CHAPTER 5 - CONTIN CHURCH - island kirk of Maelrubha
In a region renowned for its natural splendours, rural churches – unobtrusive crosses on Ordnance Survey maps – are the landmarks of a people’s history. To find one such marker in the heart of mountains, straths, lochs and rivers, take the A835 for Ullapool through beautiful Strathconon. Along the six miles of road that lead to your destination you will be tempted to stop and admire the beauty of the strath. To the left, the meandering Conon curls through sloping fields and straggling copses; to the right, forests of green and copper rise abruptly to craggy heights; ahead, loom the dark rounded Bens and Craigs of the west. On entering the village of Contin, look for the small sign that points left to the bridge across the Blackwater and follow the narrow track that by-passes the former manse. Ahead, lost in a background of trees and mountains, you will see an unprepossessing grey-harled building: the church of St Maelrubha on the island of Contin.
As you approach, the sombre building situated in the shadow of high Torr Achilty and surrounded by fields of grazing sheep and cattle, seems to be taking cover within its walled graveyard. Distant and isolated, could this be one of the oldest religious sites in the North, unique holy island of the Blackwater river? Encircled by the arms of the rushing waters, the isle would have been ideal as a place of prayer and meditation – with its burial ground secure from wild beasts. And, indeed, it was here in the 8th century that a church was dedicated to the Irish missionary Maelrubha: a much-loved Celtic saint who founded a monastery at Applecross, gave his name to Loch Maree and has at least 22 churches dedicated to him. Even as late as the end of the nine-teenth century, so many ancient customs were established in the name of the saint that the well-known Rev Kennedy of Dingwall wrote: ‘Whether this Mourie was a heathen deity, a Popish saint, or one of Columba’s missionaries, it may be impossible to determine.’
That this doubt existed is not surprising. In 1656 it is recorded in the minutes of the Presbytery of Dingwall that the people of Contin still sacrificed bulls to the saint on his annual feast day – August 25, according to the Calendar of Scottish Saints – and gave the sacrificial meat to the mentally deranged, known as St Mourie’s afflicted ones; twenty-two years later the people were sacrificing again on Innes Maree ‘for the recovering health of Cirstane Mackenzie who was formerly sick and valetudinarie;’ and, until the beginning of the 19th century, within sight of Contin Church was held on that day a fair, Feill Moire. Robert Bain in History of Ross states that as a result of the several days drinking and fighting with which it was invariably celebrated, the local Laird, Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, had it transferred to Dingwall where it continued until 1880.
At closer quarters, the unassuming, box-like kirk takes on an appearance more in keeping with its eventful past. High walls incorporating parts of a 15th century construction lend a dignity; tall rectangular windows on the south side break the monotony; and the bird-cage belfry with its octagonal stone spire gives a hint of the dramatic. Little is left of the building that dates back to the 1490s for major changes and repairs were made in 1832 to add eight feet to the walls and open gallery windows in the gables. Despite these changes the minister writing a few years later in the New Statistical Account thought little of them: ‘… (it) was long the most miserable place of worship in the shape of a parish church in the kingdom.’
With condemnation like this after the renovation, what must the kirk have been like at the beginning of the previous century when Aeneas Morrison was its last Episcopal incumbent? However uncomfortable it might have been, the Rev. Morrison had no wish to be ejected from it. At a time of religious squabbling he refused to conform to Presbyterianism. He continued to defy the Presbytery who probably thought to have been rid of the troublesome priest when he was accused of having assisted in the Jacobite rising of 1715: ‘… it being atrocious scandal in him, calling himself a Protestant minister to join in such a wicked and ungodly rebellion for the subversion of the Protestant religion and introducing of Popery, by endeavouring to set a Popish pretender on the throne, the said scandal deserves the censure of deposition from the ministrie.’
But Morrison was not a man to be easily deposed. Many a story has been told in Wester Ross of how Morrison was in the middle of a service when officers of the law arrived. They snatched the Book of Common Prayer out of his hands and forcibly ejected him from the church. Immediately, the church bell rang out of its own accord and cracked from top to bottom. It is also said that Morrison pronounced a curse on those who were executing the law’ against him: ‘… that nine of them should never be found in the same place without having a cripple among them; and that in after generations this was visibly seen fulfilled in the case of their descendants.’ The Presbytery may not have liked him but many locals did – both the high and the lowly – for Black Angus, as he was known, seems to have been the life and soul of any party. On his death at Castle Leod he left behind Gaelic verses ‘in a light vein, some of which scarcely befit his character as a clergyman.’
