Did the world’s oldest man live to 180 on the Isle of Jura?

Skye native Martin Martin, or Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn, was a Gaelic scholar who travelled extensively among the Hebrides. He is perhaps best known for his his work 'A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland', published in 1703.

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There is a grave in Jura’s ancient cemetery, Kilearnadil, to an extraordinary man named Gillour MacCrain.

A plaque quotes the Hebridean traveller Martin Martin, who faithfully recorded what he was told on a visit to Jura around 1695.

MacCrain, he said, ‘lived to have kept one hundred and eighty Christmasses in his own house. He died about fifty years ago’.

A later Hebridean traveller Thomas Pennant heard the same story in 1772, but added that MacCrain ‘died in the reign of Charles I’. Hence the date on the plaque: ‘He died around 1645.’

Martin, a Gaelic-speaking scientist from Skye reporting to The Royal Society, noted that Jura folk were especially healthy and long-lived. But 180 years old? Come on. Could so many intelligent Jurachs, who knew MacCrain and his family, be so credulous, or complicit in a lie?

No – the islanders weren’t stupid or joking, because Martin Martin and Thomas Pennant were told the gospel truth.

Gillour MacCrain was not the world’s oldest man by some sixty years. He was, in fact, a secret Roman Catholic.

A clue lies in the weird wording: MacCrain didn’t celebrate ‘180 Christmases’ in a church, but ‘in his own house’. Why is his house relevant?

To understand why, we have to travel back to this turbulent era in Scottish history.

By the time Gillour MacCrain died, just before King Charles I was executed in 1649, Scotland’s church and state had cancelled Christmas.

When Scotland split from the Catholic Church in the Protestant Reformation of 1560, the new radical Presbyterian kirk swept away ‘papish’ feast days like ‘Christ’s Mass’ or ‘Yule’.

The persecution climaxed in 1640, when the Scottish Parliament made celebrating Christmas a punishable crime.

Devout Catholics, like MacCrain, were forced to worship privately in their own homes.

The ban was repealed in 1712, but Scots continued to see the season-to-be-jolly as sinful.

For 400 years, the Scots were pretty much the only people in Christendom who didn’t celebrate Christmas, focusing instead on Hogmanay. Christmas only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958.

So how could MacCrain celebrate ‘180 Christmases’?

In MacCrain’s lifetime, Scotland alongside the rest of the British Isles still stuck religiously to the Julian calendar: a solar calendar Julius Caesar adopted in 46BC to clean up the Romans’ messy lunar calendar.

However, it overestimated the length of the solar year by 11 minutes.

By 1582, more than 1,500 years later, the equinoxes and Christian holy days had drifted so far out of sync that Pope Gregory XIII decreed Catholic countries should adopt a more accurate ‘Gregorian’ calendar.

As a corrective, it skipped 10 days from 4th October to 15th October that year.

But the Protestant United Kingdom, fearing a return to Catholicism, refused to replace its Julian calendar with Rome’s Gregorian calendar until 1752.

Therefore MacCrain, like other Scottish Catholics, could celebrate two Christmases each year from 1582: the first on 25th December on (Gregorian) Rome time, and the second, 10 days later, on 25th December on (Julian) Jura time.

If MacCrain died in 1647, he would have had 65 extra Christmasses, and lived to a remarkable, but believable, 115. He may have been a couple of years older or younger.

After surviving one of Scotland’s bloodiest centuries, staying quietly true to his Catholic faith through the Reformation, repression and wars of Protestant extremists, Gillour MacCrain had one last act of defiance in his epitaph: an immortal ‘screw you’ set in stone.