claim the same long history, such as that of Alvie on Speyside and Birnie in Morayshire, and it seems strange that such sites are found in what has always been held to be a wild, and even a barbarous country.

         The first Mission to the North, after the departure of the Romans, was led by St Ninian who travelled north from the monastery at Whithorn, in Wigtownshire, which he had founded in A.D. 397, through the Clyde basin, Stirling and Strathmore, to Dunnottar, thence to Methlick and finally to Loch Ness. His foundations in Aberdeenshire are traceable, and those of his followers, who also crossed from Aberlour to Caithness and spread extensively over the North. One of these, St Drostan, comes into our story as he came by Insh and Rothiemay to Aberlour, and thence to Loch Alvie.

         St Moluag was a Pict, born in Ireland c. A.D. 520. In his younger days he worked in Ireland and in A.D. 558 he joined the College at Bangor in Ulster, founded by St Comgall as a training college for missionaries. We find this college described as a most noble institution, the nurse of many thousands of monks.

         In the year 562 St Comgall chose St Moluag to lead a mission into Pictland. At this time the country between the Moray Firth and Great Glen and the Forth-Clyde Valleys was divided into two parts: Alba, lying east of the Great Dividing Range of Drumalban, inhabited by the Picts, and Dalriada, lying west of it, colonised by Irish Scots from Ulster. St Moluag set off on his mission and we find foundations of his Cantyre and in the islands right up to the northernmost point of Lewis. Meanwhile on the mainland there had been war between the Pict of Alba and the Irish Scots of Dalriada, ending in the defeat of the invaders by Brude MacMaelchon, Kind of the Picts, who ruled his country from Inverness. St Comgall himself now set out to visit King Brude and took with him St Caineach. St Columba was invited to join this mission to represent the defeated Scots of Dalriada, among whom he worked. St Comgall’s purpose was to secure for his missionaries’ freedom to work throughout Alba and Dalriada over which Brude now had some control, The mission was successful, and freedom to work was given, provided no station was set up in the immediate vicinity of Inverness. St Columba returned to Iona and St Caineach (Kenneth) went south to Kilrymont (St Andrews) and worked from there.

Meantime, St Moluag had set up his main base on the Island of Lismore, whence he had easy access to his posts in the Hebrides and Western Mainland, and good communication with Bangor. From here he travelled up the Great Glen and founded a post, Cilmoluag, at Ballagan on Loch Ness and moved onward to Rosemarkie where he established his second main base, expanding northwards until his missionaries met the posts of the Ninianic Mission In these parts. Now St Moluag came south again and made his way across to Kingussie where he established a post at Chapelpark, Lynchat, not far from the Cave of Raitts, and there is evidence of a considerable population in the area at that time. On his way north, he now came to the Alvie district, already, as we have seen, looked after by St Ninian’s men. There are on the main road just south of Kincraig the ruins of a chapel dedicated to St Drostan. St Moluag moved on north and came to Cromdale, then a well populated area, for we find the remains of a great stone circle on the farmlands of Congash, and Pictish Symbol Stones. The Parish was known at one time as Skirmoluac. A remarkable well, St Moluac’s Well, is to be found on the left bank of the Spey, near the church just below the bridge, and within a few feet of the river itself, Until quite recently the residents in the Boat House drew their water from it and a well-trodden footpath from house to well is clearly seen.

The next place to which his name is applied is Inveravon. Here again was a big community, signs of which we find in the stone circles on Avonside. No less than four Pictish symbol stones have been found there and they are fixed to the wall of the church.

As explained above, St Drostan had planted a station at Aberlour – the Parish was long known as Skirdustan. And so St Moluag turned away from the Spey and crossed over to Mortlach and here setup his third main base. Again he has selected a well-peopled area, and traces of their presence are found in the Pictish Symbol Stone, now in the vestibule of the church, and the Battle Stone in the churchyard below. There are traces of a Stone Circle at Nethercluny, a Pictish Camp on the top of the Little Conval and flint arrowheads are occasionally picked up near Auchindoun Castle, itself on the site of a Pictish settlement, Simmerluack’s Well, later known as the Priests Well, is to be found below the bridge that led to Pittyvaich. This is the source of the water just outside the church gate.

From Mortlach, St Moluag moved on through the Cabrach to Scurdargue and Essie. Here We can see, on the south side of the Tap o’ Noth, a large rock called Clochmaloo, to which it is said St Moluag retired from time to time for rest and meditation. The next post is at Clatt, where there are Pictish Symbol Stones, and from there he advanced to New Machar. Though we find no other stations in the Garioch, his influence must have been great, for a reference is found to him on the Shevack Stone at Newton, near Insch. Though translation is difficult, one rendering is: “Draw near to the soul of Moluag from whom came knowledge of the Faith.”

