Above: Image from St Clement’s Church, Rodel in Harris: Wikimedia Commons.
The Archangel Michael, connected in Uist of course with Là Fhèill Mhìcheil or Michaelmas (29 September) and with the tradition of the srùthan Mhìcheil, is widely celebrated in church dedications and place-names throughout the Christian world. He is, in that sense, a Universal Saint, and so, like St Peter and the Blessed Virgin Mary, it may seem difficult to deduce anything from the presence of his cult in Uist. We find him in two places: at St Michael’s Chapel in Grimsay, North Uist; and perhaps more prominently, at least in terms of the recent celebration of St Michael, at Rubh’ Àird-Mhìcheil on South Uist. Martin Martin (1703, 88) tells us one of the churches of South Uist was St Michael—this was presumably at Rubh’ Àird-Mhìcheil, or at the cemetery nearby formerly called Cladh Mhìcheil, but this is uncertain.
However, unlike Peter or Mary, the cult of St Michael can be traced as it spread through western Europe, from roots in the middle east and in the eastern Empire. The current feast day on 29th September derives from the founding of St Michael’s Basilica near Rome on the Via Salaria; and the most influential Michael site in Europe, at Monte Gargano in Puglia, became a node-point from the 6th century. The significant period of expansion seems to be the 8th century, when the iconic monastery of Mont St Michel in the north of France was dedicated, in 709 (Arnold 2007), and when a new dynamic of reverence for the archangel is to be seen in Europe and beyond. Ireland, too, bears witness to this. From the eighth century we start to see interest in Michael in Ireland. We find this in Gaelic poetry, such as Blathmac mac Con Brettan’s poetry, from the mid 8th century, where (addressing the Virgin Mary) he imagines the last days when:
Is hé Michél, míl do maic,
gébas claideb comairt
do chorp Antchríst nád etal,
génathar do mórphecath.
“It is Michael, your son’s warrior, / who will take a smiting sword / to the body of the imious Antichrist, / who shall be born of a great sin.” (Carney 1964, §259)
An extraordinary example of Michael’s place in 8th-century Ireland is marked by the entry in the annals for AU 772.4: ‘The assembly of the “hand-clapping” at which occurred lightning and thunder like the day of judgment. The “hand-clapping” on St Michael’s Day (Feill Michel) which called fire from heaven.’ This mysterious event and its context has been explored recently by Alexandra Bergholm (2014, 35-51). Westley Follett (2013) has made clear that one of the key vectors for reverence of Michael in Ireland in the 8th century was the group of monastic founders and writers who go by the name of the céli Dé, ‘clients of God’. (A general, if dated, introduction to the Céli Dé can be found in O’Dwyer 1977; more detailed and revisionist discussions in Haggart 2003; Follett 2006). In their writings about their strict practices we find reference to the use of the “hymn of Michael” and other indications of his cult among them. One of the main founders, Máel Rúain of Tallaght, south of Dublin, was said to have made a compact with Michael at the founding of the monastery, and Tallaght is meant to have housed relics of the archangel (Stokes 1905, 12-13). To Máel Rúain is attributed a Latin hymn to St Michael, Archangel mirum magnum “Wonderful, mighty archangel”, found in a continental manuscript of the end of the 8th or beginning of the 9th century, from the island monastery of Reichenau, which had many Gaelic connections (Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek MS Aug. 221, f. 191r-192r). Even if not by Máel Ruain himself, it is certainly an Irish composition, as Westley Follett has shown (2009). It joins another 8th-century Latin hymn by an Irish author, also addressed to Michael, this time found in the Irish Liber Hymnorum, In trinitate spes mea “In the Trinity my hope”, by Colmán mac Murchon, abbot of Moville in Co. Down. Colmán died in 736 (AU 736.4).
St Michael’s origins are biblical; he appears as one of the “chief princes” of the heavenly host; and “the great prince who protects your people” in the Book of Daniel (10; 12); and in Revelations (12: 7-9) he engages in an epic struggle with the dragon in the last times. Follett (2013) has laid out the way in which the various depictions of Michael are present in his earliest realisation amongst the Gaels: both as warrior of God, ready to fight for salvation and to strike down the Antichrist in the last days (as seen particularly in Mael Ruain’s hymn); but also as intercessor and “psychopomp”, the bearer of souls into heaven (as seen particularly in Colmán’s hymn). It is in this latter guise that we see him depicted, many centuries later, in the famous frieze from the tomb of Alasdair Crotach at St Clement’s Church in Rodail, Harris, fighting with the devil over dead person’s soul: presumably Alasdair’s.
The céli Dé movement was also present in Iona and elsewhere in Scotland (Clancy 1996; 2003-4), and we know particularly about the involvement of one abbot of Iona, Diarmaid, dalta Daigri, in it. So it is possible that the cult of Michael as we find it in the Hebrides, and perhaps elsewhere in Scotland, came through this route.
