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Friday 14 June 2019

Patron Saint of Glenmoriston: Some Traditions of St Merchard

During a fieldwork trip to the central Highlands in the autumn of 1952, specifically in and around Glenmoriston and Invergarry, Calum Maclean managed to garner in a few traditions of St Merchard from various reciters. Religious anecdotes and legends represent some of the oldest strata of Gaelic oral traditions, some of which go as far back as the time of St Columba (Colmcille) as well as to other more obscure saints or holy men.
According to legend, the saint found three bells in Strathglass and took his to Glenmoriston (the other two bells went with his two fellow missionaries to Glenconvinth and Broadford): His bell rang for the first time at Suidh Mhercheird (Merchard’s Seat) a hill above Balintombuie. The bell rang a second time at Fuaran Mhercheird (Merchard’s Well) beside the burn at Balintombuie; and a third time at a spot beside the River Moriston where he built his church.”
No traces now remain of either the church or cemetery, nor of the famous bell or font stone, which, it is claimed, always retained water, irrespective of weather conditions. Further, it is claimed by tradition, “that the bell was wont to ring of its own accord when a funeral came in sight, and that whenever it was removed from its usual position it was invariably found restored miraculously to its place. Many persons still living in the glen have seen the bell, and the grandparents of some of them used to relate that they heard it ring in their youth. Devotion to this saint was very strong in that neighbourhood in Catholic times, and he is still regarded by Catholics as the local patron.”
Such are a few of the traditions represent in print concerning St Merchard which chime well with those recorded and later transcribed by Calum Maclean. The following anecdote relates the story of how famous bell went missing and was recited by James Warren, around the 30th of September 1952, who belonged to Glenmoriston:


Well you see, it was never discovered. There were two men working in the hill in that dell, you know, and they were supposed to have taken the bell. And they left the district, and it was never found. Well strange to say, there was a smith and he was putting in his apprenticeship down at Forres. And he met this man, Garrow, at the railway station. And he says: “You belong to Glenmoriston.” He looked at his face. He says: “You belong,” he says.
“Oh!” he says. “I knew your father very well he says. “I was working a long time up in Glenmoriston,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Garrow.” he says.
Now the train was coming in and he couldn’t wait:
“I’ll see you,” he says, “when I come back.” he says.
And by the time he came back, the man was dead. Now he would probably have got a lot of information out of that man about the bell. Wasn’t it strange he had no time to speak to him at the time.
“Oh!” said he, “I knew Glenmoriston well. I was working in the mill.”
Well, these two men were supposed to have taken the bell away. Well, the old lady, old Mrs Grant of Glenmoriston, she dredged the river for miles trying to get the bell. But there was nothing left of the bell, but the shell at last. It was a thousand of years old. There was the three bells. I forget the other place. You’ll find it in “Urquhart and Glenmoriston” – where he left the other two bells.

According to William Mackay the place at which the bells were found was then still called Craobh nan Clag (Crinaglack)―The Tree of the Bells.
The following short anecdote confirms that St Merchard found the bells in Strathglass, also recited by James Warren:


Merichead followed the cow. And the cow was always licking at the foot of this tree and working at this tree. And then they dug at the foot of this tree and they found the three bells. So Meiricheard, St. Merchard came on the scene. And he was supposed to take the bells and leave them at these – I suppose they would be churches at that time – and consecrated the churchyards there. Well, the bell rang at the top of Suidhe Meiricheard. It is called Suidhe Meiricheard until this day. He came in sight of the churchyard there. The bell rang. He came away down, took the water from this spring, which is St Merchard’s Well – it is just coming out of the rock – and went down and consecrated the churchyard. Well, there’s a stone in that churchyard that they call the baptismal stone. There is a little hole in it well in the driest of weather it’s wet. That stone is wet. The stone is there and the water is always in it. On the driest day in summer, it is never dry. The water is still there. A lot of people goes to have a look at that stone. It is wonderful.

