The Reliquary of St Maelrubha

Michael Bloor

(first published in Firewords Magazine, No.10, pp. 32-35, August 2018)

On this day, April the First in the year of Our Lord 1701, I, Alexander Muirkirk, Minister of the Parish of Maybole in the County of Ayr, am resolved to set down plainly the events that occurred at the Maybole kirk session on March 28th, events that (I freely admit it here) have been the cause of my great uneasiness of mind and a severe test of my faith. My goodwife, Janet, has suggested that I make this private record in the hope that, together with earnest prayer and scriptural study, careful recollection of these disturbing events may lead me once again to pastures green and quiet waters.

The kirk at Dunure, known as Kirkbride, is ruinous and so successive Maybole ministers of religion have had the additional charge of the souls of the folk of the fishertoun of Dunure for more than fifty years. It has been a difficult charge for me. Fishermen have the reputation of being unruly sectarians and those in Dunure are no exception: a number of them are said to be Quakers and very few attend communion. In recent years I have suffered much from gout and am accordingly rarely able to ride the seven rough miles over the Carrick Hills to require the Dunure folk to attend like decent Christians. The kirk session has been supinely unconcerned by these absentees: the kirk session elders (Maybole farmers, weavers and tanners) view the fishermen as a race apart. Sadly, my lord, the Earl of Cassilis (resident here in Maybole) has so little control over the fishermen that he has been unable even to prevent the recurrent pillage of building stone from his ancient ancestral seat, Dunure Castle.

Though the Quakers are a pestilential brood, they are not the worst of the Dunure fishing families: that abominable accolade rests on the shoulders of old Andra Kennedy, who has openly rejected Scotland’s Great Covenant with Our Maker. I suspect him of being a secret papist, a follower of the Whore of Rome. He is a man of some learning (his hovel above the shore at Drumbain contains his father’s library) and in the past I have striven with him in disputation, in the barren hope of bringing him to an understanding of the great truths in the Scriptures. Alas, I found him more interested in touring the Ayrshire markets and blowsy market taverns, where he ekes out a bare living performing conjuring tricks, reading palms, and forecasting the weather.

Last winter it came to my attention that, in his wanderings about the markets, he had been carrying with him a mysterious casket. Credulous folk would pay him a silver merk for the privilege of kissing the casket, which was supposed to have miraculous powers. No doubt the casket was supposed to contain some body parts (finger bones, say, or nail clippings) of a papist saint, the idolatrous worship of which has been condemned by the Kirk for nearly two hundred years. I raised this matter in the kirk session and was amazed to discover that several of the elders not only knew about the matter, but saw no harm in it. Watty McCrindle, indeed, spoke up in defence of this heathenish practice:

‘Aye, Minister. It’ll be the Reliquary of St Maelrubha that ye’re spierin’ aboot. The Reliquary is a bonnie thing o’ siller and Andra’s family has had the charge o’ it for many generations past. There’s nae harm in it: the case is the very opposite. My ain fayther cam back whale an’ sound frae Montrose’s Wars and swore he owed it all to kissin’ the casket afore he marched awa’.’

I had to speak at length to the session on the evils of idolatry and of all clownish rituals which claimed spiritual value in contrast to the redemptive power of the scriptures. Eventually, I won my point, though McCrindle and a few others did not show much evidence of altered convictions. And certain it was that the session took no action against Kennedy and his casket at that time.

However, on Tuesday last, the Good Lord delivered the idolater into the hands of the righteous. I was preparing a suitable address for the funeral of Willie Burness, a hopeless toper, when Janet burst in on my study to tell me that Andra Kennedy was at that moment in his cups at a tavern in our ain High Street. I marvelled at the swank of the man, to parade his papist tricks under our very noses, but I acted with celerity. I sent word with Jeannie, the kitchen maid, to my lord the Earl to dispatch his retainers to hold the man fast til the next kirk session meeting should consider his sins and provide for his just punishment and hoped-for future absolution.

At the next meeting (on the Thursday evening) I had the opportunity to meet the notorious Kennedy for the first time in several years. My gout was particularly troublesome that evening, but I was loath to postpone our meeting. Kennedy’s appearance at the kirk session surprised me: for someone whose occupation was near-indistinguishable from that of a travelling tinker, he was carefully dressed, albeit in clothes of an antique cut. For an old man, he was powerfully built, but in the years since our previous meeting I had forgotten his most prominent feature, namely his steady gaze, from eyes of cerulean blue. I am setting down our exchange as far as I can recall it.

