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January 6, 2010

Lochside community commemorate Irish missionary

The villagers of Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond stepped back in time on New Year’s Eve to mark the 1500th anniversary of an Irish missionary settling in the area.  Crossing the freezing loch waters by barge to the nearby island where the monk once lived, the group hauled a large bell up to the top of a steep rocky incline to re-enact another ancient tradition

Most of us will spend the last hours of the year tomorrow revelling in a cosy venue.
But a small group of Scots will brave the elements for a far more arduous celebration.

A few hardy souls from the village of Luss will embark on a journey from Bandry, on the western shore of Loch Lomond, to the highest point on the nearby island of Inchtavannach.

Together, they will trek up the steep, rocky incline to the top of Tom na Clog, which means “the hill of the bell”, while carrying a former ship’s bell that they will ring on the stroke of midnight.

The unusual ceremony is to celebrate the beginning of 2010, which marks the 1500th anniversary of Christian settlement in the area. Kessog, an Irish missionary, arrived in 510AD, between the times of St Patrick and St Columba. He lived on Inchtavannach, one of the largest islands in the loch, and founded a monastery there.

Leading the ceremony to mark the anniversary of his arrival is the Rev Dane Sherrard, minister at Luss Parish Church for the last 11 years.

He said: “The Hill of the Bell is so called because it used to have a bell fixed on the top of it and whenever it was time for worship, someone rang the bell.

“When it came time for us to start our year of celebration, there was really only one way that made sense to do it and that was to ring a bell on the top of Inchtavannach.”

Finding a bell big enough to be heard a reasonable distance away was the first challenge. “We went to Faslane where they have a big ship’s bell which weighs 64 pounds and I asked if we could borrow it,” explains Rev Sherrard.

“They said we could have it for the night on the condition that we could find a naval officer who could accompany it in full uniform with his sword to guard it.”
Up stepped Mike Palmer, an elder of the church, a retired lieutenant commander, who worked on submarines.

“It’s slightly different from the usual Hogmanay celebration,” said Mr Palmer. “It marks the start of a very significant event in the history of Christianity and I’m very pleased to be a part of it.”

Tomorrow night, the merry band will be transported across the loch on a barge by Roy Rogers, who owns the only house on Inchtavannach.

The group will then make their way up the hill before fixing the bell to a tree and striking it at midnight. Tom Stuart, the church beadle, will be standing ready at Luss church to reply by ringing out the church bells there.

When the plan for the midnight journey was formulated, thoughts turned to another bell associated with the area – St Kessog’s bell. The bronze bell was placed on Tom na Clog until early in the last century, but has since disappeared.

Mr Sherrard’s wife Rachel was convinced that she had once read about an old bell abandoned at the Church manse and decided to investigate. She discovered an ancient bell under a pile of logs in the garden of the manse. The mystery bell is to be assessed by archaeologists to establish its age, but Mr Sherrard is not ruling anything out.

“Maybe it is the famous Kessog’s bell?” he said. “We are going to take it to the top of the hill and ring it, along with the ship’s bell, because it would be dreadful if we discovered later that we actually had Kessog’s bell and we hadn’t taken it up to ring it.”

As part of the year of celebration, a heritage centre has been created in Luss. All round the wood-panelled room, the story of Kessog will be told across medieval-style manuscripts and on eight flat screen monitors. The plan is to have a series of dioramas in place by March 10, St Kessog’s Day, to illustrate events in his life.

In addition, the church itself will be the venue for a multimedia exhibition highlighting important historical events in the life of the church and the village from St Kessog’s time to the present day.

Mr Sherrard says it is an exciting time for the small church community. Money from Scottish Enterprise and the EU paid for the installation of a TV service from inside the church, which means that its reach is now global.

He said: “This tiny little rural church now has a future because of modern technology – we now broadcast our service to 157 countries and to servicemen and women around the world.”