The racy minister would also have been supported by the once-powerful Lairds of the area: the Mackenzies of Coul who backed the Episcopal Church. Not far from the church lies Coul House – now an hotel – from where ruled supreme this influential family, the first being Alexander, illegitimate son of Colin Cam XI of Kintail. It is said that Alexander when still an infant was sent to Brahan Castle, home of his natural father, who consulted his wife as to what should be done with the little boy. She, a daughter of the Laird of Grant, was none too pleased to see the addition to the family circle and replied angrily – Cuir ‘sa Chuile – ‘Put him in the ash-hole (or corner).’ Colin of Kintail was a diplomatic man: taking the boy away, he later informed his wife that he had carried out her wishes and left the boy in the Coul: a place where he had put his son into the care of a wet nurse. So began the line of the Mackenzies of Coul in the 16th century.
Intolerance and curses seem to belie the tranquillity of the low-lying island, until you learn that its church has been attacked and desecrated over the centuries. The Aberdeen Breviary of 1509 states in the lessons for St Maelruhba’s day that the ‘prefati insulani’, either the Danes or the inhabitants of the Western Isles, invaded Ross in the early 9th century and slaughtered the congregation of over a hundred men and women who were celebrating the Saint’s festival in his church at Contin. Not with impunity, however: of the 500 invaders only 30 were spared by the avenging men of Ross.
A kirk standing in the heart of Mackenzie country cannot escape from scenes of violence. Four hundred years ago, Kenneth of Kinellan – son of the Chief of the Mackenzies – married a relative of MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. Falling out with his in-laws, Kenneth, a man short in temper and lacking in sensitivity, sent his long-suffering wife back to her family. The unfortunate woman who was one-eyed was returned, mounted on a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed servant and accompanied by a one-eyed dog. The Macdonalds did not relish the joke. They swept down to Contin to find the men had gone off to prepare for battle, leaving the old, women and children in the village. Warned of their enemy’s approach by the skirling of bagpipes, the terrified villagers ran to the church for sanctuary. The Macdonalds, however, had no religious scruples: making sure the exit was blocked, they burnt the lot. Later, when the two clans met at the battle of Park the Mackenzies, although inferior in number, gained a decisive victory – helped, it is said, not by St Maelrubha but by a spirit of Loch Kinellan.
Before entering the church, a wander round the ancient kirkyard restores faith in human nature. At the encircling wall to the west, with the comforting sound of running water as constant companion, lies the tombstone of the steward, factor and amanuensis of Sir Walter Scott. For years William Laidlaw took dictation from Scotland’s greatest novelist until, on Scott’s death, he became factor to the Mackenzies of Seaforth. Ill-health forced him to come and live with his brother, James, a sheep farmer at Contin, where he died in 1845. In late winter amongst the myriad snowdrops, as you look through the trees to Torr Achilty and listen to the murmuring of the Black Water, you feel that Scott would have approved of the final resting-place of his faithful scribe.
From the kirkyard the south wall of the grey building with its elongated windows and chimneyed vestry looks more welcoming than the windowless one to the north. Like many rural churches of the area the door is open to both the devout and the inquisitive. In the dark vestibule opposite the entrance door, look for the old sacrament house. Discovered during the repairs of 1908, the recess for storing sacred vessels dates back to pre-Reformation days in the late 15th century. Beside it is evidence of even earlier medieval times: two sepulchral slabs – one large wheel-cross head and one long floriated cross and sword – found in the churchyard and now imprisoned inside. Leaving the dark vestibule to its mysteries, step into an interior of startling brightness. Light streaming in from the south emphasises its bareness, yet here is to be found cist Mhiclea Mhoir, tomb of the big Maclay – an ancient laird of Loch Achilty. Excavations failed to reveal any trace of an effigy, but brought to light a few skulls and ‘the immense number of human bones found strewed within, afford a strong presumption it was built in Popish times.’
Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Celtic, Druidic – all communities have contributed to the history of the island church. Here, the pagan rites of a people were transformed by so dedicated a missionary zeal ‘They kindled in the heart of men an unquenshable fire of the love of God.’ And so it has continued – even during the dark days of World War II when services were conducted in the church by a Norwegian padre for his compatriot troops billeted in Coul House. The bright stained glass window of 1981 – I am the Good Shepherd – is proof that the fire kindled by Scotland’s Celtic saint twelve hundred years ago is not in danger of being extinguished.