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St Maelrubha

St Maelrubha
By Carly Macnamara


You may be surprised to see the Feastday of Maelruba of Applecross in April. In the sixteenth-century Aberdeen Breviary, a Scottish breviary created at the direction of King James IV of Scotland, the date associated with Maelruba is the 27th of August. This date, however, is an error which made it into the Breviary. The earlier (and correct) Feastday of Maelruba is the 21st of April. This date corresponds to the report of Maelruba’s death on the 11th of the Kalends of May in the Annals of Ulster for the year 722. Annals are written materials, usually created in monasteries, which are concerned with the recording of events in chronological order by year. These records can vary dramatically from extremely short entries (such as ‘Soandso died’) to longer accounts of a battle, which includes the names of the kindreds involved, the numbers killed, and the names of the leaders on each side. This error likely came about due to an incorrect correlation between Maelruba and St Rufus of Capua, who was a martyr. This error becomes clear in the Aberdeen Breviary, which instructs the congregation to make the commemoration of St Rufus, martyr as part of the service for Maelruba.

You may be curious how Maelruba became conflated with Rufus. The answer lies in the tradition of name changes that saints frequently underwent in the early medieval period. For Maelruba this seems to be especially true, with his name transforming variously to: Malrew, Mareve, Mӑree, Ruvius, Rufus, and more. It is possible to see, now, how Maelruba’s transformed name Ruvius or Rufus could become confused with an actual St Rufus. Some place-names in Scotland include Maelruba’s name as Mӑree and even Mӑry, causing confusion with Jesus’ mother, Mary.

If the Annals of Tigernach are correct in advising Maelruba was 80 years old at the time of his death, reported for the year 722, that would put his birth in 642. The Martyrologies of Gorman and Óengus record that he was a member of Cenél Eogain (of the northern Uí Néill), and supposedly related to St Comgall of Bangor (located in County Down) through his mother, who may have been named Setna. Maelruba, then, was born in Ireland, though his foundation of Applecross is on the western shore of the Scottish mainland, near the Isle of Skye.

The Martyrology of Óengus includes a poem about Maelruba’s departure to Scotland:

In Scotland with purity,
after leaving every happiness,
our brother Maelruba went
from us with his mother.

The annals record the founding of Applecross (from Pictish Apor Crosán, the mouth of the river Crosán). Applecross itself became a high-status foundation, evidenced by Maelruba’s inclusion in annals, martyrologies, and the Aberdeen Breviary. We can further see this on the ground, in the survival of the Applecross Cross Slab. Although today the cross slab consists of 19 fragments, it likely would have originally stood at least 2.2m in height with a possible span of the arms of the cross at 1m. The surviving fragments show intricate carving work that includes interlace, spirals with bird or beast-headed terminals, key-pattern, and even a humanoid figure. The level of detail on these fragments indicate that it would have been someone with a high level of skill who created it, which further means that it would not have been an easy aquisition. It would have required that Applecross have sufficient standing and funding to attract a master carver to undertake the creation of its cross slab. These fragments also reflect a blending of Irish and Pictish carving styles. Similarities of carving style have also been identified at Rosemarkie, and Nigg, which may help us to understand the development of later stories that associate Maelruba with those areas.

Maelruba was widely venerated in Scotland. Evidence of his cult is seen in place-names associated with Maelruba in the Hebrides and along the western coast of Scotland, but also in the East. Right now I am not making a distinction between sites which Maelruba likely visited himself and those where he was venerated or commemorated after his death (in some cases centuries after). I just want to show how widely spread in geography and time his veneration occurred. In 1656 the presbytery of Dingwall claimed that some Protestants in the area still made traditional sacrifices to ‘St Mourie’ on his feastday in Applecross and surrounding areas. The same source described how pilgrimages were made to Isle Maree, on Loch Maree, where veneration of the saint occurred. Evidence of more easterly veneration is seen in Contin, where the Féil Ma-Ruibhe (Feast of Maelruba) was recorded in the Aberdeen Breviary. A ‘Summer eve’s Fair’ (one of the transformed versions of Maelruba’s name was ‘Samarive’) was held on the First Tuesday in September in Keith, recorded in 1724, where a church dedicated to Maelruba survives.

Maelruba is created a martyr through two different stories of his death, one in the Aberdeen Breviary, and one reported by William Reeves in the nineteenth century. The Aberdeen Breviary, however, describes a cruel death at the hands of Norwegians on the Black Isle, who struck him with their swords and left him for dead. According to the story, he lived long enough to direct those who found him that his body should be returned to Applecross. The second story has Maelruba dying at Ferintosh, though again indicating his body should be returned to Applecross. Norwegians are again involved, but this time to send a tombstone for him from the daughter of the King of Norway. It should be noted that the record of Maelruba’s death mentioned above, in the Annals of Tigernach, uses the Latin word pausat, ‘paused’ or ‘ceased’, which is typically used to indicate a peaceful death, indicating that both these stories must have been created at a later date as a means of explaining Maelruba’s connection with more easterly areas at the time.

Maelruba may not be as well remembered today as St Columba, but we can see through the surviving evidence that his foundation of Applecross was of high-status and his cult spread across large parts of Scotland. His name survives in place-names to this day, and when we remember him we are tapping into and participating in an ancient tradition.

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