The coming of Christianity to the South Rhins brought further legends and tales of the early saints with one that is unique to the area. In the 8th Century, Medana, a beautiful Irish princess and a convert to Christianity, fled her native land to settle with some of her handmaidens in a cave near East Tarbet Bay and, from that bleak spot, ministered to the early local Christian community.
One day, to her horror, Medana was confronted by her former lover who had followed her from Ireland. To escape him the saintly virgin simply stepped onto a rock which conveniently floated across Luce Bay to Monreith and, in thanksgiving for her escape, she built a chapel at Kirkmaiden in Ferness.
Undaunted, however, at her speedy departure, the besotted Irishman chased her to the Machars and, on being asked what made her so attractive, indicated that her eyes were so beautiful that he could not live without them. At this point, the pious lady plucked them out and cast them at his feet, whereupon he rushed off homewards very much shaken.
However, on washing her now bleeding face at a small well, known today as St. Medan’s Well, Medana’s sight was miraculously restored. She then resumed her religious life and travelled all over Scotland founding several churches, before becoming governess to a Saxon king’s daughter.
St. Medana’ Chapel lends its name to Kirkmaiden itself immortalised by Robert Burns who wrote:
‘Hear, land 0’Cakes, an’ brither Scots,
Frae Maidenhirk to Johnie Groat’s,
If there’s a hole in a’ your coats,
Indeed you tent it,
A chield’s amang you takin notes,
And faith he’ll prent it…’
Once upon a time, the Mull of Galloway was the last stronghold in mainland Caledonia (as Scotland was then called) of the Southern Picts, those same fearsome blue-painted warriors who had fought the Romans at Hadrian’s Wall. But not only was the Mull their fortress, it was also a sort of prehistoric brewery. For these Picts had discovered the secret of brewing an ale from the heather which still grows today, around the Mull. Their Heather Ale was said to be so wonderful in its flavour and effect that it surpassed anything else in the country and its unique recipe was passed from generation to generation to preserve that same secret.
However, the fame of this wonderful elixer spread and Niall, High King of Ulster, crossed from Ireland to capture not only samples but also the secret recipe for his own use. After still resistance, the Picts were eventually destroyed by the invaders, assisted largely by a Pictish Druid who had turned traitor at the promise of being put in charge of the brewing in Ulster.
Finally, only the old Pict and one son remained, with the latter mortally wounded, and, seeing only two left, the King agreed to spare one if the other revealed the recipe. Knowing his son was weak and dying, the old man agreed and the son was duly thrown from the cliffs to his death. Heartbroken, the old man maintained that he would only give the recipe as agreed to one man and led the druid up to the highest point of the cliffs at the Mull where, grasping him by the hand, hurled himself and the traitor into the foaming waves beneath. And so the secret of heather ale was lost for ever…
Well not quite ‘for ever’, for there is now a Heather Ale available again locally. Try some and learn why an Irish king fought over it and why Robert Louis Stevenson immortalised it in verse in his ‘Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend’.
Pipers and Fairy Caves
Not all sailors came to steal, many came to trade, sailing round the Mull Head as they entered Luce Bay and passing close inshore at the Cove of the Grennan, a spot well known for its cave-dwelling fairy inhabitants. Here, close to the present Kilstay, the sailors would throw offerings of food to ensure fair winds and a safe journey but none hung around to wait on the fairies coming out of the dark recesses of their cave to collect these offerings.
The main cave, now long since gone, was supposed to lead by a narrow passage all the way through to Clanyard Bay on the west coast, though none dared explore this legend until one day a piper, braver than the rest, marched off playing his bagpipes and walked straight into the cave accompanied by his dog. Those left outside could hear the music being played from within the depths of the earth until, eventually, it faded away. The dog, minus its hair, finally emerged terror stricken from the cave at Clanyard Bay but the piper was never seen again. Local legend, however, suggests that sometimes in the summer nights, when all is still and there is no wind at all moving around the Mull, it is possible to hear the faint sound of the pipes and that of a howling dog coming from under the ground at Clanyard Bay.
Considering its numerous ancient castles, keeps and ruined churches, and its bloody and turbulent past, the South Rhins is remarkable free of ghosts. Only two serious contenders have emerged and both are no longer active – well, not presently at any rate.
The stonework from the ancient castle of the Adairs at Low Drummore produced one spooky candidate when it became clear during demolition that dark deeds had been carried out within when a walled-up cupboard was found, full of human bones and a spear. The stones were moved to form part of the farmhouse then under construction but the building itself was soon troubled by supernatural and unexplained sounds. Nothing was ever seen but, in the dead of night, the sound of the thread being snapped was clearly audible. Things reached such a state that no one could sleep in the room but that ghost seemed to find its eternal rest when the castle was finally demolished and disappeared.
The other ghostly visitor in the South Rhins was much less boisterous and haunted the old farmhouse at Auchabreck. The noise of an invisible pen scraping across parchment so terrified locals that they pleaded with the schoolmaster at Kirkmaiden to try his hand at exorcism. He and a companion spent the night in the haunted room and so terrified were they at daybreak that they could not speak about it and left soon after for the American colonies never to be seen again in the South Rhins … nor was the ghostly writer heard again.