The Secrets of Isle Maree
Isle Maree is a tiny wooded island on Loch Maree in Wester Ross. Loch Maree is the largest loch in the North West of Scotland and lies in a glacial trough. There are 66 islands on Loch Maree.
Isle Maree may be one of the smallest islands on the loch but this tiny island holds an amazing amount of history and some wonderful legends. The island has been used as a religious site by Christians and Pagans and there are clues that it was even an important Druid site. The selection of trees on the island are different to the other islands, there are many old Oaks and Holly trees whereas the other islands are almost entirely Scots Pine. For an island to have such ancient Oaks and Holly Trees is a sign that this was an important place for Druids. Also there is evidence of a Druid’s Circle which has been dated to 100 BC on the island.
On the island are the remains of what is believed to be the 8th Century hermitage of Saint Máel Ruba (Maol Rubha, MoRubha, MaRuibhe in Scottish Gaelic) who founded the monastery of Applecross in 672. This is where the name ‘Maree’ and comes from. He was also known as St Rufus and Isle Maree has been called “the iland of St. Ruffus” in 17th Century Records. The Saint was also spoken about as ‘God Mourie,’ and it is believed that he was actually worshipped in this area. There is also talk about the ‘Cult of God Mourie’, people who continued to worship him and carry out certain rituals after his death.
In the 17th century the Presbytery of Dingwall was disturbed by reports of several rituals, evidently of pagan origin, such as the sacrificing of bulls, on an island in Loch Maree. These were seen as part of a ritual of the cult of ‘God Mourie’. On August 25th is the festival St. Maelrubha’s feast day. The Presbytery of Dingwall reported that people on this day would sacrifice a bull on the island and walk around the chapel performing divinations.
Cure for Insanity
Isle Maree also attracted the sick and the insane, who drank from its holy well and who were plunged into the loch three times in the hope of a cure. This was done by a boat circling the island three times, each time as it rounded the island the ‘lunatic’ who had a rope tied around them was dunked into the water. Then the boat would land and the patient would drink from the well, then an offering was made. This process was repeated each day for maybe several weeks, until the person was considered cured.
This dates back to the time of St Maelrubha and was still being used up until 1858. Locals say that lunatics are still taken to the island by people looking to cure them, but this is all kept very secret.
The waters in the well dried up after locals say it was desecrated by a man using it to try and cure his mad dog. Supposedly the dog died the next day and a week later so did it’s owner. Maybe the waters vengeance? Sadly nothing of the well exists any more.
This way of ‘curing’ insanity may have evolved from the ritual of sacrificing bulls on the island. 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.
The Wishing Tree
This ritual only dates to Victorian times and originated with Queen Victoria who visited Isle Maree on the 16th September 1877. Many people say it is a pagan ritual but although there were pagan rituals of giving a gift this one is not that old. Queen Victoria visited Isle Maree and read a short sermon to her Gairloch gillies, she then fixed her offering in the wishing-tree, a pleasantry which most visitors to the island repeat, it being common report that a wish given when any metal article is attached to the tree will come true. It is said that if any one removes an offering that has been fixed in the tree, some misfortune, probably the taking fire of the house of the desecrator, is sure to follow. The tree is now nearly dead.
A famous Scottish legend was set on this island:
The Tragedy of Isle Maree, a Legend
The area of Loch Maree was ruled by a young Norwegian Viking Prince called Olaf. He was known for his fiery temper. The story goes that Olaf fell deeply in love. He lived with his fighting men on board his ship on Loch Ewe. Loch Ewe and Loch Maree are joined by a stretch of water now called River Ewe.
Olaf built a tower on the Isle of Maree so he could be near his love. The two lived together as Prince and Princess in the tower happily, but the men aboard the ship were growing tired that their Prince and leader could not drag himself away from his bride. A great expedition had been planned and they needed him. With a heavy heart Olaf told his love that he would soon have to leave. She feared that he would be killed and she would never see him again. A plan was devised, it was agreed that they would fly a white flag from the ship if he was alive and black if he was dead. This way when she saw the boat in the distance she would know. The flags were created and the Prince took them with him on his journey.
After a period of time the victorious Prince returned safely to Poolewe. He got on to his boat on Loch Maree and raised his white flag of success. His Princess had been sick with worry in his absence and had even begun to question whether he would enjoy the excitement of battle too much and choose not to return, whether he really loved her at all. Her doubts grew into a kind of madness and she came up with quite a crazy plan to test him.
The boat appeared in the distance, a lookout announced it to the Princess, and that he could see a white flag. The Princess set about her strange plan. She boarded the boat to go and meet her Prince, on the boat she raised a black flag and lay on a bier in the centre of the boat and pretended to be dead. All her maidens surrounded her and pretended to be grieving.
The Prince of course seeing this black flag approaching was filled with despair. This despair and agony grew as the Princesses boat got closer. He leapt aboard and saw her lying there in what appeared like death. With one agonised cry he plunges his own dirk into his breast. Hearing this the princess leaps up and sees her love lying in a pool of blood, dead. He had truly loved her. Taking the dirk from Olaf’s heart she plunges it into her own.
The bodies of these two tragic lovers are said to be buried on the island. They were buried with their feet towards each other beneath the shade of the sacred holly. The grave was marked with smooth stones engraved with a medieval crosses. This can still be seen on the island to this day.
Access to the island is restricted, it is owned by the Gairloch Trust. Visiting it can be organised through Loch Maree Hotel, well this was the case a few years ago, I don’t know if this is still the case.