By Carly McNamara
St Moluag is primarily associated with a monastery on the island of Lismore, which lies just north of Oban and just east of the isle of Mull in the west of Scotland. Lismore occupies a strategic location at the southern end of Loch Linnhe, which provides a point of control for access up the Great Glen. We know that this was a route used to travel between Iona and the Pictish province of Fortriu as it is mentioned in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba. While there is little textual evidence of Moluag that survives, what we have indicates the importance of Moluag himself and influence of his monastery.
Moluag’s birth name was Lugaid and he was born in Ireland. The monastery at Lios Mòr was founded sometime before his death, which is recorded in AU 592. This record of his death makes him a contemporary with Sts Columba, Comgall, and Donnán of Eigg. This information makes it clear that there was more ecclesiastical presence in the west of Scotland than is typically portrayed.
The textual evidence
for Moluag is primarily situated in a few different sources: Martyrologies, including the Martyrology of Óengus, annals, and the Aberdeen Breviary. The Martyrology of Óengus includes a poem that mentions Moluag, whose feastday it marks on the 25th of June:
Sinchell’s feast, Telle’s feast:
they were Ireland’s heights,
with Moluag pure, brilliant,
the sun of Lismore in Alba.
While a full Life for Moluag has not survived, there are strong suggestions that one did exist. This can be seen in some of the stories told of Moluag in the Aberdeen Breviary, which coincide very closely with stories in the Libellus de nativitate Sancti Cuthberti, a false Life of St Cuthbert (this is said because additional Lives of Cuthbert survive, which are in line with the knowledge of Cuthbert’s life). This includes miracles such as the forging of a bell, Moluag’s miraculous transportation across the sea upon a stone, and specific travel to Argyll (of which Lismore is part).
Though Moluag’s birth isn’t recorded in the annals, his death is recorded there in 592, and a few subsequent abbots of Lismore are also included. The Aberdeen Breviary, a sixteenth-century document, created a highly detailed picture of Moluag, likely based on the presence of his veneration across Scotland by that time. The Aberdeen Breviary claims that Moluag travelled as far as Thule (which is possibly thought to be Iceland) as well as attributing travel around Ross and conversion to Christianity in the area to him.
These created travels are likely the product of the widespread cult of Moluag (cult here meaning the geographic range within which he was venerated) across both the Isles and the Scottish mainland. Place-names associated with Moluag spread from as far as Kilmaluag on Harris in the west to Kildrummy in Aberdeenshire in the east. It’s unlikely that Moluag himself would have personally traversed all these locations. It’s more likely that his cult spread after his death by those who venerated him. The northeastern locations associated with Moluag are more likely the result of the eastern spread of Cenél Loairn (part of Dál Riata) from the eighth century.
A close relationship between Lismore and Rosemarkie is also indicated in the Aberdeen Breviary, and it seems likely that these foundations could have existed from an early period, as they are on either end of the Great Glen. There’s an interesting story that was recorded by the Scottish Folklorist Alexander Carmichael about Moluag and Columba. According to this story, both Moluag and Columba had their eyes set on founding a monastery on Lismore. Lismore would have been a desirable location due to its size (it’s on the larger side compared to other Hebridean islands) and the amount of arable land that it had. In order to claim the island, they began to race against each other to reach it first and thus win the island for their own. As they raced across the loch they were nearly neck and neck, though Columba started to inch out ahead of Moluag. In order to beat Columba and thus secure dominion over the island, Moluag cut off his pinky finger and flung it from his boat onto the beach, thereby placing himself on the island first. It was after this failure to secure the island (according to legend) that Columba then founded his monastery on Iona, which is much smaller and with significantly less arable land. It’s important to note, however, that this reflects the well-known story of the ‘Red Hand of Ulster’, dated to the thirteenth century, wherein two chieftains were engaged in a very similar race, though the winner cut off his entire hand to fling it upon the shore and win the island.
Turning to Moluag’s foundation of Lismore itself, there is evidence that it was of high status and importance. This is evidenced through the survival of fragments of the Lismore Cross Slab, which may have stood as much as 2.89m in visible height when it was originally completed. The surviving fragments also show high levels of detail, which would have necessitated the employment of highly skilled craftsmen. Lismore’s continued importance is evidenced by the fact that it was chosen as the seat of the Bishopric of Argyll upon its creation in 1189. The original cathedral on Lismore was built in the twelfth century, with additions made in the fourteenth century. By the seventeenth century the cathedral was in ruins, and it was renovated and adapted to continue serving as a parish church in 1749. There is still evidence inside the current building that indicates its previous life as a cathedral, seen especially in the presence of the piscina.
Of additional interest is the survival of the Bachall Mór, or ‘Great Staff’ of Moluag, which was on temporary display at the National Museum of Scotland 4-5 years ago. This staff is claimed to have been Moluag’s own crozier, though it has been stylistically dated to the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries. The staff is in the possession of its hereditary keeper, the chief of the Livingstone family, Niall Livingstone, Baron of Bachuil. The staff itself is badly damaged, and of its original length, only 0.86m now remains. There is evidence that it was originally encased in metal, (perhaps of copper, silver, or gold), which is now almost completely missing.