August 25, 1778
The last pagan sacrifice of a bull to be conducted publicly in the Celtic world, was performed on the island of Eilean Maree (Maelrubha, formerly Eilean a Mhor Righ – Island of the Great King), in Loch Maree, a lake in the Ross and Cromarty region of the Scottish Highlands. The sacrifice was to ensure the healing of mental disorders.
Libations of milk were also poured out on the hills, ruined chapels were perambulated, wells and stones worshipped, and divination practised each year on this date, the alternative feast day of St Malrubius, known locally as St Mourie.
It's likely that Maol Rubha (pronounced mull-roo-ah) supplanted Mourie, a pagan Moon god of earlier times. The crescent moon is shaped like a bull’s horn, and this might be why the bull was associated with the ancient rites and festivities – at Eilean Maree and elsewhere.
The island was formerly known as and its festival is closely connected to the Irish Lughnasad, which also featured animal sacrifice. On the island there is a spring known as St Maelrubha’s Well, long considered to have healing properties, especially for the mentally ill. A visitor who witnessed these rites in 1772 told how a sufferer was forced to kneel before an ancient altar and then drink water from the well before being dipped three times in the loch.
And whoso bathes therein his brow
With care or madness burning,
Feels once again his healthful thought
And sense of peace returning.
John Greenleaf Whittier
In 1656, the Scottish Presbytery had condemned the “abominable and heathenish” practices that took place on this day – practices that included ceremonial well dressing. As late as 1911 in Ireland, the peasantry still killed a sheep or heifer for St Martin on his festival, and ill-luck was thought to follow the non-observance of the rite ...
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