SEA prayers and sea hymns were common amongst the seafarers of the Western Islands. Probably these originated with the early Celtic missionaries, who constantly traversed in their frail skin coracles the storm-swept, strongly tidal seas of those Hebrid Isles, oft and oft scaling their devotion with their lives.
Before embarking on a journey the voyagers stood round their boat and prayed to the God of the elements for a peaceful voyage over the stormy sea. The steersman led the appeal, while the swish of the waves below, the sough of the sea beyond, and the sound of the wind around blended with the voices of the suppliants and lent dignity and solemnity to the scene.
There are many small oratories round the West Coast where chiefs and clansmen were wont to pray before and after voyaging. An interesting example of these is in the island of Grimisey, North Uist. The place is called Ceallan, cells, from 'ceall,' a cell. There were two oratories within two hundred yards of one another. One of the two has wholly disappeared, the other nearly. The ruin stands on a ridge near the end of the island looking out on the open bay of Ceallan and over the stormy Minch to the distant mountains of Mull and Morven. The oratory is known as 'Teampull Mhicheil,' the temple of St Michael. The structure was simple but beautiful, while the remains are interesting and touching from their historical associations. Tradition says that the oratory was built by 'Eibhric '--Euphemia or Amie, sole daughter and --> --heiress of Ruaraidh, the son of Alan, High Chief of Lorn.
Amie, the daughter of Ruaraidh, married in 1337 John of Islay, Lord of the Isles. The two being related, they were granted a dispensation by Pope Benedict XII. The Lady Amie had three sons.
About the year 1358 John of Islay discarded Amie, and married Margaret, daughter of Robert Steward, and granddaughter of Robert Bruce. When the Lord of the Isles came south to celebrate his marriage with the Lady Margaret, one hundred and eight ships full of kinsmen and clansmen, chiefs and chieftains, came in his train. Such a sight had never been seen in Scotland before, and people came to the Clyde from long distances to see this large fleet. The power and influence indicated by this enormous retinue created much comment and envy among the nobles of the south and even at the Court.
The Lord of the Isles retained possession of the extensive territories of the Lady Amie, disposing of them afterwards to his several sons.
The discarded lady took to a religious life, building and restoring oratories, churches, nunneries, monasteries, and castles throughout her ancestral lands. Saint Michael's Temple at Ceallan was one of these. In this little sanctuary built for the purpose the Lady Amie offered prayers and thanks before and after voyages to her kindred in Lorn.
John, Lord of the Isles, was a man of much munificence, like all those princely Macdonalds. He gave largely to the Church, earning for himself from the priests of the period the name of 'The Good John of Islay.' He was buried in Iona in the year 1386, in splendour and magnificence never surpassed, if ever equalled, in the case of the many kings of the five nationalities buried there.
About two years after his father's death, Ranald, the eldest surviving son of the Lady Amie, handed over the lordship of the Isles to Donald, eldest son of the Lady Margaret, who afterwards fought the battle of Harlaw. The ceremony of installing a Lord of the Isles usually took place at Loch Finlaggan in Islay, the principal seat of the Macdonalds, where the ruins of their castle, chapel, and other buildings are still to be seen, as well as the stone with the footmarks cut in it upon which the chief stood when, before the 'gentlemen of the Islands' and Highlands, he was proclaimed 'Macdonald' and ' High-prince of the seed of Conn.' But it was at Kildonan in the island of Eigg that Ranald gave the sceptre into the hand of Donald, who thus became eighth Lord of the Isles.
The account given of the ceremony by Hugh Macdonald, the Seanchie of Sleat, is interesting as representing the usual manner of installing a king, chief, or other dignitary among the Celts :-
'At this the Bishop of Argyll, the Bishop of the Isles, and seven priests were sometimes present, but a Bishop was always present, with the chieftains of all the principal families and a Ruler of the Isles. There was a square stone seven or eight feet long, and the tract of a man's foot cut thereon, upon which he stood, denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors, and that he was installed by right in his possessions. He was clothed in a white habit to show his innocence and integrity of heart, that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. The white apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right. Then he was to receive a white rod in his hand intimating that he had power to rule, not with tyranny and partiality, but with discretion and sincerity. Then he received his forefathers' sword, or some other sword, signifying that his duty was to protect and defend them from their enemies, in peace or war, as the obligations and customs of his predecessors were. The ceremony being over, mass was said after.the blessing of the Bishop and seven priests, the people pouring their prayers for the success and prosperity of their new-created lord. When they were dismissed, the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week thereafter, and gave liberally to the monks, poets, bards, and musicians. You may judge that they spent liberally without any exception of persons.'
Other accounts differ but slightly from the above, as when Martin says that 'the young chief stood upon a cairn of stones, while his followers stood round him in a circle, his elevation signifying his authority over them, and their standing below their subjection to him, also that immediately after the proclamation the chief druid or bard performed a rhetorical panegyric setting forth the ancient pedigree, valour, and liberality of the family as incentives to the young chieftain and fit for his imitation.' Martin speaks of this ceremony of installing a chief as prevalent in the eighteenth century.