Having said this, Michael remained a potent and popular saint throughout the middle ages and beyond (see Jones 2007, 67-80; Keck 1998, 179-84), and it would be difficult to demonstrate for certain that his presence in the landscape of Uist is early medieval. His chapel at Grimsay is reputed to have been founded in the later middle ages, and so perhaps belongs more to the world of the image from Rodail, than to early Irish hymns. Dedications are found throughout Scotland, and while some, such as the dedication of a chapel at Stirling Castle to Michael, perhaps by David I, may belong to the central or later middle ages, the incorporation of Michael’s name inside Gaelic place-names, like Kilmichael, Kirkmichael, Crosmichael or Cambusmichael, particularly in areas where Gaelic receded after 1100, seems to ensure that the origins and spread of his Scottish cult is earlier in the middle ages (MacKinlay 1910, 336-56).
Michael’s associations with high places—as seen in the popular pilgrimage sites of Monte Gargano or Mont St Michel; or at Scéilig Mhíchil in Ireland—seems also to be in force in Scotland, for instance, Michael was the patron of the church of Loudoun in Ayrshire (called Kilmihel in a 12th century charter), where Loudoun Hill is a conspicuous hill visible for miles. In this context, Michael’s presence in St Michael’s Chapel in “a very prominent position on a small plateau on the highest point of the promontory at the southeast end of Grimsay”, or at the promontory of Rubh’ Àird Mhìcheil may relate to his patronage of such places.
Whatever its origins, it is clear that Michael, and his feast at Michaelmas, were extremely important to Gaels in the Hebrides in the 19th century, when folklore began to be collected in earnest. The iconic account of this remains Alexander Carmichael’s, in the first volume of his Carmina Gadelica (Carmichael 1900, 200-7). His accounts of Michaelmas celebrations and their social meaning have recently been explored in a very important article by Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhairt (2014). There, while somewhat dismantling the composite picture drawn by Carmichael, which he calls a “tour de force of imaginative sympathy” (220), he makes it clear that “the most prominent holy day in the island calendar was Michaelmas” (220). This including horse racing on the sea-strand. It is slightly disappointing to find that Carmichael’s description of racing at Rubh’ Àird Mhìcheil and circuit around the cemetery there may have been based largely on a similar description of activities on the feast of St Barr on Barra (Stiùbhairt 2014, 213-20), but there is probably sufficient evidence to suggest events like this did happen in the Uists as well. However deeply embedded in Hebridean life these customs were, they belong to a European, rather than simply Gaelic or Celtic, spectrum of Michaelmas traditions, which can be seen running from the middle ages to the present (Jones 2007, 206-7).
In trinitate spes mea, attr. Colmán mac Murchon (†736) (text from Bernard and Atkinson 1898, 43-5; translation from O’Laverty 1878, 17-19):
1. IN trinitate spes mea fixa non in omine
et archangelum deprecor Michaelem nomine
2. Ut sit obuius ac misus mihi deo doctore
hora exitus de uita ista atque corpore
3. Ne me ducat in amarum minister inergiae
ipse princeps tenebrarum atque pes superbiae
4. Adiutorium succurrat Michaelis et archangeli
ad me hora qua gaudebunt iusti atque angeli
5. Illum rogo ne demittat mihi truces species
inimici sed deducat ubi regni requies
6. Adiuuet me sanctus Michel diebus ac
ut me ponat in bonorum sanctorum consortibus
7. Sanctus Michel intercedat adiutor probabilis
pro me quia sum peccator actu atque fragilis
8. Sanctus Michel me defendat semper suis
anima egrediente cum sanctorum milibus
9. Sanctus Gabriel sanctus Raphiel atque omnes
intercedant pro me semper simul et archangeli
10. Sterna possint prsestare regis regni aulia
ut possedeam cum Christo paradisi gaudia
11. Gloria sit semper deo patri atque filio
simul cum spiritu sancto in uno consilio
Adiuuet nos archangelus
sanctus Michel dignissimus
quem recipere animas
mittat deus altissimus
1 In the Trinity my hope is fixed, not in an omen,
And the Archangel I beseech, Michael by name,
2 That he meet me, and be sent to me by God,
At the hour of my exit from this life and this
3 Lest the minister of violence lead me into
He, the prince of darkness, and the foot of pride.
4 May the assistance of Michael, the Archangel,
To me at the hour when the just and the angels
5 Him I beseech, that he dismiss from me the
Of the enemy, and that he lead me where is
the repose of the kingdom.
6 May the Holy Michael assist me by day and
That he place me in the fellowship of the good
7 May the Holy Michael, an approved assistant,
For me, for I am a sinner in act, and frail.
8 May the Holy Michael defend me always by
Along with thousands of saints, when the soul is
9 May the Holy Gabriel, the Holy Raphael, and
all the angels,
Along with the Archangels, intercede for me
10 May the eternal halls of the King of the
Kingdom be given,
That along with Christ, I may possess the joys
11 Glory always be to God, the Father and the
At the same time with the Holy Ghost in one
May he assist us, the holy Archangel,
Michael the most worthy,
Whom, to receive souls.
The most high God sends.
