An infallible cure

We’ve been isolated for far too long. With the promise of new vaccines, we long for a cure from the Covid 19 pandemic that has swept the world in the last year. Spring is a time for renewal as it was for our McCollough ancestors. In western Pennsylvania, fields were plowed on the McCollough farms as soon as they dried from the melting snow. Likewise, our McCulloch ancestors gathered in early May at Kirkmaiden-in-Fernis in Wigtownshire and on Kirkmaiden’s Cave located north of the Mull of Galloway on the Rhinns Peninsula. These two ancient religious sites are associated with Scotland’s St. Medan. Both churches are located near the old McCulloch lands in the Machars and Rhinns regions of Scotland.

Both sites named Kirkmaiden are important to McCulloch lore and legends. They are central to the story of Lady Medan, an Irish princess of great beauty and wealth who lived in the 7th-century. She resolved herself to the service of God and became a nun. Sought for marriage by many, she rejected all her suitors who gave up in despair except for one, named Miles Nobilis, a noble knight who would not accept her denial. He pursued her relentlessly begging her to marry him. In an attempt to escape her persistent suitor, Medan and her two handmaidens took a small boat from Ireland to the Rhinns Peninsula in Scotland where they lived in a small cave and spent their days in charity and service to the poor. Miles learned of her location and pursued her across the Irish Sea, still wishing to become her lover. Medan’s suitor eventually found her. The alarmed princess and her handmaidens fled as far as they could into Luce Bay and climbed onto a large, flat stone. She prayed to the saints to carry her from her pursuer. The rock mysteriously floated Medan and her handmaidens 30 miles across the Luce Bay to a desolate location beneath the Cliffs of Fernis on the south shore of the Machars Peninsula. Not discouraged, her suitor pursued Medan and caught up with her at her refuge under the cliffs. Exasperated, the princess fled and climbed a nearby hawthorn tree. She pled, “What is it in me that so provokes you to pursue me?” “Because of your face and eyes,” he replied. Thereupon, the princess plucked out her eyes and threw them down at his feet! Her suitor was so filled with grief and penitence that he fled in horror. On the spot where her eyes fell a spring of water gushed forth. The horribly wounded princess Medan washed her face and eye sockets in the small spring. Miraculously, her eyes and sight were restored. She was considered a saint and traveled all over Scotland bringing the Christian message and founding many churches. Today, the flat rock that bore Medan across Luce Bay still lies at the foot of the bluffs below Kirkmaiden church.

The first Sunday in May was known as Co’ Sunday in the Galloway region of Scotland. Co’ was short for cove or cave. It was customary for the McCullochs, Maxwells, and nearly the entire population in the region to gather at Medan’s holy wells and chapel at Kirkmaiden-in-Fernis and her cave and chapel on the Mull of Galloway. So many attended the gatherings that services in nearby towns were cancelled. Both Kirkmaiden locations were the destination for religious pilgimages throughout the year. The Scots King Robert the Bruce was said to visit Kirkmaiden on the Rhinns.

St. Medan’s rock and holy wells below the cliffs at Kirkmaiden-at-Fernis (left). St. Medan’s Cave or Co’ near the Mull of Galloway (right). Hundreds of years ago, a chapel was built around this cleft in the rocks on the shorelines. Holy wells were located in eroded holes in the bedrock along shoreline at both sites.

These pools gathered in natural rock cauldrons at these sites. Like hundreds of other holy wells in Scotland and Ireland, the pools were believed to have healing powers. These were unusual holy wells where salt water took the place of freshwater. To bathe in the pools as the sun rose on Co’ Sunday was considered an infallible cure for almost any disease. Dr. Robert Trotter, who examined the chapel near the Mull of Galloway in 1870, and wrote, These wells, three natural cavities in a porphyritic trap, are within the tide mark, and are filled by the sea at high water of ordinary tides. The largest is circular, five feet in diameter at the top, and four feet at one side, shelving down to five feet at the other, and is wider inside than at the top, something like a kailpot in fact, and it is so close to the edge of the rock that at one place its side is not two inches thick. The other wells almost touch it, and are about one foot six inches wide and deep respectively. Sickly children were brought to be bathed, the time selected being just before sunrise. Dr. Trotter mentions that children are still brought occasionally, sometimes from long distances. The ceremony described to him by an eyewitness was as follows: The child was stripped naked, and taken by the spaul, that is, by one of the legs, and plunged headforemost into the big well till completely submerged; it was then pulled out, and the part held on by was dipped in the middle well, and then the whole body was finished by washing the eyes in the smallest one, altogether very like the Achilles and Styx business, only much more thorough. An offering was then left in the old chapel, on a projecting stone inside the cave behind the west door, and the cure was complete. The wells, caves and geologic formations at both Kirkmaiden sites were likely ancient places of worship. People probably gathered at these unusual geologic sites for millennia before St. Medan arrived. Like so many places in Scotland, a church or chapel was a later addition and Christianity supplanted the druids and the old religion. Many McCullochs are buried in the churchyards of both churches.

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