He was born of noble race in Ireland, and in early life began his monastic life under the rule of his relative, Saint Comgal, at Bangor. When he reached the age of twenty-nine he passed over the sea to Scotland, and founded at Applecross, in Ross, a monastery, over which he ruled for more than fifty years. During his residence in Scotland he founded a church on a small island in the beautiful lake now known as Loch Maree, which takes its name from this saint.
Saint Maelrubha acquired a great reputation for sanctity throughout the west coast of Scot land and the islands adjacent, where he was one of the most popular of the Irish saints in Catholic ages. An old Scottish tradition, quoted by the Aberdeen Breviary, says that he met his death at the hands of pagan Norwegians, at Urquhart, in the Black Isle, on the eastern side of Ross-shire, and that he was left lying severely wounded, but still alive, for three days, during which angels consoled him. A bright light, hovering over the spot, is said to have discovered the dying saint to a neighbouring priest, and thus procured for him the participation in “the Body of the Immaculate Lamb” before he expired. His title to martyrdom is, however, disputed by later authorities.
The devotion of Catholics to this saint is attested by the numerous dedications of churches to his memory. At least twenty-one of these are enumerated by antiquarians. Chief are Applecross (where he was laid to rest), Loch Maree, Urquhart (the reputed place of his martyrdom), Portree, Arasaig, Forres, Fordyce, Keith, Contin and Gairloch. In these dedications the saint’s name assumes various forms, such as Maree, Mulruy, Mury, Samareirs (Saint Mareirs, at Forres), Summaruff (Saint Maruff, at Fordyce), and many others.
Many place of interest in connection with this saint may still be found. At Applecross, in the vicinity of the ruins of the church, is the martyr’s grave, called Cladh Maree, near the churchyard is “Maelrubha’s River,” while two miles away is the saint’s seat, called in Gaelic Suidhe Maree. Several other traces of him are to be discovered in the place-names of the neighbourhood.
Loch Maree is the most interesting locality connected with Saint Maelrubha. A small island in the loch called Innis Maree contains an ancient chapel and a burial place. Near it is a deep well, renowned for the efficacy of its water in the cure of lunacy. An oak tree hard by is studded with nails, to each of which was formerly attached a shred of clothing belonging to some pilgrim visitor. Many pennies and other coins have at various times been driven edgewise into the bark of the tree, and it is fast closing over them. These are the Protestant equivalents to votive offerings at the shrine.
At Forres, in Moray, an annual fair was held on this day, as also at Fordyce, Pitlessie (Fife), and Lairg (Sutherland) at the latter place under the name of Saint Murie. Keith in Banffshire was formerly known as Kethmalruf, or “Keith of Maelrubha.” At Contin, near Dingwall, the ancient church was dedicated to the saint; its annual fair called Feille Maree, and familiarly known as the “August Market,” was transferred to Dingwall. Many other memorials of this saint are to be found in Ross-shire. It is worthy of note that many dedications formerly supposed to be in honour of Our Lady are now identified as those of Saint Maelrubha under the title of Maree; this is proved by the traditional pronunciation of their respective names.
Saint Maelrubha is one of the Scottish saints whose cultus was approved by Rome in 1898, and whose feast has been consequently restored in many of the Scottish dioceses. It was formerly observed in Scotland on August 27, but has been always kept in Ireland on this day.