Coming through the Cabrach, St Moluag also branched off and set up a very large base at Clova, where there was a big population. Pictish Earth Houses are found to-day on the way from Clova to Kildrummy. Finally, he moved on first to Tarland and right over the hills to Alyth, where traces remain of his church whose dimensions are given as from 15 to 24 feet long by 10 wide, with an earth floor, one window and a door.

It is recorded that St Moluag died on 25th June A.D. 592, and the date is fixed by that of an eclipse of the sun on the same day. It was said that on that day, with the death of St Moluag, Sun of Lismore, light had gone from the earth. A symbol associated with him is the rising sun throwing its beams outwards and upwards. He died, according to the story known here, at Ardclach in Nairnshire, while on his way to Rosemarkie, where he was first buried, though later transferred to Lismore.

That St Moluag could move so freely through Pictland from the Great Glen as far south as Alyth indicates a peaceful country, well governed, in which communication was easy. Each of the posts established must have kept in touch with the next, and reinforcements from Bangor must have come regularly to man the posts opened up by St Moluag himself. He himself must have had a clear picture of the area open to him, so that he could operate without overlapping.

The main bases, Lismore, Rosemarkie, and Mortlach, would have consisted of a big enclosure, securely fenced round, in which would be built a church, and nearby the Abbot’s House, Refectory and Kitchen, Library and School and Guest House. The monks lived in single beehive cells. Construction was at first of wickerwork clothed with earth. Under the direction of the Ab, or Abbot, the monks led a strenuous life. Their first duty was attendance to the daily divine Services. All work was organised by the Abbot and perfect obedience was demanded. The members, usually at first twelve in number, had taken vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, and were only admitted after careful training during a long probation, No monk had any personal property. His clothing was supplied by the community, a habit of tough white wool and a cloak, and sandals for outdoor wear. His day was occupied with the Services appointed, prayer, study and manual labour, teaching and attendance on the sick. They tiled the soil and opened up new ground for cropping. With all this the ultimate purpose of the Mission was not forgotten, and local men were trained to carry on the work.

There is a window in Mortlach Church, of which one light (reproduced on the front cover) depicts St Moluag, dressed as a monk of the day. It shows also the Pictish tonsure, the head shaved frontally from ear to ear, the habit, the Pastoral Staff and the sandals. It will be seen that the little finger of the left hand is missing. The story goes that as St Moluag was about to land on Lismore he saw another boat coming in at speed. St Moluag recognised St Columba in the boat, who clearly intended to land first. St Moluag, seeing this was likely, put his left hand on the gunwale, picked up an axe and chopped off his little finger, which he threw ashore, crying out: “My flesh and blood have first possession of the island, and I bless it in the name of the Lord.” St Columba was furious, and cursed St Moluag, saying: “May you have alder for your firewood.” St Moluag replied: “The Lord will make the alder burn pleasantly”. “May you have jagged ridges for your pathways,” says St Columba, and Moluag answers: “The Lord will make them smooth to the feet.” If you visit Lismore, on landing from the ferry you will find plenty alders growing by the roadside, and as you walk to the church there are plenty jagged ridges for the feet in the lime rock outcrop.

On Lismore is preserved the Bachul Mor, St Moluag’s Pastoral Staff, shown clearly in the window. It has been in the care of the Livingston family from time immemorial. In the Middle Ages it was held under a charter from the Bishop of Lismore, and later from the Earls of Argyle. A copy of a charter dated 1544 is to be found in Carmichael’s “Lismore in Alba.” Only during the years 1870-80 has it recently left the island, when for some reason it was removed and kept in Inverary Castle. It is interesting to read in this book that David Livingstone could claim descent from the Lismore family, Keepers of the Bachul.

And what of the man himself? Unfortunately he had no biographer to describe his travels to us. But we do find references here and there. He is called “Moluag, the pure and brilliant, the gracious and decorus.” The name itself is a tribute to him. It was Lugaidh, pronounced Lua. First the honorific “Mo” is added and then the suffix “oc,” a term of endearment, giving the name by which he is known, Moluoc or, in our local use, Moluag. His story tells of a born leader of men and first-class organiser, inspired in his work for the spread of the Gospel, and drawing his workers and his people to him by his kindly personality. And he passed away still in harness, moving from one part of this vast territory to another. The Aberdeen Breviary sums up his career: “By his assiduous preaching of the Word he brought a heathen people out of the shadow of death into the bright light of the Christian Faith.”

J. E. C.

May 1966.

Download original booklet here (8.5MB)

I am indebted to the authors of the following books of which I have made use: –

Dr W. Douglas Simpson: The Celtic Church in Scotland;

Christianity in Aberdeenshire; The Historical St Columba.

A. B. Scott: The Pictish Nation, In Church and Its People.

Dr Carmichael: Lismore in Alba.

J. Meikle: Story of Alyth Church.

A. P. Shaw: An Old Story of a Highland Parish.

I thank Mr Wm, Fraser, who took the photograph of the stained-glass window for me.