St Moluag’s Little Finger

In 1870,  Alexander Carmichael recorded a folktale about two of the most highly venerated saints in Highland culture, Moluag and Calum Cille (Columba). In a race to the island of Lismore, Moluag cut off his little finger and threw it ashore in order to be the first to touch the island. Could this be what Port na Lùdaig – The Little Finger Tune (PS 240) is about? As the musical use of the little finger in this pibroch is unremarkable, the legend offers a better explanation for the title.

I came across this folktale on the Carmichael Watson Project blog:

Moluag (530–592) was an Irish missionary, educated and trained in Bangor, who came to Scotland and is believed to have founded over 100 communities during his lifetime, the most significant being at Lismore, Rosemarkie and Mortlach. His name has been recorded in Irish as Lugdach and Lughaidh, and in Latin as Lugidus, Lugādius and Luanas. His name also often appears with the diminutive of endearment – Moluoc. A popular belief is that his name is derived from mo ludag – my little finger – but this surely is based on the circumstances by which he claimed Lismore (noted below).

He was a contemporary of Columcill and the following account of how Moluag came to settle on Lismore provides an insight into their relationship:

After looking around him in Argyll, S. Moluag resolved to settle in Lismore – the green island in Loch Linnhe. S. Columba heard of his determination and resolved to forestall him. According to the Gaelic verses (Carmichael), which have been passed down from lip to lip for centuries, as S. Moluag approached Lismore he beheld a boat containing S. Columba making for the shore at highest speed. S. Columba’s craft was the faster, and when S. Moluag saw that he was going to lose, he seized an axe, cut off his little finger, threw it on the beach, and cried out “My flesh and blood have first possession of the island, and I bless it in the name of the Lord.”

This version was told by Rev. Archibald B. Scott in 1911 (see below, p. 313). Regarding the importance of Lismore, Carmichael notes (Carmina Gadelica, iii, p. 4):

What is now the parish church of Lismore was in pre-Presbyterian times the chancel of the Cathedral Church of the See of Argyll and the Isles, and was called Eaglais Mhór Mo-Luag, the Great Church of Mo-Luag.

Carmichael was born in Lismore and collected this story from a kinsman on one of his trips home. This is what he recorded in his notebook in 1870 (CW106/2, folio 5r), the earliest source that I have found:

Friday 2 Sep. 1870 from Oban to Lismore.
Mr Duncan Carmichael in the boat who told me Calumcille Maoluag and Ordhean were brothers
M[aoluag] & C[alum Cille] were making for Lismore & each try[ing] who sh[ou]ld be ashore first M[aoluag] put his finger on the tot [tobhta – rower’s bench] & cut it off and when near shore threw it ashore say[ing] Tha m fhuil us m fheoil eir tir agus s lioms an t eilean [Tha m’ fhuil is m’ fheòil air tìr agus ’s leams’ an t-eilean – My blood and flesh have landed and the island is mine!] & then Maol[uag] got Lismore & Cal[um Cille] went to Iona (Ithona).

This was published on the Carmichael Watson Project blog in 2011 and I am grateful to Ronald Black and Allan MacDonald for helping me with the editorial explanations in square brackets. Ronald explained the variant spellings of Columba’s name as follows:

The correct Scottish form in the nominative case is Calum Cille and that is what I always use. The correct Irish form in the nominative case is Colm Cille. Other forms that you find are oblique cases, garblings, slight anglicisations etc. And you will often find what looks suspiciously like the “Irish” form in Scotland, because of course it is also the “Classical Gaelic” form.

Two elaborated versions of the story are found in the following publications:

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘The Barons of Bachuill’, The Celtic Review, v (1909), pp. 356–75.
Scott, Rev. Archibald B., ‘St Moluag and his Work’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xxvii (paper read 9 March 1911, published 1915), pp. 310–323.

Rev. Scott assembles substantial evidence that the rivalry between Moluag and Callum Cille was not merely fictional. Moluag seems to have done more to Christianise Pictland than Calum Cille and was  equally active in the Hebrides, founding churches in Tiree, Mull, Trotternish, Raasay, Pabbay, Lewis and Morvern. From the perspective of Gaelic-speaking pipers, Moluag was probably Calum Cille’s equal. It certainly seems plausible that this vivid tale should give rise to a pibroch – especially given the legend attached to The Red Hand in the MacDonalds’ Arms (PS 252):

The Clan Donald hero of the story sprang to the prow of his galley, and with a stroke of his dirk cut off his hand, and cast it upon the shore, thus obtaining the lands for himself and his descendants. To this day the crest of the MacDonalds is the bleeding hand. (History of the Clan Donald, 1920, pp 22–23)


6 thoughts on “St Moluag’s Little Finger

  1. That’s an excellent hypothesis to explain the enigma of The Little Finger Tune.

    It should be noted, however, that the legend of The Red Hand in the MacDonald’s Arms (heraldic) has its roots in a widespread myth connected with the province of Ulster (where the Clan Donald also has roots).

