History - Saint Machar our patron saint

The following document has been unearthed by Donald Robb from a pamphlet entitled ST MACHAR AND HIS ASSOCIATED CHURCHES originally compiled by Maurice L Gaine in Bridge of Weir in February 1979.


SAINT MACHAR - AD  540 - 594

Saint Machar is the Diocesan Patron Saint of Aberdeen; the Feast Day being observed on 12th November.  This short pamphlet is intended to publicise the life and work of Saint Machar more fully, at least within the Parish of Bridge of Weir.  Even in the 14th century Saint Machar was given scant regard: an ancient poem of that age recalls:

 But in this land, we ken him not.

Where he wonders work is wrocht



This ancient poem, probably in legend form, about the life and work of St. Machar, comprising over 1600 lines is recorded in a manuscript now held in the library of Cambridge University. From its style dialect and syntax, it was probably written by John Barbour between 1395 and 1425. During that period John Barbour was Archdeacon of Aberdeen. This metric life of Machar, as with associated references in the Aberdeen Breviary (1509) and Manus O’Donnell’s “Life of Saint Columba” (1520), are the earliest extant documents remaining; obviously based on older Latin writings now lost for ever. Certain extracts from the ancient poem will be cited, yet these do scant justice to the simple earnest faith, and fascinating panorama of life included in the poem.



Saint Machar was a son of Fiachna, a Prince of Ulster and his wife Finchoenia. His parents where probably Christians for Machar was baptised by Saint Columba who named him Mocumma or Mochonna (= My Follower).  His infancy was marked by Divine Favours.  Eventually Machar or Mocumma became a pupil and gifted disciple of Saint Columba, and in 563, at the age of 22 accompanied his master to Iona.  At this time St. Columba, to mark his disciple’s manhood, gave him the name of Machar or Machor. The ancient poem quotes:

But for thou yuhad hast owerpast

And is parfyt man in Cryst.

Thou sal be callyt Machore.

And leave the name thou hast before



Saint Columba then sent Machar to evangelise the Isle of Mull. He preached the Gospel, baptised, and healed the sick so successfully that much envy was aroused amongst his colleagues. Columba advised Machar to withdraw from Iona and go to the Picts to preach, convert and baptise. A bishop’s staff, vestments, holy books, and seven companions were Columba’ s parting gift:

In God’s name thou tak on hand

And pass into far land

And preach God’s word alwhere.

To them that in wane truth are (error)And press thee busily for to win

Their souls that lyis in sin


After three days Machar and his colleagues landed in North Scotland, where a Christian - Farquhar - directed him to a community on a machair that is now Old Aberdeen.  Machair is the Celtic term for level ground near water. The ancient poem explains:


Saint Machore then thankfully

His gifts took and al the place by Sought to and fro til he fand.

A stead til hyme was gaunand (= suitable)

Besyde a riverbank that rane

Into the sea and lyk was thane

As it a byschopis staf had bene

Til his disciples can he say. 

Lo here myn dwellingplace for aye.

For my master to me can tel


And so began the great work of Machar amongst the Picts which had a span of over ten years; and the foundation of the first St.  Machar’s Church.  This would be a simple rude wood hut but thatched with heather, sited as the river Don sweeps boldly round in the form of a bishop’s crosier:


And after that he gart work

By crafty men a costlyk Kyrk

And that men call it yet.

Of Sancte Machore the seg or seat



Around AD  590, the poem relates, St. Machar accompanied St. Columba to Rome.  Both were welcomed by:

Pope of Rome, a master man

Gregory that was of great renown

And of Holy opinion

Saint Gregory appointed Machar a bishop for life of all the Picts; the ancient poem continues:

And hence with his name changit he

And called him Maurice, that before

Lang time to name had Machor.


Saint Columba and Machar resumed their homeward journey via Tours in France, to pay homage at St. Martin’s tomb.  St Martin was held in esteem by the Celtic Church, a 10th century stone cross to his memory is still standing on Iona within the shadow of Saint Columba’s Abbey.  St. Columba subsequently resumed his journey homeward, but Machar continued to reside in Tours, performing episcopal duties. He never again saw his homeland nor the scene of his great ministry on the banks of the Don, for he died and was buried in Tours in AD 594, side by side with St. Martin.  His last words were.

In manus tuas Domine

My soul I give. 

nobly appropriate for a Saint who had given so much to the early years of the church in Scotland.



Fenton Wyness, in his book “Aberdeen - City by the Grey North Sea” suggests that a Saint Mochriecha, a missionary from St.  Ninian’s monastery at Whithorn visited the Celtic region, which is now Old Aberdeen, in AD450, i.e.  a century earlier than the ancient poem relates. A church was established on a machier near the Don at Haughs of Seaton. Similar churches were set up near machiers on Donside at Invermossat and Corriehoul, and on Deeside at 

Balnagowan. Eventually St Mochrieha became equated with the name Machair, the Celtic geographical feature so important in early ages.  The author also questions the legend of the bishop’s pastoral staff likeness of the river Don, since the “bachuill mor” carried by holy men in Celtic times was simple and bore little resemblance to the elaborate staff of mediaeval bishops. Moreover both St.  Columba and Machar may have been too frail to undertake a rigorous journey to Rome and Tours. Certainly, there are no documents in Rome and France to collaborate this pilgrimage.