Archangelum mirum magnum, attributed to Máel Rúain of Tallaght (†792)
Latin text edited by C. Blume, Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi 51 (Leipzig, 1908), 333-35
Translation by Westley Follett, from Follett 2009, 53-6.
[We are very grateful to Prof. Follett for permission to reproduce this hymn here.]
Archangelum mirum magnum, Michaelem militem
Miro fulgore fulgentem veneramur principem.
A wonderful, mighty archangel we revere, Michael the warrior,a prince shining with wondrous splendour.
Bene conditum a Deo ad supernam gloriam,
Bene cognoscentem Deum suamque creaturam.
Reserved well by God for supernal glory, knowing well God and his creation.
Cuius vita, cuius virtus, cuius status stabilis,
Cuius potestas a Deo magna, admirabilis.
Whose life, whose valour, whose steadfastness, whose great God-given power are praiseworthy.
Deus dedit Michaelem principalem pastorem,
Deus illum ordinavit hominum protectorem.
God made Michael the chief shepherd, God appointed him the defender of humanity.
Electus atque constructus Domini prudentia,
Elevatus ac formatus Dei sapientia.
Selected and established by the Lord’s prudence, raised up and formed by God’s wisdom,
Fortitudine bellica consternatis celebris
Pro salute triumphali humanique generis.
With warlike fortitude for the affrighted, for the triumphant salvation of the teeming human race.
Gloriam Dei contendit cum perverso ductore,
Cum olim altercaretur de Moysico corpore.
He contended for the glory of God when he strove with the twisted guide about the body of Moses.
Hanc nimirum, quam praeclaram continebit gloriam,
Cum conteret antichristum per miram victoriam.
Surely he will attain this most splendid glory when he tramples down Antichrist in a marvellous victory.
In exercitu caelorum, in virtutum agmine
Nonne fulget Michael mirus pulcherrimo ardore?
In the army of heaven, in the troop of the virtuous, does not wonderful Michael blaze with the most beautiful flame?
Kastro caelorum constructo, devicto diabolo,
Tunc fulgebit Michel mirus cum cohort credulo.
After assembling the host of heaven, after defeating the devil, then wonderful Michael will shine with the cohort of the faithful.
Lux caelorum ac terrarium, praeclarum, mirabile,
Omen atque nomen magnum Michaelis celebre.
Light of heaven and earth, the splendid, wondrous symbol and the great, famous name of Michael.
Magistratibus caelorum atque legionibus
Deus dedit Michaelem ducem multis milibus.
God made Michael general to the many thousands of the officers and legions of heaven.
Nonne armiger potentis belligerque rectoris?
Nonne Michael magnus manet, manus fortis factoris?
Is he not the armed champion of the mighty Master? Is not mighty Michael still the strong hand of the Maker?
O archangelum caelestem, O terrestrem iudicem,
O ornatum, decoratum, O probatum militem!
O heavenly archangel, O earthly judge, O ornament, adornment, O proven soldier!
Principalibus doctrinis divinisque vocibus
Princeps exercitus Dei insignis adfatibus.
With pre-eminent doctrines and prophetic words, the prince of the army of God is distinguished in discourses.
Quis maris profunditatis, quis caeli de extremis,
Quis conscious celsitatis Adonai de supernis?
Who knows the depths of the sea, the bounds of heaven, who knows the heights of the supernal Lord?
Rector atque veri doctor protectorque gentium,
Nonne fulget Michel mirus, cum sit sol credentium?
Master and teacher of truth, and defender of the nations, does not wonderful Michael shine, because he is the sun of the faithful?
Saluberrima doctrina claroque monimine
Liberavit Michael mundum magno adiuvamine.
With most wholesome instruction and brilliant defence, a great help, Michael set free the world.
Terribile mundo malum, antichristi venenum,
Extinguetur Michaele mortiferum, morbidum.
An evil frightful to the world, the deadly, sickly poison of Antichrist will be destroyed bu Michael.
Uerum archangelum magnum adiuramus maximum,
Nostram caritatem firmet in Deum et proximum.
We adjure the true, mighty archangel, may he strengthen our love in God and neighbour.
Xristi aurora fulgebit in future agmine,
Archangelus magnus mundo cum ingenti fulgore.
In the future hosting the dawn of Christ will shine upon the world with a great blaze, the noble archangel.
Ymnos in concentu caeli choris incessantibus
Cantat Michel, miram laudem angelis clamantibus.
In the concord of heaven, Michael sings hymns with ceaseless choirs, angels shouting wondrous praise.
Zona ferrea formatus ornatusque tegmina
Regnat nunc atque regnabit in regali culmine.
Girt with an iron belt and adorned in his raiment, he rules now and will ever rule on the royal summit.
Michaelis oramina deprecamur celsissma
Almique regis regmina postulamus perpetua.
Qui regnas in [saecula] saeculorum. Amen.
We entreat the most sublime prayers of Michael and seek the continuous direction of the gracious King, who rules through endless ages. Amen.
Benedicat De[us] te et Michael, for Moilrum. Amen.
May God bless you, Michael also, said Máel Rúain. Amen.