Friday, 27 December 2013

A 350 year old Christmas conundrum

Is it possible to have lived so long as to positively state you have celebrated 180 Christmases?

This may seem something of a strange question to ask.

However, in Kilearnadil Cemetery on the Isle of Jura (the neighbouring island to Islay, where I used to live), there can be found a curious gravestone that continues to amaze and amuse in equal measure, and has been the source of a great deal of local legend surrounding one man and his reputed longevity.

It reads thus: “Gillour MAC CRAIN, who kept 180 Christmases in his own house, and who died in the reign of Charles I”.

How can anyone live to be 180 years old? Surely this cannot be correct? Most who take the time to read these lines do not believe them to be literally true, although they seem to appreciate the quirkiness of the epitaph.

I remember as a young boy trying to make sense of this. I also read local tales about Macraine, most of which had obviously been invented many years after his death. I concluded that the man is simply a myth and that there is no effective way of establishing any factual truth about this mysterious man at all. I have noticed that no-one to date, at least on the internet, has provided a satisfactory explanation as to why this headstone found its way into Kilearnadil Cemetery in the first instance and that is what intrigued me: could it have actually have been erected in this small, insular island community during the 17th century by people knowing it to be a lie?

One thing is for sure, the inscription was not written as an enigma for 21st century tourists to resolve. It is the product of a unique time and place, and written in such a way as its intended readers would fully understand its message.

And so, how could a man living in the 17th century have celebrated 180 Christmases?

The logical answer is that he was a secret Roman Catholic.

This, to my mind, is the only possible explanation if we are to believe the words to be true. The inscription does not state that Macraine lived to be 180, but that he celebrated 180 Christmases “in his own house”. These latter words are not mere appendage, but highly significant. At a time when Roman Catholicism was effectively prohibited to the point that the Mass was forbidden, Macraine clearly was determined to carry on regardless. If he could not celebrate the Christ Mass in church, he would do it in his own home. The plural “Christmases” does not refer to Christmas Days, but the number of illicit masses Macraine celebrated in secret. There is no reason to believe these were necessarily celebrated in 180 different years. 

What appears to be equally significant is the date of Macraine’s death. The man who went to obvious lengths to celebrate so many Christ Masses in his own home died in 1645 – only a year after parliament had gone further than simply marginalising Catholic celebration and had declared all Christmas celebrations illegal.  And so, the message of Macraine’s epitaph is effectively “A Good Catholic, who remained true to his faith in a time of adversity”, with the added purpose of reminding those who knew him that resistance was possible and that no Act of Parliament or wave of Puritan fervour would extinguish their faith. I imagine it served to point to Macraine’s piety, as well as to encourage others to follow in his steps.

It was only after the publication in 1818 of Ayton and Daniell's A Voyage Around Great Britain that the claim made for Macraine on his epitaph came to be interpreted as a sign of his having lived for nearly two centuries.

And so, what is often misconstrued as a barely believable local legend actually points towards a more pertinent historical truth. No doubt this Christmas conundrum will continue to fascinate and intrigue those who interpret it through the limitations of 21st century understandings of Christmas, but hopefully some will be able to appreciate it is a statement of a man’s personal courage and his refusal to comply with the enforced orthodoxy of his time.

That's my take on the "mystery". Of course,  I would be interesting in hearing from those of you with alternative explanations.

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