By the 11th century the modest thatched hut on the banks of the river Don had become a larger, more permanent. 

stone church dedicated to St. Machar. In 1136 King David I—the “Sair Sanct” founded the Bishopric of Old Aberdeen and selected St. Machar’s foundation for his Cathedral. The Cathedral of St. Machar was rebuilt, but not fully completed, by Bishop Matthew Kyninmund shortly after 1164 and further major alterations were made in 1286 and 1424. Certainly in these early turbulent centuries the Cathedral was rebuilt, decayed, and then rebuilt several times. However, in 1495 King James IV created the Charter of the Cathedral City of Old Aberdeen, and the final form of the Cathedral emerged in 1518.

Internally the supreme feature is the 48 shields completed in 1520. Bishop Gavin Dunbar was responsible for this

magnificient display which shows the arms of Scottish Kings and the Scottish Nobility, Pope Leo X, the Archbishops and Bishops of Scotland, the armorial bearings of the Kings of Europe, the arms of the Burgh of Aberdeen, Kings College, and the shield of the Barony of Aberdeen.

Today St. Machar’s Cathedral stands unique among the great Cathedrals of the world; no other is quite like it. Certain features inside, including the two east pillars are of deep red sandstone, but the majority of the building is of granite - rough, rugged, and strong. The Cathedral is crested with an embattled parapet, and the two prominent west towers built in 1420, strongly buttressed and machicolated in military tradition, form a significant landmark.

Below the towers is the west front, with a simple rude portal, and an impressive window of seven vertical lights.

The kirk stands aye, the bridge shal bide

The builders like the passing ray

Of summers sunset fade away




William H Lyle’s Book “History of Bridge of Weir” is essential reading for all those interested in local churches. Until 1826 there was no church in Bridge of Weir, which at that time had fewer than 1500 people. Then in 1826 the congregation of Burntshields- a Burgher establishment between the village and Howwood moved to Bridge of Weir, and built a church in the centre of the

village. This church, now known as Freeland Church, rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1839, only to cede to the Free Church four years later. Hence for the next 30 years this Free Church was the only religious institution in the village.

W.H.Lyle’s book discloses that in April 1875, a public meeting was held in Freeland Public School to organise a Mission Movement in the village, allied to the Church of Scotland. On 1st August that year, a Mission was opened in Freeland Public School near the present Burngill Place. Soon the Mission had a congregation of 150, a Minister, a Sabbath School of 100, and a nucleus of a choir. Funds were accumulated and plans formed to build a new church. The building of the new church, now St St Machar’s Ranfurly, commenced in October 1877.

The church was designed to be in Gothic style seating 500, although the west gallery would be added later. Peter Woodrow was the mason contractor and Lewis Shanks the architect. This new church was opened on 22nd September 1878; Robert Turnball being appointed Missionary and subsequently Minister.

A few words about finance may show the ravages of inflation and changing values. Freeland Church after 40 years of secession was bought for £400, the cost of building St. Machar’s Ranfurly was probably less than £2000, that of the United Presbyterian Church at Ranfurly was £3165. Fund raising was quite successful, a bazaar at the Abercorn Rooms Paisley in April 1880 raised £1060 to clear all the debts of the new church, another bazaar in Glasgow during Christmas 1885 raised £750 for the building of the new church’s manse.

During March 1887 the endowment of the church was completed, Bridge of Weir become a separate Parish and the new church ranked as the Parish Church. For its choice of ministers the Parish church was most fortunate. The Rev Robert Turnball continued his

ministry until 1883, followed by the Rev. Thomas Duncan, who later was awarded D.D. by the University of Glasgow. His assistant, the Rev Alexander M Shand was inducted in 1899, on the death of Dr Thomas Duncan, and this marked the beginning of the church’s connection with St. Machar. The Rev. AM Shand was a native of Old Aberdeen, where St. Machar’s Cathedral stands and obviously a great admirer of its Patron Saint.

In 1930, following the continuing union of the churches in Scotland, there was some difference of opinion concerning the nomination of the Parish Church in Bridge of Weir. The Paisley Presbytery agreed, therefore, on sentimental grounds, that the title of St. Machar’s Bridge of Weir would be adopted. The long dedicated ministry of the Rev. AM Shand is commemorated by a stained glass window at the northwest side of the church, and by the lych gate at the entrance to the church grounds. The stained glass window shows the crosier bend of the river Don, a symbol for ever associated with St. Machar. The merger of Ranfurly Church and St. Machar’s in recent years is, of course, well known, leading to the new title of St. Machar’s Ranfurly. The Centenary of the church was celebrated in 1978.



With the passage of time and the loss of early Latin writings, it is difficult to record exactly the life and work of St. Machar. Certainly John Barbour’s ancient poem may err on the side of legend, yet it gives an excellent insight into social and religious life during the early centuries of Christianity in Scotland. Probably John Barbour was correct when he concluded:


I dare nocht record all now

For some perchance should me mistrew


However the poem describes accurately the zeal and dedication of St. Machar and his disciples, together with the hardships and travel necessary for the spread of Christianity in Scotland. The best tribute to St. Machar is the endless cavalcade of people who have passed through the churches associated with his name.




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