The cemetery and its apparent nearby church also attracted traditions which was again recited by James Warren in his native Gaelic:


Bha craobh thall an Srath Ghlais agus bha a’ bhò a bha seo ag ilimeach bun a’ chraobh a bha seo a h-uile latha is a h-uile latha is, mu dheireag, thòisich iad agus thug iad an àird an talamh aig bun a’ chraobh agus fhuair iad trì cluig ann an clag. Well, ’s e Crò nan Clag a their iad ris an àite fhathast à Srath Ghlais. Well, Meiricheard – chuala tu Meiricheard, St Merchard, Meirichead Mòr nam Feart. Well, fhuair e fios gun robh aig airson clag fhàgail aig trì cladhan no trì clachan. Well, thàinig e gu mullach uiread an seo agus shuidh e an sin agus ghoir an clag. Thàinig e a-bhàn tao’ an uillt agus bha fearann beag aig tao’ an uillt an sin agus thug e an t-uisge an sin agus choisrig e – chan eil fhios a’m an robh eaglais ann aig an àm. Well, choisrig e e. Well, am fuaran gus an latha an-diugh Tobar Meiricheard a their iad ris agus an cladh Clachan Meiricheard. Chan eil teagamh nach robh eaglais ann uaireigin.

The above may be rendered in translation as follows:

There was a tree over in Strathglass and this cow was licking the base of the tree every single day until, at last, they began to dig up the base of the tree and found three bells in a hollow. Well, the folk of Strathglass call this place the Cattle-stance of the Bells to this day. Well, Merchard, you’ve heard about St Merchard, Great Merchard of the Wonders. Well, they got word that he had left a bell at three cemeteries or boulders. Well, he came up to a height at this place and he sat down and called for the bell. It duly appeared from beside a burn and there’s a piece of land beside the burn and he took some water and blessed it – I don’t know if there was a church there at that time. Well, he blessed it. Well, there’s a spring there to this very day and they call it Tobar Meirichead [St Merchard’s Well] and the cemetery is called Clachan Meiricheard [St Merchard’s Church]. There’s no doubt that a church was there at some point.

Let us now come full circle and return to the bell with this final following anecdote as recited by Glenmoriston native Peter ‘Struy’ MacDonald, which was transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 13th of September 1952:


A-nise, an cuala sibh iomradh riamh air a’ chlag a bha an Clachan Meircheard? A-nise, chan eil fhios ’m ciamar a bha tòiseach an eachraidh aig a’ chlag, ach bha Suidhe Meiricheard ann anns a’ mhunadh eadar Baile an Tom Buidhe agus Giuthsachan, mullach a’ mhunaidh agus bha Fuaran Meiricheard glè fhaisg air an rathad an ceum a tha a’ dol a dh’ionnsaigh a’ chladh a’ tionndann dhen rathad mhòr aig Baile ’n Tom Buidhe agus bha Clachan Meiricheard far a bheil e gun teagamh. A-nise, tha clach – bha e air a ràdha an còmhnaidh – agus ’s tric a chuala mi sin aig Griogar, gum biodh an clag a’ bualadh nuair a bhiodh tìodhlaiceadh a’ dol a thighinn. Agus cho fad ’s a bheireadh iad brìgh as an fhuaim a bha an clag a’ dèanamh, “Falbh dhachaigh, falbh dhachaigh gu do dhachaigh bhuam,” a bheil sìbh a’ tuigsinn. Agus nuair a chluinneadh iad sin an ceann latha na dhà bhiodh tìodhlaiceadh bàs air choreigin glè fhaisg orra a’ tighinn a thìodhlaiceadh na chladh. A-nise, tha clach anns a’ chladh làmh ris an àite sa bheil Tobar a’ Bhàistidh mar a their iad – bheil sìbh a’ tuigsinn. A-nise, tha clach ann an sin, far am biodh an clag na shuidhe air. Agus tha cumadh a’ chlag ann agus gum biodh e ann an sin. A-nise, cha robh duine sam bith ann an Gleanna Mhoireasdainn aig an robh cuimhne, nuair a bha mise òg, air teangaidh a bhith sa chlag – a bheil sìbh a’ tuigsinn – ach bha cuimhne aca air a’ chlag fhèin. Agus an fheadhainn air an d’rinn sinn iomradh mar-tha, coigrich a bha ag obair mun a’ mhuileann a bha sin, chuala mise m’ athair ag ràdha tric gur h-e feadhainn dhiubh-san, nach robh a’ creidsinn anns an naidheachdan seo, a dh’fhalbh leis a’ chlag agus a thilg san abhainn e. Agus an ath-latha thuit air gun robh an abhainn ann an tuil uamhasach, agus gheàrr i pìos dhen a’ bhruaich mun cuairt is thuit e air a’ chlag is tha àit’ tollta ann fo Dhal Chreichard – nach robh sgeul riamh air a’ chlag an sin. A-nise, fear dhen fheadhainn a thug air falbh an clag b’ aithne dhomh-sa mi fhìn e. Tha cuimhne agam air na sheann-duine is mise nam bhrocach òg. Ach is suarach cho math is a dh’èrich dha aonan dhiubh. Ach tha feadhainn eile a bhuineas dha Gleanna Mhoireasdainn agus tha fhios aca air seo glè mhath. The fear Raghnall Dean ann. Tha e a’ fuireach sa Mhanachainn, agus tha fhios aige-s’ air an fhìrinn a tha seo gun deach falbh leis a’ chlag is a thilgeil san abhainn. B’ e sin deireadh a’ chlag. Chan fhacas bhuaith’ sin e.
Tha e coltach rium-sa gun robh eaglais far a bheil an cladh.

