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Scotland Magazine Issue 24
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The most famous Fillan
There have been 16 Saint Fillans. James Irvine Robertson recalls the eighth century one
According to Saints of Scotland, a list of those important to the spiritual life of Scotland, there are 16 saints named Fillan.
They were all priests of the Celtic Church which operated in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland centuries before St Augustine came from Rome to convert the English. Unlike the Catholic Church which required many hurdles to be negotiated and many centuries and miracles before someone became worthy of sainthood, a saint in the Celtic Church seems to have been awarded this honour by popular repute and tradition.
The St Fillan, in the case that concerns us here, the bringer of Christianity to Glen Dochart and Strathfillan in the eighth century. He died in 777 AD.
Before that, he had set himself up in a little cell alongside the modern West Highland Way, between Crianlarich and Tyndrum, where he did his duty and died.
But unlike the other 15 Fillans, he was not to be forgotten.
He used a pool on the river Dochart to heal by immersion, and the spot was still being used for curing madness more than 1,000 years later.
His eight healing stones – each used to cure some specific complaint or injury to a particular part of the body – are preserved at Killin. Originally there were five relics of the saint, the Mesr, the Mayne, the Fergy, the Bernane and the Quigrich.
No one knows what the Mesr was. The Mayne and the Fergy were likely to have been his bones.
In 1306, more than five centuries after Fillan’s death, the newly-crowned Robert Bruce fought a skirmish at Dalrigh, within a mile or two of the saint’s monastic cell, against a greatly superior force led by the Macdougalls of Lorne.
The king lost his brooch and plaid, but casualties in the battle were few and he escaped the fighting unscathed.
He may have put his good fortune down to the saint’s intercession because he summoned the Mayne to be brought to him some time later before he took part in the battle of Bannockburn.
Its keeper was afraid of it getting lost and arrived with the empty reliquary. The night before the battle Bruce was in prayer when he heard a loud crack from the box.
It was opened and, miraculously, the relic was inside.
The king gave much credit to Fillan for his victory and endowed an Augustinian priory in Glen Dochart in 1317.
Like so much of the nation’s cultural heritage, the Mayne, the Mesr and the Fergy failed to survive ravages of the Reformation.
The Bernane – meaning ‘little gapped one’ – was Fillan’s bronze bell, one of those rare survivors from the early Celtic Church, now in the National Museum of Scotland.
It used to be kept in the ruins of the little priory and was part of the healing ritual, written up at the end of the 18th century by an English tourist.
After a lunatic had been thoroughly immersed in the pool, he was then staked out in the roofless building overnight with the Bernane on his head, and this allegedly effected a cure.
It was also claimed that when the bell was removed from the priory, it would always be returned to its home.
The English tourist decided to test this story and galloped off with the bell, taking it home to Hertfordshire. Some 70 years later it was rediscovered there and returned by the lightfingered gentleman’s descendant.
The most interesting survival of St Fillan is the Quigrich, now some 12 centuries old.
This was the head of his crozier. It consists of the original eighth century handle made from silver and copper which was once covered with eight lozenge-shaped filigree plaques.
These have now been removed and attached to an ornate outer casing which features a seal.
The workmanship dates this to the time of David II, the mid-14th century.
The name is a corrupt spelling of Coigreach, meaning stranger since it had magical properties in returning stolen goods.
With its keeper it would follow the trail of rustled cattle to places where it was a ‘stranger’ and then, in theory, the thieves would return them.
The surname Dewar comes from the Gaelic ‘deor’ which means ‘keeper.’ The Dewars were the hereditary keepers of the relics of the saint. There was the Dewar of the Mayne, of the Fergy, of the Mesr, etc.
These relics were venerated across Scotland and their keepers had the job of displaying them to pilgrims which gave them influence, prestige – and provided them with a living.
The Dewar of the Quigrich first appears on record receiving land grants in Strathfillan in 1336. An Act of 1428 confirmed the authority of the Dewar of the Quigrich as hereditary keeper in succession to St Fillan and declared that he should receive tributes of meals from every inhabitant of the Strath.
In 1487, James III confirmed once more the Dewar’s possession of the relic, but declared that he was in no way responsible to any persons, either spiritual or temporal, with the regard to the relic.
This declaration, it appears was needed to fend off the church who thought that they should have it in their possession.
In 1549 the church again tried to acquire these treasures when the Prior of Strathfillan attempted to obtain a court injunction to compel ‘Malise Doir of the Quickrich, Archibald Doir of Fergy, and Malcolm Doir Bernane to deliver and present in the kirkis of Killin and Straphillan certain reliques, and nocht to be tane furth agane without license of the said prioure.’
The keepers appealed to the Lords in Council, the highest authority in the land, and their appeal was upheld.
Had they lost, all such relics would most certainly have been lost during the Reformation a few years later.
By the end of the 18th century, the Dewars of the Quigrich had fallen on hard times.
The family was represented by a day labourer with a sickly son who lived in Killin.
When he died, the relic passed to his uncle who exhibited it in Edinburgh in 1808 for a charge of two shillings a head.
When his son, Archibald Dewar, became the Keeper, he took The Quigrich with him when he emigrated to Canada in 1818.
Immigrant Highlanders would visit him to take home buckets of water in which it had been dipped to cure their cattle.
Later in the same century, Dr Daniel Wilson, secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, accepted the Chair of History and English Literature in University College, Toronto.
In 1876 he succeeded in persuading the Keeper of the Quigrich to hand over the ancient relic to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh where, along with The Bernane, it has been on display ever since.