A Christmas Blog

Thomas Clancy writes:

Nollaig chridheil dhuibh uile bho sgioba ‘Ainm-thìr Ìdhe’!

Happy Christmas to you all from the Iona’s Namescape team!

St Martin’s Cross, Iona (detail). Photo: Thomas Clancy

At this season, one image on Iona stands out, and that is the Virgin and Child depicted in the roundel on St Martin’s Cross, with angels’ wings arched over them. Situated at the juncture of the cross, it encapsulates at once the notion of Jesus as the incarnation, and the crucified Christ. Flanked by angels, and protected in the roundel’s circuit-wall, outside on the arms the Virgin and Child seem beset by beasts, an idea emphasised by the image of Daniel in the lion’s den below, which echoes the image of Christ, as various art historians have discussed. (Another similar depiction can be found on St Oran’s Cross.)

The Virgin Mary is also represented in two place-names on Iona. One is Caibeal Mhuire, in English, St Mary’s Chapel (NM2869324422), which appears from the end of the 18th century under names similar to this. This ruined building  lies to the south of the Cathedral, indeed, within sight of St Martin’s Cross as one gazes at the side with the Virgin and Child image.

Caibeal Mhuire ~ St Mary’s Chapel is visible in the field across the wall, beyond St Martin’s Cross. Photo: Thomas Clancy

It looks likely to have been built in the 13th century; however, traces of a road going past it might suggest earlier origins [see Canmore]. As far as the name goes, it cannot be certain when this was attached to it, though speculation has linked it with the foundation of the Benedictine monastery in the early 13th century.[1] Mentioned a bit earlier is the presence of the Virgin Mary in the name of the Cathedral. Martin Martin in 1703 is our earliest source for this as “St Mary’s Church”; we can’t be certain that later mentions of this are independent of his account.[2] However, given the views of the Prostestant reformation, which took hold in Scotland from 1560, it seems unlikely that either name was coined later than that date; so both of these commemorations of Mary are almost certainly medieval. But how old?

There is a general assumption when it comes to universal and biblical saints like Mary that their veneration (and hence presence in place-names) is a later phenomenon, belonging to the period of church reform in the 12th century and the like. And certainly we have ample evidence of churches in the 12th and 13th centuries being renamed for the Virgin Mary, or having her name added alongside another local saint in joint dedications.[3] And there is good sculptural evidence for the continued veneration of Mary through the later Middle ages on Iona, for instance on the grave-slab of Prioress Anna MacLean (see here). So there is nothing against thinking of Mary’s name having entered the place-name repertoire of Iona in the period after 1200; indeed, maybe this is the most logical conclusion.

On the other hand, it is worth stressing that Iona is one of the places where we find a fully developed cult of the Virgin Mary from very early on. We can see it in the work of Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona (†704), who tells us a miracle story relating to an image of Mary in Constantinople in his De Locis Sanctis, ‘On the Holy Places’.[4] Mary was also invoked as a patron and prompt for his Law of the Innocents, passed by assembled clerics and kings from Ireland and northern Britain in 697.[5] That devotion is also found on early sculpture from Iona, on St Martin’s Cross for instance, as mentioned; and further afield at Kildalton on Islay.[6] And churches elsewhere in the Hebrides dedicated to Mary show signs of earlier use.[7]

As a result of this, it is quite possible that a church or subsidiary chapel on the island of Iona might have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary at an early date. We don’t fully understand how separate individual church buildings in early medieval Gaelic monasteries functioned—were they for separate groups of people, or separate events, or certain types of prayer? But we shouldn’t rule out the potential for Caibeal Mhuire, later medieval building though it is, to reflect something earlier.

For a flavour of early devotion to Mary, and a sense of how she was seen in the early period of Hebridean Christianity, the Latin hymn by Cú Chuimne, a monk of Iona, gives us some sense.[8] It can be found in the Irish Liber Hymnorum of the 11th century, but also in another, continental manuscript of the late 8th or early 9th century, which you can examine here: https://digital.blb-karlsruhe.de/blbhs/Handschriften/content/pageview/247895

The hymn “Cantemus in omne die” by Cú Chuimhne, in Badische Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe, Cod. Aug. perg. 221, p. [6] see link above.
In Cú Chuimne’s words (here translated by our own Gilbert Márkus), we catch a sense also of how medieval monks on Iona might have welcomed the feast of Christmas:

Mary of the Tribe of Judah, / Mother of the Most High Lord, /gave fitting care /to languishing mankind.

Gabriel first brought the Word / from the Father’s bosom /which was conceived and received / in the Mother’s womb. …

By a woman and a tree / the world first perished; / by the power of a woman / it has returned to salvation.

