Today’s Feast – St Machar

St Machar's Cross, Aboyne.

Legend has it that St Machar was a son of Fiachna, a Prince of Ulster in Ireland. He was baptised as a young man by the famous St. Colman of Kilmacduagh and, as was the tradition in those days, he was given a new name when he was baptised – Mochumma. Little more is known about him until the year 561 AD when he is named as one of the twelve who accompanied St. Columba (Colum Cille) into exile from Ireland. They eventually landed on the lonely island of Iona (which was then called Hy or I) and there established a monastery which was to become the ecclesiastical centre for all of the Ghaidhealic peoples who then occupied Ireland and the south west of what is now Scotland. For many years the Abbot of Hy was accepted as the head of the Celtic church in Ireland and Scotland.

With others from Iona, Mochumma is said to have spent a great deal of his time as a missionary on the neighbouring island of Mull, preaching and founding churches. However, these ancient Celtic monks were not without their worldly faults and soon they became envious of the great powers which St Machar exhibited in converting the local people and of the powerful miracles which he wrought. He is said to have cured seven lepers and to have turned a fierce wild boar into stone. They determined that Mochumma should be sent away to work with the ancient people of eastern Scotland – the Picts. The old story-tellers say that St Columba himself gave Mochumma instructions to search for a place where a river formed the shape of a “crosier” and to there found a church. The site of the present St. Machar’s Cathedral, in Aberdeen, is said to be the place that he decided best fitted Colum Cille’s instructions. However, the reader should beware! The crosiers or “bachals” which have survived from those ancient times, such as those of St. Colman and St. Fillan, show us that they were originally simple wooden staffs which, very much later, were enclosed in richly ornamented gold and silver cases having the traditional shape of a shepherd’s crook with its curved top. Also, there are many points on the River Don which could be said to resemble this shape – why should St. Machar have chosen this spot in particular? One suggestion is that there was a church here already, founded during the time of St. Ninian’s missionary work in the north-east.

As if this is not enough to raise the eyebrows, the reader should also consider the fact that the more accepted site of St. Machar’s “cell” lies a little west of Aboyne, some considerable distance from Aberdeen! Mochumma’s principal cell was on the side of Balnagowan Hill just west of Aboyne Castle. Here was to be seen “Cathair Mochrieha”, St. Machar’s Chair (a huge rock sadly now broken) and St. Machar’s Well. Most interesting of all there is an ancient dedication cross incised into a granite boulder known as St. Machar’s Cross (illustrated above). Aboyne may seem a strangely remote place to us now but the reader should remember that in these very early times the main “roads” were not as we know them now. One of the most important routes from Morayshire came over the Cabrach and crossed the formidable boundary of the River Dee either at Aboyne or at Kincardine O’Neil. The choice was up to the traveller, but most chose the Kincardine O’Neil crossing. It is interesting to note that the first bridge over the Dee, a wooden structure, was built at Kincardine O’Neil. In these earlier times there was a substantial Pictish settlement on the hillside as is evidenced by the tumulus, hut circles and cairns nearby Indeed, some scholars would argue that there was, at that time, a larger and more important settlement here than there was at Old Aberdeen! St. Machar chose a site which was, as it turns out, very much on the main road!

Well, all this seems quite simple to understand – except …..! If we were to put the evidence we have to test in a court of law then we would have a major problem. Not one mention is made of Machar, Mochumma or Mochrieha in the ancient biographies of St. Columba1!! The most famous of these is the “Life” written by a later abbot of Iona, St. Adomnán. He wrote this Life at a time when there were still monks alive who had known St. Columba and his followers personally. In the whole of this vast collection of stories about the life of Colum Cille there is not one mention of Machar. More importantly, as stated above, he is not listed by Adamnán amongst “the twelve” who accompanied St. Columba from Ireland to exile in Iona.

It is told that one of Mochumma’s close friends was Devenich and it has been suggested that he accompanied Mochumma on this journey to the Picts of the north-east – hence the area known at present as Banchory-Devenick. “Banchor” means a religious community which was also a major seat of learning for the people of the area. (It is the same word as Bangor.)

