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Issue 32 - When the saints came marching in

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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When the saints came marching in

Gilly Pickup looks at a few places connected with Scotland's saints

Saint Columba, Iona
Of all the Dark Age Scottish saints, Columba is the most famous A-lister. In 563AD he left Ireland with 12 companions to cross the wild sea in a hide-covered wickerwork currach to settle with the Gaels of Dál Riata.

He was granted the Island of Iona to found his monastery and was useful as far as the Gaelic warrior kings were concerned, because his monastery meant their sons could be educated. Besides, he was a close friend to the king, serving in a diplomatic capacity to the king’s neighbours in Pictland and Ireland and like many saints of his day, was credited with performing miracles.

One of the most famous is said to have happened when he visited Inverness to convert Pictish King Brude. Brude had no intention of listening to him and the castle doors were bolted barring him entry.

Columba was made of sterner stuff and undeterred, made the sign of the cross.

The doors flew open. King Brude was well impressed and immediately converted to Christianity.

Records give us an insight into Columba’s character, citing him as generous, warmhearted, kind to humans and animals.

Nevertheless, he would have remained an enigmatic figure were it not for Adomnán, ninth Abbot of Iona, who wrote The Life of Columba giving the saint’s reputation a boost, elevating him to celebrity status while at the same time spreading Iona’s fame across Christendom. So the power of PR worked even in those days.

Saint Mungo (also called Saint Kentigern), Glasgow
His name from Gaelic ‘Munghu’ means ‘dear one.’ As far as saints go, he was pretty spectacular, performing four religious miracles in Glasgow. Acryptic verse referring to them says: “Here is the bird that never flew/ Here is the tree that never grew/Here is the bell that never rang/ Here is the fish that never swam.” It has to be said though, the story about the fish is perhaps hardest to believe, referring to a queen suspected by her husband of being unfaithful. Angrily the king demanded to see her ring, which he claimed she had given to her lover. But the nasty king had actually thrown it into the River Clyde himself, leaving his poor wife facing execution.In desperation, she appealed to Mungo for help.

He ordered a messenger to catch a fish and there on opening it was the ring, which allowed the queen to clear her name.

Mungo’s miracles are represented in the city’s coat of arms while Glasgow’s current motto, ‘Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of his word and the praising of his name’ is inspired by Kentigern’s original call.

Mungo’s star still shines brightly in the 21st century. In the fictional world of that uber-famous boy wizard, Harry Potter, Saint Mungo is the patron of St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

Saint Blane, Dunblane
Quietly prosperous Dunblane, which retains more than a hint of bygone days, was named in honour of Blane or Blaan. This Celtic missionary came with his followers to live in honeycomb shaped stone cells inside the old Dun (hill) fort behind the town.

Described as a miracle worker, his greatness was evident in his nickname, ‘Blaan the Triumphant’. One of the miracles accredited to him is that when Blane travelled through Northumbria he was told of the death of a local prince. The boy’s parents asked him to pray for their son. Blane did more than that, touching the boy and bringing him back to life. The grateful parents gave Blane lands in Northumbria and he passed them to the Scottish church.

These lands stayed in the possession of Scotland until repossessed by Edward I in 1296.

Blane was also reputed to be able to light tapers with sparks from his finger-tips although such mind-blowing tales about early Celtic saints were quite common. His monastery became the site of the Cathedral of Dunblane and there was also a church of St.

Blane in Dumfries with another at Kilblane.

Saint Margaret, Dunfermline
Not all saints were male. Margaret, grandaughter of King Edmund Ironside of England was exiled with her family when the Danes overran England.

She returned to England during the reign of her great-uncle, Edward the Confessor, but, as one of the last remaining members of the Saxon Royal Family, she was forced to flee north to the Royal Scots Court at the time of the Norman Conquest.

By all accounts Margaret was good looking and cultured and her influence on refining the dubious manners of the Scottish court was well known.

Margaret had a taste for the finer things in life and hit the jackpot when Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore fell for her feminine charms. After they married, she busied herself founding churches, monasteries and pilgrimage hostels. She instigated the Queen’s Ferry across the Firth of Forth to make it easier for pilgrims to reach the Shrine of St Andrew.

On the minus side, she was bossy, exerting authority over her husband. Although she was criticised for this, she gave alms lavishly and freed a number of Anglo Saxon captives.

She died soon after her husband and son were killed in a campaign against William Rufus of England. Forty-seven year old Margaret, Queen of Scotland, was buried in Dunfermline Abbey and miracles at her tomb brought her canonisation by 1249. The base of her shrine can still be seen at the Abbey, but her body was moved to Madrid during the Scottish Reformation. Her head, which had its own shrine, was acquired by the Jesuits of Douai Abbey.

Saint Andrew, Scotland and St Andrews
Today, the award for Most Popular Saint would probably go to Andrew. For starters, there can’t be a Scot alive who doesn’t know his feast day is on 30 November.

The fisherman, one of Christ’s apostles, met his death for preaching the gospel. He was crucified on a saltire, an X-shaped cross, because he felt unworthy to die as his Saviour on a T-shaped cross. After he was buried for martyrdom in Greece, Emperor Constantine removed his relics and took them to Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire.

Later, Rule, a Greek Monk, had a vision where he was told to take as many of St Andrews remains as possible to the ‘ends of the earth’ for safe-keeping. St Rule dutifully obeyed, removing a tooth, arm bone, kneecap and three fingers of the right hand from St Andrew’s tomb. At that time, Scotland was close to the extremities of the known world and it was at Kilrymont, now St Andrews, that St Rule was shipwrecked with his precious cargo. He presented the saint’s remains to King Angus and Andrew was adopted as Scotland’s patron saint. His relics were placed in a chapel which was replaced in 1160 by St Andrews Cathedral where St Rule’s tower still stands among the cathedral ruins. The relics were probably destroyed during the Reformation. Later, the greater part of Andrew’s relics were stolen from Constantinople and transported to Italy.

In 1879 the Archbishop of Amalfi sent a piece of the saint’s shoulder blade to the reestablished Roman Catholic community in Scotland and when Pope Paul VI visited the UK in 1969 he gave further relics of St Andrew to Scotland with the words: “Saint Peter gives you his brother.” They are now displayed in a reliquary in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh.