Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Saints by Amy Steedman
Our Island Saints by  Amy Steedman

Saint Molios

I N the days of long ago, an old legend tells us, there lived a holy man whose heart was so filled with tender compassion for others that it even grieved him to think that there lay in the church-yard poor forgotten dead people for whom no one cared.

So, when the busy work of the day was done, this holy man made his way to the churchyard, and knelt and prayed there beside the lonely graves. He prayed so earnestly that he never noticed that the sun had set and the twilight was creeping on, and he never saw the silver moon as it rose over the hill. Hour after hour passed, and all the village lights were out, but still the saint knelt on in the churchyard. And then it was that the angels came.

They came in solemn procession, robed in white, with silver censers in their hands, but there was no great glory or heavenly light around them, and the saint thought they were a company of priests passing through the churchyard. Only their garments were whiter than any earthly robes, and the perfume that rose from the silver censers was sweeter than anything on earth.

Here and there among the grass-grown mounds the procession stayed, and the censers were swung as if before the shrine of a saint. They were but poor neglected graves by which the white-robed angels stopped, some without even a name to mark them, and some among the nettles, where the grass grew so high and rank that there was scarcely a trace to show a grave was there at all. But even there the silver censers were swung on high, and the incense, sweet as the breath of flowers, floated up to heaven.

Each night the holy man returned to pray in the quiet churchyard, and each night the white-robed figures came and went, and the saint longed to ask them what they did. At last, taking courage, he stopped them and put his question. But even as he spoke he knew that these were no earthly priests but a company of angels.

"We are God's messengers," answered one of the white-robed throng, "sent by Him to do honour to His saints whose bodies lie forgotten here. Even their dust is dear to Him, and although the world has forgotten them, He marks their hallowed graves. Each night He sends us to His garden, where His seeds are sown which shall one day, like the flowers, blossom into a more glorious body."

It is a beautiful thought which this old legend teaches us—the thought that even the dust of God's saints is precious in His sight. It comes as a comforting message when we find how quickly the busy world forgets even the names of those saints to whom it owes so much; when the visions which have kept the world in touch with heaven have been forgotten and faith grows dim.

Among the many half-forgotten churchyards there is one in the little clachan of Shiskine among the Arran hills, where perhaps there is many a humble mound over which the angels swing their silver censers; and we know at least one saint by name whose dust lies there. A flat grey stone covers the grave, and on it is cut the name of Saint Molios and his story still lingers in the memory of the old folk in the country round, although to the young ones he is little more than a name.

But when winter comes, and the evenings are dark and long, the children often ask for a story, and are content then to listen to the tale of Saint Molios. The old grandmother in her white mutch sits in the armchair close to the fire, while the children gather round on their little stools. The sweet scent of peat smoke fills the kitchen and wraps everything in a blue haze, so that the oil-lamp which hangs from the rafters above scarcely lifts the shadows from the dark corners where cupboard-beds can dimly be seen.

"Och ay," says the grandmother, a smile on her sweet old face as her mind goes back to the past, "He was a good man was he they ca' Saint Molaise. Folk say he lived a terrible strict life over yonder in the Holy Isle, close to Lamlash. His house was a wee bit cave, high up among the rocks, and a' he had for a bed was a shelf cut oot o' the side o' the rock, scarcely wide eneuch to turn in. He had a bath too, doon by the sea, for he was aye fond o' the water, and summer and winter he would go in to wash."

Here for a moment her eye rested upon a little grimy upturned face, which blushed and hid itself against her petticoat.

"He knew it was a good thing to keep the body clean as well as the soul. All alone he lived with no a body to help him, and all the time he had for idleness he was praying and praising God. 'Twas him that brocht the Gospel to the Arran folk, and aften he would cross the hills and come awa' doon to the clachan here, and teach and preach the Word o' God.

"If ony o' the folk were in trouble and needed a friend, it was to Molaise they turned, and he was aye ready to help, not only with the words o' comfort, but with kind acts as well. The poor loved his very name, and the bairns would rin by his side haudin' on to his hand: they likit fine to look up and see the smile on his face. Awa' doon by his cave the sea-birds would come fleein' roond as if they too had come to listen to the good words o' the saint, and the wild deer in the bracken would just gie him a friendly look and go on chumping away at the grass as he passed. They werena feart for him, for a' beasts ken well eneuch that when a man loves God he loves God's craturs too.

"There were few graveyards in Arran in those days, and they carried most o' the dead to the wee kirkyard here; and so, when the good man died, they brocht his body across the island and laid him there at the foot o' the hills, where the burn is aye singing; where the grey stones stand so straight and solemn, pointing up the glen.

"They made a picter of Saint Molaise cut oot o' the stone, and put it there to show where he was laid. And there it lay, winter and summer, for hundreds and hundreds o' years, so they say. And when I was a bairn we had no gran' picter books like what ye have now. The only picter we had was the old stone of Molaise, and we a' loved it and thocht it awfu' bonnie. And when we had a holiday frae the schule it was always there we went, to the wee kirkyard to see the picter on Molaise's stone.

"Whenever a baby was born in the clachan, its mother would go and pit a silver saxpence on the old stone, a kind o' thanksgiving they ca'ed it. But the saxpence never bade there for long, and we bairns aye thocht it was ta'en awa' by Sandy the herd. He was a puir body was Sandy, no quite like ither folk, and he was aye sae joyful when he heard o' a birth in the clachan. There's a queer kind o' crack across the old stone just above where the saint's knees would come, and my mither would sometimes be telling us the tale of how that happened. It was one day, she said, when they would be bringing an old man from the north end o' the island to be buried at Shiskine. There were no roads then where they could drive a cart, so they had to carry the chest on long spakes; and one o' the young men when he got to the kirkyard would be very tired and kind o' impatient, for it had been a heavy job. So he flung down the spake while he would be swearing, and it fell across the saint's stone and crackit it clean across by the knees. An' that very night, when the young man was finding his way home above the cliffs o' Drumadoon, he slippit and fell, and they found him next morning with baith his legs broken clean across, in the very same place where he had cracked Molaise's stone. Mind I'm no sayin' that was the reason he slippit and hurt himself. Maybe it was, maybe it wasna. But ye can see the crack across the old stone to this day.

"Och ay, but ye wunna find the stone in the old place now. They couldna let it bide in the place where it had always been, but they must take it up to be an ornament for the gran' new kirk, and poor Molaise's picter stands there now, and the grave has only a plain grey stone to mark it.

"Never a hand in the clachan could be bribed to lift that stone, and so they brocht men from the ither side o' the island and took it away in the mirk when no a body saw. Ay, but they say that after moving the saint's picter, one o' the men driving home in the cart met with a terrible accident, for the wheel came off the cart, and the man was coupit oot and was very near killed."

So runs the old woman's story, and if you wander up the glen by the side of the surging burn, past the little ruined church to the old churchyard, you will find among the long dank grass the tomb of Saint Molios. The purple heather grows close to the churchyard gate; the silent hills, like great watchers, keep guard over God's little garden there; and it seems a fitting place for the saint of Arran to take his rest "until the day break, and the shadows flee away."

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