Maelrubha was of mixed Irish and Pictish descent. His red hair must have been very distinctive to become his known name- Maelrubha, the red priest.This story is compelling because of the geography of Maelrubha’s endeavours in various parts of the Highlands and the north-east lowlands, representing his widespread influence, the concentration is in the far northwest, including parts of Skye. This offers the opportunity of truly a wilderness journey with long distances, spaced out settlements, and emptiness.No journey could be more evocative of nature’s abstract scale and of the relativity of our human timescales and efforts.
The ambiguous twist however is that some of this emptiness is manmade. There is abundant evidence on all sides of early human occupation, and in the nineteen twenties archaeologists uncovered eleven thousand year old Mesolithic remains in four caves on the shores of Loch Assynt. Fuller human settlement waited on the gradual withdrawal of the ice. In the age of the clans there were more people productively existing in the straths, glens and coasts than now. With industrialisation and the concentration of huge tracts of land in a few hands, there was deliberately induced depopulation, clearing people and the cattle on which they depended, sometimes ruthlessly, in favour of sheep and deer for game hunting. That said there are also mountainous sweeps on this route that are a true wilderness. They are formed by very ancient geological processes that make this area one of the oldest natural landscapes. For Maelrubha this was a demonstration of spiritual formation, and a passionate invitation to travel.
To every generalisation though there are exceptions and on this route ours is Caithness. Tucked in the northeast corner of the Scottish mainland with a quite differerent scenic formation from Sutherland, Caithness was a busy and important medieval diocese with an intense layer of kirks and chapels amidst the centuries of building.