And the above may be rendered in translation as follows:


Now have you ever heard mention of the bell in St Merchard’s Cemetery? Now, I don’t recall the story about how the bell begins but Suidhe Meiricheard [St Merchard’s Seat] is on the hill between Balintombuie and Giuthsachan, on top of the hill and Fuaran Meiricheard [St Merchard’s Spring] is near the road on the way towards the cemetery when leaving the highway from Balintombuie and St Merchard’s Cemetery is where it is without a doubt. Now the stone – they always said it – and often I heard Gregor say it, that the bell would ring when a funeral was coming. And as far as they could make sense of the noise that the bell made, “Go home, go home, to your own home,” you understand. And when they’d hear that in a day or two they’d bury some who died quite near them and they were going to be buried in the cemetery. Now there’s a stone near to the place where Tobar a’ Bhàistidh [The Well of Baptism] as they call it, you see. Now there’s a stone there where the bell would sit on. And the indentation of the bell is there as if it should be there. Now not anyone in Glenmoriston who remembers, when I was young, the bell had a tongue – you see – but they remembered the bell itself. And those whom we’ve mentioned already, a stranger was working over in that mill, I heard my father saying often that it was a few of them, if you believe in such tales, that removed the bell and threw into the river. And the next day it so fell out that the river was in a terrible spate, and a piece of the surrounding bank was swept away and it fell onto the bell and there is a holed place below Dalreicart – there was never any sing of that bell. Now one of those who had removed the bell I knew him myself. I remember him as an old man when I was but a young lad. But it’s just as well as what happened to one of them. But a few others who belong to Glenmoriston and they know fine well about this. There’s a man Ronald Dean and he stays in Beauly, and he knows the truth about how the bell was removed and thrown into the river. That was the end of the bell. From then on it was never seen again.
It appears to me that there was a church where the cemetery now is.

Of biographical information about St Merchard the information is rather scanty but a sketch was provided by Fr Michael Barrett in The Calendar of Scottish Saints:

