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MacKessog

by Willie Scobie

A modern tartan designed and woven to commemorate an early monk who brought "the light of Christianity" to Scotland at the time of 'King Arthur' and his legendary Knights of the Round Table.

Scotland's earliest recorded Christian evangelist, St. Ninian, was a Briton, as was St. Patrick. So, it is claimed, was St. Mahew who conducted his ministry from Cardross on the shores of the River Clyde. It has been alleged that St. Kessog was also a Briton, but a heavier weight of tradition argues that he was Irish. Born around 460 A.D., son of the King of Munster, Kessog's childhood home is said to have been Cashel, a 300 foot fortified rock.

Kessog was educated in Celtic monasteries by Ailbhe of Emly and by St. Mahew at Nendrum. Mahew, in due course, placed on the shoulders of Kessog responsibility for the on-going missionary endeavour in that part of Scotland which was to become known as the Lennox.

It should not be forgotten that the original "Scots" have long been understood to have come over from the north of Ireland, settling in their Argyll kingdom of Dalriada, originating many of the Highland clans and, in the long run, giving the nation its name. So this close relationship between the Dalriadic Scots and their Irish kin should be borne in mind when we consider the work of the Celtic Church.

In 510 A.D. Saint Kessog established himself on the island of Inchtavannach on Loch Lomond - the island of the monks' dwelling - bringing the light of Christianity to the people of these green forests, hills and glens. Here in this magical setting, he built up a community of monks and trained them for the work of evangelism. These labours predated St. Columba's settlement on Iona by several decades.

Photograph of Luss Church

From Loch Lomond, Saint Kessog and his monks set out on missions to the Scots of Dalriada in the west, to the Picts of the north and east, and to the Britons in the south. So profound were the effects of his labours that Kessog is commemorated in the names of churches as far north as Inverness and as southerly as Ballantrae.

There is a tradition that he was the patron saint of Scotland prior to the adoption of St. Andrew. We can say with greater confidence that Kessog became a bishop and is remembered as the special saint of Loch Lomond and the Lennox. He was a brave man who lived in violent times. There was, in his day, savage warfare between peoples and faiths. Kessog, though primarily a man of peace who preached the God of Love, was nevertheless trained in the use of arms. High above the doors of St. Kessog's Roman Catholic Church in Balloch, there is a statue of the saint carrying a bow and arrows, for he is remembered as an archer.

St. Kessog's life was contemporary with a war-leader of the Britons who has come down to us in legend as King Arthur. The historic person on whom this heroic cult figure is based would certainly have had a stronghold at Dumbarton Rock, given that this was the ancient capital of the Strathclyde Britons. Their territory took in Loch Lomond and much of the land around it. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth specifically tells us that Arthur fought one of his battles on and around Loch Lomond. Arthur is understood to have been a Christian champion, so it is perfectly likely that he and Kessog met. It is fascinating to speculate as to the nature of their relationship.

We do well to remember that Kessog's was an age in which the spiritual and martial forces of Christian peoples and those of older pagan religions were yet pitted against each other in epic conflict, with much ebb and flow over the centuries. Saint Kessog died a violent death about which there is some mystery. He was either murdered (possibly by his adversaries the Druids at the time of their new year rituals) at Bandry Bay near Luss, or he was killed in battle around 540 A.D.

His remains, it is said, were embalmed in fragrant herbs and buried at Luss. Some of the herbs flourished in such a way as to give the village its name, "Lus" being the Gaelic for a herb.

Kessog is remembered as a warrior-saint. So significant was he in this particular role that, centuries after the saint's death, Robert the Bruce kindled the spirit of his Scots army with the inspiration of Kessog's memory on the occasion of the Battle of Bannockburn, the climax of the Scottish Wars of Independence. Two years later, the king established "To God and the Blessed Kessog" an area of three miles around Luss Kirk as a sanctuary within which no person, whatever crime they may have committed, could be arrested. On Inchlonaig, an island neighbouring that of St. Kessog's monastery, the Bruce planted yew trees to provide bows for his archers.

In mediaeval times Luss was a centre of pilgrimage - as it is once again today. Later, during the Reformation, elements of the Luss congregation destroyed or damaged sacred objects which they had come to regard as idolatrous. Others, holding to the old faith, appear to have hidden away certain revered items for safety. A cairn had been built at the presumed site of Kessog's martyrdom, and in the eighteenth century, when redcoats were laying a military road along Loch Lomondside, they removed stones from the cairn. Inside was discovered, among other things, the head of a statue of St. Kessog. This is now preserved in the Parish Church of St. MacKessog in Luss. The stone image is crudely carved with the curious exception of a well-incised laurel wreath around the brow, giving the saint a distinctly Roman appearance. History has shown that Kessog richly deserved his victor's crown.

The minister of Luss, the Reverend H. Dane Sherrard, like Kessog before him, is a man possessed of vision and qualities of leadership. He was behind the setting-up, in September 2004, of the Loch Lomond Pilgrimage Centre. With the village of Luss attracting an estimated 750,000 visitors per years, Rev. Sherrard and his congregation were keen to establish an effective means through which Luss Kirk could connect meaningfully with pilgrims. The Centre, which was built around some old outhouses of the village manse, features a computer and video room, a pottery and a candle-making unit. There is a Pilgrimage Walk through the grounds of the old church glebe and the Luss International Youth Project has brought hundreds of young people from all over the world to this uniquely beautiful spiritual setting.

January 1st 2010, saw the beginning of a year of celebration commemorating 1500 years of Christianity on Loch Lomondside, which was initiated by the arrival of St. Kessog in 510 A.D. The first celebratory event was the ringing on New Year's Day of the bell of H.M.S. Submarines on Tom nan Clag (The Hill of the Bell) on Inchtavannach, island of Kessog's monastery.

In 2006 the Luss folk decided to have a special tartan created which would commemorate St. Kessog. The sett was designed by the late Bernard O'Hagan. It was based on the Bruce tartan because of the close historical connections between the Hero-King and St. Kessog's Luss. Green represents the hills and glens around Loch Lomond. Blue represents the waters of the loch. Purple symbolises the ecclesiastical dimension. Red expresses St. Kessog's martyrdom. A white stripe on the blue creates Scotland's national flag - the Saltire. The colours are muted to subtle shades which suggest antiquity and monasticism.

St. Kessog tartan

The tartan was initially woven by the Islay Woollen Mill. Latterly, however, the Pilgrimage Centre was given a 1820 Armstrong Loom on which the MacKessog Tartan is now produced. It may be worn by all those who have come on a pilgrimage to Luss and by those who have been married there. Each of the special guests at the 1500th Anniversary celebrations will be gifted a travelling rug in "MacKessog" - a beautiful reminder of a very special man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Kessog logo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Map of Scotland showing location of Inchtavannach

 

 

 

 

 

Google Earth photo of the island of Inchvatannach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luss pier with Ben Lomond in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The paddle steamer 'Maid of the loch'





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