Holy Island – a history

By Jim Henderson

In the fourth episode of the Viking story (see Voice for Arran, issue 111) reference was made to ‘Innis Shroin’ (Holy Isle.) In fact, over the years, there have been many inaccurate references to Lamlash and Moliase. What follows is the background to the village and island name, which has developed and changed over centuries.

The hamlet, now named Cordon was the original settlement and was named Loch an Eilean (The Loch of the Island).

Holy Isle’s first recorded name was ‘Innis Shroin’ (Island of the water spirit). Over the passage of time the names of the two areas were conflated resulting in Lamlash and Holy Isle. The story behind naming the village of Lamlash is a convoluted one. Innis Shroin was changed to Eilean Molaise, which became Elmolaise, Limolas, Lambath and finally, Lamlash.

Innes Shroin was changed to Eilean Molaise (Molaise’s Island) because a monk, called Saint Molaise, a disciple of Saint Columba, lived on the island from 587 to 597 AD.

Saint Molaise (566–640 AD) was born in Ireland and originally called Laisren. He was the son of Cairell of the Dal-Fiatach, of the regal line of Uladh, and Scottish Princess, Gemma, daughter of the Scots King Aedhan of Dalriada, now called Ulster.

Laisren spent most of his younger years in Scotland, being tutored by his Uncle on the island of Bute. After the death of his father, he was offered the throne when he came of age, but declined and chose to follow the life of a hermit, settling for a period of ten years on ‘Innis Shroin’ an Island off the coast of Arran, living in a cave there.

The cave of St Molaise. Photo credit: Marc Calhoun

To travel he relied on a simple craft capable of dealing with the Irish Sea and from which he could fish to supplement his diet. There was an ample supply of fresh water, but the island was rather scant of other resources for growing food.

In the year 597 he left the Island and travelled to Rome by sea and land, much of which must have been on foot or by horse. The return journey took many months, perhaps over a year.

In Rome, Pope Gregory the Great (590 –604) ordained Molaise as a priest. Returning to Ireland he entered a monastery at Leighlin, which St Gobban founded in the 6th century and soon Molaise became an Abbot, where he was instrumental in adopting several religious celebrations including Easter. Later he was consecrated as the first Bishop of Leighlin.

In the 14th century a small monastery was established on Innis Shroin, alleged to have been endowed by Lord John of the Isles.
Probably this was Angus Og McDonald 1274-1330 who was Lord of the Isles around the time of the Scottish War of Independence (1296-1357) and who was an ally of Robert de Bruce who embarked from Arran to restart his struggle for the Scottish throne in February 1307.

In 1547 Dean Donald described the monastery as a bit ‘run down’, it now being over 200 years old. After the small building was abandoned the area continued to act as a burial ground until the 18th century during which time the island was re-named Holy Island.
The use of the island as a burial ground came to an end eventually when a burial party travelling between Kings Cross and the Island, were overcome by a squall which capsized the vessel, resulting in the loss of many lives.

Since then, all burials took place in Lamlash at the Kilbride churchyard. Some of the tombstones located on the island were removed in 1835 and one of them has been erected at the front of Lamlash Parish Church together with a baptismal font. The featured image shows a memorial stone that came from the burial site on Holy Isle.

Other Holy Isle facts:
1779 Captain James Hamilton (no relation of the Duke) obtained a long lease and built the farmhouse.
1877 David and Thomas Stevenson, well known lighthouse engineers, constructed the lighthouse at the south end of the Island.
1905 the Pillar Rock lighthouse was built, the only square built lighthouse in Britain.
1957 a rich American, Stewart Hutton of Pennsylvania, purchased the island following the death of the Duchess of Montrose. His interest in the island came from Hutton being a descendant of Gersham Stuart minister of Kilbride from 1747 until 1796. He seldom if ever visited the island.
1968 the Island was leased to UFAW (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare). On the death of Stewart Hutton in 1971 UFAW purchased the Island to continue their field studies.
1984 James and Cathrine Morris purchased the Island from UFAW.
1990 Buddhists from the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Dumfries and Galloway through Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche offered to purchase the island to found the Centre for World Peace and Health. The sale was completed in 1992 and the Buddhists have created a renowned centre of meditation, prayer and education.

The Centre for World Peace and Health

With many thanks to Jim Henderson for contributing this article about Holy Isle for publication in the Voice and for his previous series on the Vikings!