A great deal of what we have been told of St. Machar comes from the “Aberdeen Breviary” and, in itself, this should sound a note of caution. The ancient Pictish church was well founded in Aberdeenshire at a time when the barbaric tribes of the Ghaidhealic people in Ireland were only just being introduced to Christianity. St. Ninian and his pupil and successor St. Ternan had established his Bangor on the Dee with its Church, its manuscripts of the Gospels, and its school, at a time when St. Caranoc, St. Ninian’s other pupil, was striving in Columba’s native Donegal to win from paganism the very tribes of the Nialls of Ulster from who St. Columba in another and later century was born. However, when the old Pictish church was romanised in later centuries everything was done to denigrate or, at least, conceal the early missionary work of these Pictish saints. By tradition, the churches founded by these saints were dedicated to their founder by name, only to be re-dedicated in these later centuries to saints who would be more acceptable to the Roman church. An entirely new form of church organisation, based on geographical diocese and ruled in an hierarchical way by diocesan bishops, was introduced and it is perhaps to the very temporal aims of these bishops that we owe a great deal of the doubtful “records” of the time such as the Aberdeen Breviary. Gone were the days of the great Celtic tradition; of the old saints happy in their “muinntirs”, at one with their God and nature. It took time for the Roman church to completely win the day but, with the help of the Scottish throne, even the last vestiges, the culdee communities, were all but gone by the time that the great cathedral and monastic foundations were being built. Some would argue that it was at this time that Scotland lost its true church and that the Reformation, full of anger and destruction as it was, was still a mere ripple on the waters by comparison.

The tales of St. Machar are, at least, fanciful and, at worst, a fabrication. Even the great Colum-cille held little sway within the Pictish nations. On the occasions that he met with the High King, Brude MacMaelchon, St. Columba had to employ the services of an interpreter since he could not make himself understood in the Pictish tongue. This language problem, it is known, was why even the great missionary himself failed to come into the lands of the Picts of the north-east, except, that is, in the writings and imaginations of the later “fabulists” of the Romanised church who wished to give their new church credence in the eyes of the Scottish people. Everything was done to try to dupe the people into thinking that the Roman church was older than the Pictish church when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth! St. Machar, with the same background, would have had the same problem of language and, therefore, he would have had little influence in an area that was already strongly Christian. Why should the Pictish peoples of Mar and Buchan care much for a missionary for whom they had little need and who couldn’t even speak their language! Is this why there are but three sites in the whole of Scotland which are left bearing St. Machar’s name? Even our Cathedral of Aberdeen is more correctly, and from ancient times, called the Cathedral church of St. Mary and St. Machar. Surprise, surprise, St. Mary disappeared from the title at – you’ve guessed it – the Reformation! Even the parish church of Aberdeen, which was in its time the largest parish church in Scotland, bears no memory of St. Machar. Of the thirty-three known chapels/altars within the church, none was dedicated to St. Machar. St. Mungo is there, so is St. Ninian, even St. Bridget and St. Duthac – but no St. Machar! Isn’t this a bit strange when he is supposedly so much a part of the ancient church in these parts?

There is a final and interesting twist to the tale. The old writers say that Mochumma went to Rome at one point to see the Pope and indeed they go further and say that he went in company with no less a person than Colum-cille. It is said that they met Pope Gregory who was responsible for sending St. Augustine to the Angles in 596. Now, surely, such a momentous and memorable expedition to the See of Rome would have left a sufficient impression on Colum-cille and his disciples that it would have found a place in Adamnan’s Life, but there is not a mention of it, let alone of St. Machar accompanying him! Further, it is suggested that St. Machar was appointed Archbishop of Tours on his return journey from Rome. Is it likely that such a seemingly insignificant Scottish cleric would have been given such a powerful appointment when he seems to have been able to leave only such a slight mark on his own country? Most scholars now discount this story of St Machar as being another invention of the “Roman fabulists”.

In more recent times Dr Ó Baoill has presented a reasoned argument to show that St Machar is in fact one and the same as St Mungo (St Kentigern). The entwined convolutions of the Gaelic, Eglish and Latin forms of names can, indeed, produce Machar from Mungo without too much of a problem. There is also ancient evidence of a cultus of St Mungo on Deeside at Glengairn. He suggests that the name came about in the early part of the 12th century when Gaelic was being replaced by Latin in and around Aberdeen. (See “Innes Review”, vol XLIV, No 1.)

Faced with the evidence as we have it there is no satisfactory conclusion to be drawn. What can, perhaps, be said is that the person we call St. Machar was, at most, a fairly insignificant missionary of the Ghaidhealic tradition who left little of note behind him and, at worst, he is an invention of the fabulists who wished to mask the work of the early missionaries of the church in Pictland of Alba. We can do no better than the author of the metrical Lives who, in the fourteenth century, wrote of St. Machar:

“Bot in this land we ken hym nocht

Whare he wondir werhis wrocht”.

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