5th or 6th century. This saint was born of pagan parents in the district of Kincardine-O’Neil, Aberdeenshire.
In his early youth he embraced the Christian Faith, and was ordained priest by Saint Ternan, who associated the young man with himself in his missionary labours. In later life he journeyed to Rome, and was there consecrated bishop. Returning to Scotland he ended his days in Aberdeenshire. At Kincardine-O’Neil a church was erected over the spot where the chariot which was conveying his remains to burial was miraculously stopped. A fair was formerly held there annually on Saint Merchard’s feast and during the octave.
One of the saint’s churches was in Glenmoriston. The ancient burial ground which adjoins it is still in use, and some few stones of the old building are yet to be seen there. The local tradition tells that the saint when labouring as a missionary in Strathglass with two companions, discovered, by previous revelation, three bright new bells buried in the earth Taking one for himself, he gave the others to his fellow-missionaries, bidding each to erect a church on the spot where his bell should ring for the third time of its own accord; undertaking to do the same with regard to his own. One of these companions founded a church at Glenconvinth, in Strathglass, the other at Broadford, Isle of Skye.
Saint Merchard travelled towards Glenmoriston. His bell rang first at Suidh Mhercheird (Merchard’s Seat), again at Fuaran Mhercheird (Merchard’s Well), near Ballintombuie, where a spring of excellent water treasured by both Catholics and Protestants still bears his name, and a third time at the spot where the old churchyard, called Clachan Mhercheird, close by the river Moriston, recalls his memory.
The bell of the saint was preserved there for centuries. After the church fell into decay early in the seventeenth century, the bell remained in the churchyard. The narrow-pointed spar of granite on which it rested still stands there. The bell, unfortunately, was wantonly removed, by Protestant strangers about thirty years ago, to the great indignation of the inhabitants of the glen, Protestant as well as Catholic; it has never since been discovered.
Tradition has it that the bell was wont to ring of its own accord when a funeral came in sight, and that whenever it was removed from its usual position it was invariably found restored miraculously to its place, Many persons still living in the glen have seen the bell, and the grandparents of some of them used to relate that they heard it ring in their youth. Devotion to this saint was very strong in that neighbourhood in Catholic times, and he is still regarded by Catholics as the local patron.

An additional source for traditions about St Merchard stems from William Mackay, a local historian and authority who compiled Urquhart and Glenmoriston: Olden Times in a Highland Parish:

A tradition which has probably come down from his own time tells that he was the first who preached the gospel in Glenmoriston, and to him the ancient church of that Glen—Clachan Mhercheird was dedicated.
Erchard, or Merchard, as he latterly came to be called, was a native of the district of Kincardine O’Neil, on the southern slopes of the Grampians. He became a zealous Christian in his early youth, and Ternan not only ordained him priest, but also appointed him his own coadjutor. It was perhaps while he laboured with Ternan that he visited our Parish. In after life he went to Rome, and was consecrated bishop by Pope Gregory. On his return journey he visited the Picts of Pictavia, now Poitou, in France, and brought back to the truth such of them as had lapsed into paganism. Falling sick, he prayed God that he might not see death till he arrived in his own country, and hastened northward through France and England. He reached Kincardin O’Neil to be honourably received by his people, and then died. According to his own instructions, his body was placed on a cart drawn by two horses, which were allowed to go forth where they listed. He was buried where they first stopped, and a church was built over his grave.
Such, briefly, are the circumstances of his life and death, as given in the Breviary of Aberdeen and other ancient writings. Much more is told of him in the traditions of Glenmoriston. While labouring in Strathglass with two missionary companions, his attention was drawn to a white cow which day after day stood gazing at a certain tree, without bending its neck to eat, and yet went home each evening as well filled as the other cattle. Curiosity, or a higher influence, led him to dig up the earth at the foot of the tree, and there he found three bells, new and burnished as if fresh from the maker’s hands. Taking one himself, and giving the others to his companions, he bade each go his own way and erect a church where his bell should ring the
third time of its own accord. One went eastward, and founded the church of Glenconvinth; another westward, and erected his church at Broadford in Skye; while Merchard himself travelled southward in the direction of Glenmoriston. When he reached the hill now called Suidh Mhercheird, or Merchard’s Seat, his bell rang for the first time; it again rang at Fuaran Mhercheird (Merchard’s Well) at Ballintombuie; and it rang the third time at that spot by the side of the Eiver Moriston which is now the old burying-ground of Glenmoriston. There he built his church—Clachan Mhercheird; and there and in the surrounding districts he for a time taught and preached. He became the patron saint of Glenmoriston; and his solicitude for the Glenmoriston people has not yet ceased. His acts of mercy and love have been without number. One example may be given. In former times, when a tenant died, his best horse went to the proprietor as each-ursainn—herezeld, or heriot. If the deceased left no horse, a horse's value was taken in cattle or sheep. On one occasion—twelve hundred years after Merchard’s death—it came to pass that a poor Glenmoriston tenant died, leaving a widow to succeed him. He had left no horse, and the ground-officer took the heriot in sheep. That same night, as the officer lay in bed, an unearthly voice spake to him:—

“’S mise Merchard mor nam feart,
’S mi dol dachaidh chum an anmoich;
Is innis thusa do Mhac-Phadruig
Nach fheaird e gu brath a’ mheanbh-chrodh!