Muirkirk: ‘You are Andrew Kennedy of Drumbain, Dunure?

Kennedy: ‘I am, sir. I’m pleased to have your acquaintance, once again. I valued our previous discussions anent sacred subjects. Forbye, I kent your fayther very well: many a glass I’ve supped with him at the horse fairs.’ (This drew a snort of laughter from McCrindle, but I fancy that Kennedy intended no slight to my parentage – there was no guile in him).

Muirkirk: ‘Please state your occupation.’

Kennedy: ‘Weel, Meester Muirkirk, I’m no longer limber enough for the fishing, and I have nae son to tak my place. So I scrape an existence as best I can, entertaining folk at the fairs wi’ wee tricks and daft ploys. And oft times, the lassies will spier me to read their future fortunes in their palms, or read their dreams. Should they choose to sweeten the tale wi’ siller coin, I’ll not refuse them.’

Muirkirk: ‘What tricks and ploys are these, Mr Kennedy?’

Kennedy: ‘Jist “hunt the pea”, playing-card tricks, that sort o’ thing.’

Muirkirk: ‘An encouragement to idleness and irreligious frivolity, sir.’

McCrindle interjected here: ‘Andra can spier another man’s thoughts, Minister. There wis a tremendous stramash last Lammas-tide in Alloway, when Andra read what Tam Millar was thinking aboot Jeannie Gemmell. Archie Gemmell chased Tam twa mile doon the way wi’ a scythe.’

Muirkirk: ‘What do you say to that charge, Mr Kennedy? Do you indeed spier another man’s thoughts?’

Kennedy: ‘I admit the charge. But I dinna mak a man’s thoughts public withoot guid cause.’

Muirkirk: ‘Take care, sir. The kirk session is required to refer all cases of witchcraft to the Presbytery Courts. Now, tell us all – if you can – what you read in my thoughts at this minute.’

Kennedy: ‘Are ye sure ye wish to proceed with this Meester Muirkirk?’

Muirkirk: ‘Indeed, I am.’

Kennedy: ‘Very well. Ye’re thinkin’ that, on the one hand, referrin’ my case to the Presbytery would rid ye and the parish o’ a troublesome auld man. But on the other hand, ye’re also thinkin’ that it ill behoves a minister in these times to believe in witches, warlocks, fairies, dwarfs and the like.’

There was a hush after this. Kennedy still regarded me with his steady gaze. With horror, I understood that he felt sorry for me. Eventually, I collected myself: ‘Let us move on, to the main charge. It has been alleged, Mr Kennedy, that you harbour papist relicts. And that, further, you encourage idolatrous worship of the same. What do you say to the charge?’

Kennedy: ‘Ye mean the reliquary.’ He took from his coat pocket a small silver-gilt box, embossed with copper-work designs that looked to have once served as jewel-clasps, though the jewels were now missing. It rested comfortably in his large hand. It seemed to me very ancient; I have never seen its like. He spoke again: ‘I dinna “harbour” the reliquary: say instead that I am the Keeper of it, as was my fayther afore me, and his fayther afore him. For many centuries past, the Kennedys have been the Keepers. St Maelrubha brought the Christian faith to this coast from Ireland, long ago. Mulrhu Point, just south of my house at Drumbain, preserves his holy name to this day. Say also that I dinna “encourage” your parishioners to “worship” the saint’s remains, but say instead that, if poor folk come to me seeking relief from their ailments and askin’ to kiss, or just touch, the reliquary, then it would be churlish of me to deny them.’

Muirkirk: ‘You claim that just to touch that shabby metal box can relieve suffering?’

Still holding my gaze, Kennedy proffered me the reliquary. I stretched out my fore-finger to touch it. I smiled, experiencing nothing in that first instant. But very quickly, with near-panic, I felt a change: the painful tenderness in my right knee, caused by the gout, was diminishing. I clutched my knee, fancying that the swelling too was reducing: it seemed to be so. I felt faint and staggered. Kennedy caught my arm. I cried out: ‘Let me be. Stare at me no more: be gone! The session is closed: I am unwell.’

Kennedy nodded: ‘Aye, sir, you are unwell. A temporary indisposition, I hope. God be with ye.’

Since that day, the gout is gone. But I fear I have lost much more than my infirmity. The world has turned: dark night has replaced my day and I am lost in the shadows. Scotland’s Great Covenant with the Lord has fed me all my life, but now there are ashes in my mouth. I am choking.

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