    This extract from the Wikipedia article provides a taste:

    This Irish Gaelic symbol originated in pagan times and was first associated with the mythical figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg or Labraid Lámderg (Labraid of the Red Hand) of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.[1][3] Alternatively (or perhaps adapted later on), the Red Hand came to symbolize the Dextra Dei, the hand of Christ bloody from the Passion, or an open hand of God the Father. An example of this motif can be seen on the ring of the 10th century High Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, County Louth. An early heraldic use in Ireland of the open right hand can be seen in the seal of Aodh Ó Néill, King of the Irish of Ulster, 1344-1364.[7]

    According to one popular legend with many local variations, the kingdom of Ulster had at one time no rightful heir. Because of this, it was agreed that a boat race should take place and that “whosoever’s hand is the first to touch the shore of Ireland, so shall he be made the king”.

    One potential king so desired the kingship that, upon seeing that he was losing the race, he cut off his hand and threw it to the shore—thus winning the kingship. The hand is most likely red to represent the fact that it would have been covered in blood. According to some versions of the story, the king who cut off his hand belonged to the Uí Néill clan, which apparently explains its association with them. Another variation of this story concludes that it was none other than Niall of the Nine Hostages who severed his own hand in order to win his crown from his brother. However the win is most often attributed to King Heremon.[8

  2. What a great find! The more things like this come to light, the more it seems to draw attention to the much larger role religion and the lingering effects of Christianization may have had as a source of inspiration for music in these regions.

  3. Keith Sanger published an important article in 1989. It contains a suggestion regarding the MacCrimmons relevant here because of Moluag’s foundation on Trotternish:

    Probably the earliest written evidence for the family is a priest, “Sir John McChrummen” who was a witness to a bond of mutual protection between Alexander Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan, his cousin Iain à Chuail Bhain of Minginish and Sir John Campbell of Cawdor in 1533. He was dead by 1552 when a Sir Donald Munro was presented to the vicarage of Uig (Trotternish) vacated by the death of “Sir John M’Crummey.”

    …according to the Dornie manuscript, at least one MacCrimmon was killed and commemorated at Carn Chloinn Mhic Cruimein circa 1580. It was over this period too that the reformation occurred and possibly circumstances were apt for a switch of family profession to piping, a clerical family of that period would have had more than a passing acquaintance with music.

    The article is packed with vital documentary evidence: Keith Sanger, ‘The Origins of Highland Piping’, Piping Times 41/11, p. 49.


  4. Very interesting but unprovable theory linking the tune to the tale.


    I have played through the ‘Little Finger Tune’ a couple of times but have never been taken with it. Perhaps my tempo is far, far too slow!

    @ Vincent. It is interesting that piobaireachd seems so ‘Godless’ considering how important religion was in those days. Even ‘Glengarry’s March’ is only indirectly about a church (Cill Chriosd).

  5. This is surely just a localised version of the story of the red hand, which I have always come across in a Uí Néill context – some say it was Niall of the nine hostages who cut off his hand and threw it ashore, to claim kingship of Ulster. But its very interesting nonetheless.

  6. Connecting this story about St Moluag with the pibroch Port na Lùdaig (PS 240) is an unprovable surmise – I advance it only because it offers a better interpretation of the title than the use of the performer’s little finger. In many pibrochs, the little finger features more prominently – for example, in Square Rea’s March (PS 12),  Làmh Dhearg Chlann Dòmhnaill (PS 252)Pioparich aon Cnochan (PS 28) and Taviltich (PS 7). If any of these were called Port na Lùdaig, then the title would obviously refer to the little finger of the performer.

    I’m on the alert now for better interpretations of this pibroch title than the tale of rivalry between St Moluag and St Columba. Here is another possibility that Ronald Black kindly alerted me to:

    The “boundaries” story. This is where the chief or other landowner appoints a day to walk the marches of his land and is accompanied by all his retinue, women, children etc. One by one the stones and streams are perambulated and named. When a flat stone is reached, the youngest boy in the retinue is suddenly seized, his hand held down on the stone and his lùdag chopped off. “Little boy,” says the chief, “you will remember every detail of this day as long as you live.” So he did. He lives to be a hundred, and passes down the knowledge of the marches exactly as he heard it that day.

    See Mark A. Mulhern (ed.) The Law. Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, Vol. 13 (2012), p. 18.

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