Mary, amazing mother, / gave birth to her Father, / through whom the whole wide world, / washed by water, has believed. …

Let us call on the name of Christ, / below the angel witnesses, / that we may delight and be inscribed / in letters in the heavens.

Listen to a modern setting of the hymn, Patrick O’Shea’s composition from 2014.

And here is the whole hymn, as edited and translated by Gilbert Márkus:

1. Cantemus in omne die
concinentes varie
conclamantes deo dignum
ymnum sanctae Mariæ

2. Bis per chorum hinc et inde
collaudemus Mariam
ut vox pulset omnem aurem
per laudem vicariam

3. Maria de tribu Iudæ
summi mater Domini
oportunam dedit curam
egrotanti homini

4. Gabriel aduexeit verbum
sinu prius paterno
quod conceptum et susceptum
in utero materno

5. Haec est summa haec est sancta
virgo venerabilis
quae ex fide non recessit
sed exstetit stabilis

6. Huic matri nec inventa
ante nec post similis
nec de prole fuit plane
humanae originis

7. Per mulierem et lignum
mundus prius periit
per mulieris virtutem
ad salute rediit

8. Maria mater miranda
patrem suum edidit
per quem aqua late lotus
totus mundus credidit

9. Haec concepit margaretam
non sunt vana somnia
pro qua sani Christiani
vendunt sua omnia

10. Tunicam per totum textam
Christi mater fecerat
quae peracta Christi morte
sorte statim steterat

11. Induamus arma lucis
loricam et galiam
ut simus deo perfecti
suscepti per Mariam

12. Amen Amen adiuramus
merita puerperae
ut non possit flamma pirae
nos dirae decepere

13. Christi nomen invocemus
angelis sub testibus
ut fruamur et scriptamur
litteris celestibus


Let us sing every day.
harmonising in turns,
together proclaiming to God
a hymn worthy of Mary.

In two-fold chorus, from side to side,
let us praise Mary,
so that the voice strikes every ear
with alternating praise.

Mary of the Tribe of Judah,
Mother of the Most High Lord,
gave fitting care
to languishing mankind

Gabriel first brought the Word
from the Father’s bosom
which was conceived and received
in the Mother’s womb.

She is the most high, she the holy
venerable Virgin
who by faith did not draw back,
but stood forth firmly.

None has been found, before or since,
like this mother—
not out of all the descendants
of the human race.

By a woman and a tree
the world first perished;
by the power of a woman
it has returned to salvation.

Mary, amazing mother,
gave birth to her Father,
through whom the whole wide world,
washed by water, has believed.

She conceived the pearl
–they are not empty dreams—
for which sensible Christians
have sold all they have.

The mother of Christ had made
a tunic of a seamless weave;
Christ’s death accomplished,
it remained thus by casting of lots.

Let us put on the armour of light,
the breastplate and helmet,
that we might be perfected by God,
taken up by Mary.

Truly, truly, we implore,
by the merits of the Child-bearer,
that the flame of the dread fire
be not able to ensnare us.

Let us call on the name of Christ,
below the angel witnesses,
that we may delight and be inscribed
in letters in the heavens.



[1] For instance, the Ordnance Survey Name Books entry asserts that it was “dedicated to St. Mary between 1200 & 1203”. (OS1/2/37/11)

[2] Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, in A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland ca 1695 (1703), p. 257.

[3] Matthew Hammond, ‘Royal and aristocratic attitudes to saints and the Virgin Mary in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Scotland’, in S. Boardman and E. Williamson (eds), The Cult of Saints and the Virgin Mary in Medieval Scotland (Woodbridge, 2010), 61-85.

[4] Dennis Meehan (ed.) Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Dublin, 1958), 118-19.

[5] T. O. Clancy, T.O. and Gilbert Márkus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh, 1995), 177-92; Gilbert Márkus, Adomnán’s ‘Law of the Innocents’: Cáin Adomnáin. A seventh-century law for the protection of non-combatants (Glasgow, 1997; Kilmartin, 2008)

[6] Jane Hawkes, ‘Columban Virgins: Iconic images of the Virgin and Child in Insular Sculpture’ in C. Bourke (ed.) Studies in the Cult of St Columba (Dublin, 1997), 107-35, online here. See also discussion in T. O. Clancy, ‘“Celtic” or “Catholic”: Writing the history of Scottish Christianity, AD 664–1093’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society 32 (2002), 5-40, online here.

[7] T. O. Clancy and Sofia Evemalm-Graham, Eòlas nan Naomh: Early Christianity in Uist (2019), s.n. ‘Kilmuir’: https://uistsaints.co.uk/north-uist/kilmuir/ and see further s.n. Saints: “Moire”, from which some of the above blog was adapted: https://uistsaints.co.uk/saints/moire/

[8] Clancy  Márkus, Iona, 177-92.