(“I am great Merchard of the miracles, passing homeward in the night. Declare thou unto Mac Phatrick [the laird] that the widow’s sheep will never bring him good.”)

With the morning’s sun the terror-stricken man appeared before his master and delivered the ghostly message. The sheep were instantly returned to the widow, and from that day until now no heriot has been exacted in Glenmoriston.
Merchard’s bell was preserved at his clachan until about the year 1870, when it went amissing—removed, it is supposed, by strangers employed in the district. Its powers and attributes were of a wonderful order. It indicated, as we have seen, where Merchard’s church was to be built. Until the very last the sick and infirm who touched it in faith were strengthened and cured. After the church became ruinous, in the seventeenth century, the bell was kept on an ancient tombstone, specially set apart
for it. If removed to any other place it mysteriously found its way back. When a funeral approached, it rang of its own accord, saying, “Dhachaidh! dhachaidh! gu do leabaidh bhuan!”—“Home! home! to thy lasting place of rest!” If thrown into water it floated on the surface, but this the people were slow to put to the test, in deference to Merchard’s warning:—

“’S mise Merchard thar an fhonn:
Cuimhnichibh trom trom mo shàr’adh;
’S fiach’ nach cuir sibh air-son geall
An clag so air a’ pholl a shnamhadh.”

(“I am Merchard from across the land: keep ye my sufferings deep in your remembrance ; and see that ye do not for a wager [or trial] place this bell in the pool to swim.”)

All of the above traditions were summarised rather neatly by Calum Maclean in his only published book The Highlands (1959):

Glenmoriston is a glen of wonders and most of the wonders were associated with its patron saint, Merchard. Merchard was a disciple of Saint Ternan, a follower of Saint Ninian. The story goes that at one time Merchard and two missionary companions were in Strathglass, and while they were there their attention was drawn to a white cow that stood daily and gazed at a certain tree and, though it did not appear to graze at all, returned home each evening quite as satiated as the other cows. Merchard dug at the foot of the tree and there found three new and shining bells. He took one bell himself and gave one each to his companions and told them to go forth and build a church on the spot where the bells rang of their own accord for the third time. His two companions went on their way and Merchard came southwards to Glenmoriston. When he reached the top of a hill now called Merchard’s Seat the bell rang for the first time. He went on and the bell rang for a second time at Merchard’s Spring at Balintombuie. The bell rang for the third time at a spot beside the River Moriston where the old burial-ground of the glen now is, and there Merchard decided to build his church. The bell continued to be miraculous long, long after the saint’s death and, if it was taken from the ruined church buildings, it always found its way back in a mysterious manner. The sick and aged were cured if they touched it with full faith in its powers, and it used to ring on the approach of a burial. It was preserved among the ruins of Merchard’s church until almost the end of last century, when some sacrilegious person removed it and cast it into the river. In the ruins of the old church there is also a baptismal font that never dries up even during the most prolonged drought. The font is still there and bears witness to the powers of Merchard.

NB SSS 18, pp. 1558–59; 1581–83
NB SSS 19, pp. 1608–10
Fr Michael Barrett, “Saint Yrchard or Merchard, Bishop”, The Calendar of Scottish Saints (Fort Augutus: The Abbey Press, 2nd ed., 1919)
Frederick Odo Blundell, The Catholic Highlands of Scotland, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Sands & Co., 1909–17)
William Mackay, Urquhart and Glenmoriston: Olden Times in a Highland Parish (Inverness: Northern Counties Publishing Co., 1893), pp. 322–26
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhirnis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
William Owen, Glenmoriston: Places of Interest (Glenmoriston: printed for the author, 1973)

Dalreichart cemetery, Glenmoriston.

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